Founded in 1946, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been in power ever since the Federation of Malaya achieved independence in 1957. Its success rests upon two pillars: winning the majority of the ethnic Malay vote; and ensuring that the Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition in which UMNO is the (very) dominant partner, remains broad enough to absorb smaller parties that might otherwise join the opposition umbrella group.
UMNO is only open to Malays – the party’s founder (right), Dato' Onn Jaafar, left UMNO after failing to convince his colleagues that other races should be allowed to join as well. However, by the time of independence, it had formed an alliance with the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), which remains the bedrock of the BN today. UMNO has always been able to claim to be the true guardian of the Malay traditions and customs, maintaining the position of the sultans who rule nine of the 13 states and protecting the status of Islam as the country’s main religion, but also being seen as conforming to the spirit of a multiracial Malaysia. As the UMNO-led BN has successfully presented itself as occupying the wide mainstream, virtually the only space left for opposition parties lies on the margins of religious extremism or racial factionalism.
Driven by UMNO, the BN included parties from Sarawak and Sabah when the two Borneo states joined peninsular Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963. Thus UMNO's influence remains strong even in those states where the Malays are in a minority.
The only significant opposition to UMNO comes from PAS, an Islamic fundamentalist party that has defeated UMNO in the Malay heartland states of Kelantan and Terengganu. But PAS aims for a strict form of sharia law that would be unacceptable to the mainly non-Muslim Chinese and Indians.
UMNO, by contrast, comes across as the defender of the moderate Malay tradition, without which peaceful co-existence between the different races would not be possible.
Contrary to Western misperceptions, Malaysia is a democracy, and UMNO earns its dominance at the ballot box. If it has a stranglehold on Malaysian politics – no genuinely class or ideology-based parties can develop while the racial politics UMNO represents is so entrenched – it has been a benign stranglehold.
UMNO has been so successful that it is quite simply impossible to imagine a Malaysian prime minister ever coming from a different party.