FEB 18 — At best last night's televised debate between the three Umno Youth chief candidates confirmed what an increasing number of Malaysians think of Umno — that its leaders are out of touch, arrogant, hypocritical.
Worst still, it showed the appeal to the Umno ground of particularly racist views.
At one stage Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo appeared to be even suggesting that it was blasphemous for the government to consider non-Malays on the same standing as Malays.
Malays, he argued, had a special position under the federal constitution. Likewise Islam and as such it could not be placed on the same standing as non-Islamic religions.
Even when the moderator pointed out to Dr Khir that he was one of the leaders in Umno and Barisan Nasional that lost an entire state to the Pakatan Rakyat, he argued that it was because his party was not Islamic enough and did not champion the Malays enough.
Never once did Dr Khir acknowledge the public perception of corruption and arrogance in his government when he was Selangor menteri besar.
To their credit, the other two candidates — Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir — appeared a little uncomfortable with some of Dr Khir's remarks.
Mukhriz appeared to be way out of his league during the debate, and looked like he did not really want to be there.
From his responses — that he was very proud of his father — it was clear that what he was trying to offer Malaysians nostalgic for his father's strong leadership a return to Mahathirism.
Mukhriz offered support for Dr Khir's assertion that the government has been slow in invoking the Internal Security Act on DAP politician Karpal Singh over his threat to sue the Perak Sultan.
He also voiced support for a continuation of the policy to teach science and mathematics in English, which was one of the last major policies introduced by his father.
But among the three men it was probably only Khairy who attempted to project a more centrist view.
The current deputy Youth chief played it safe when it came to the issue of affirmative action policies — he was for such policies to continue — but he avoided the vitriolics of the other two men when it came to the use of the ISA.
He also pointed out that the upcoming power transition from his father-in-law Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Datuk Seri Najib Razak would be meaningless without reform.
Compared to Dr Khir's conservative bordering on extremist views, Khairy's message was probably the most palatable of the three candidates (Mukhriz was almost not there).
He appeared to be saying sorry on behalf of his father-in-law when he acknowledged the failure to deliver the reforms promised in 2004 led to BN and Umno's disastrous performance in last year's general election.
But the fact that the moderator Dr Agus Yusof pointed out to some ironic applause from the audience that Khairy was also seen to be a liability which contributed to BN's results, suggests Malaysians remain quite sceptical and cynical about what the deputy Youth chief had to say.
If the audience reactions were anything to go by Dr Khir probably won the debate.
If the audience reactions are a reflection of the views of Umno members, Dr Khir will probably become the next Umno Youth chief.
And if that happens, it will probably see a more nationalist Umno emerging, and one which is opposed to reforms and changes, and one which will lead a more hardline government.
Leslie Lau is consultant editor to The Malaysian Insider.