Pulling Itself Up by the Socks: UMNO’s Attempt to Remain Influential

Weeks have passed since the infamous sock gate incident involving the convenience store chain KK Super Mart occurred, which precipitated an enormously contentious controversy in Malaysia.

Weeks have passed since the infamous sock gate incident involving the convenience store chain KK Super Mart occurred, which precipitated an enormously contentious controversy in Malaysia. The sale of sock embroidered with the word “Allah” a sacred word especially for the Muslims that should not be presented in a non appropriate form, such as on a footwear understandably sparked anger and rage among the Muslims in Malaysia. This then led to the founder of the convenience store, Datuk KK Chai and the owner of the vendor company offering their sincere apology through a joint press conference acknowledging the error that was made. There might have been an assumption that both the convenience store management and its vendor had implemented suitable measures to alleviate the controversy in being transparent over the issue so that it could be put to bed.

However what transpired was the total opposite as the issue became highly politicised. Under usual circumstances, this situation would have presented a favourable opportunity for members of the opposition coalition of Perikatan Nasional (PN) to undermine the credibility of the current unity government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Nonetheless this time around it was actually the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a coalition partner in the unity government who was the first to jump the on the bandwagon. The UMNO Youth Chief, Dr Akmal capitalised on the situation by  blowing it out of proposition calling for nationwide boycott of the convenience store chain in addition to further advocated for UMNO Youth members nationwide to lodge police reports against the convenience store chain. As a result, a minimum of 36 police reports were filed, which eventually led to the top executives of the convenience store including its founder as well as its vendors to be charged in court for their actions. Dr. Akmal’s deed while observed as heroic by some within UMNO had directly incited societal turmoil among both the Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia, prompting some in the public sphere to resort to extreme measures, with three branches of the convenience store being hit by a Molotov cocktail with the first being in the state of Perak, another about few days later in the state of Pahang and a third one in the state of Sarawak. His passionate call for action against the convenience store chain has not only incited unrest but also jeopardised the safety of store employees across the nation – while Dr. Akmal himself has received death threats demonstrating the gravity of the situation which has prompted the Malaysian authorities to be on high alert.

Despite the heightened security concerns, the whole controversy was a win for UMNO. Why? Because while Dr Akmal might have initially been motivated by his own personal political ambitions, it could also be argued that he along with UMNO achieved their objective in platforming the party’s longstanding pride in safeguarding the Malay-Muslim community in the country. This matter has, to some degree, demonstrated UMNO’s continuous endeavours to preserve its influence and significance within the Malaysian political sphere. At the outset, Zahid Hamidi, in his role as Deputy Prime Minister, appeared to have advocated for a resolution to the matter and cautioned and the public not to go overboard in their reactions somewhat disagreeing with the actions carried out by Dr. Akmal. However, he subsequently appeared to have shifted his position or perhaps placed greater emphasis on his position as UMNO President when he and the UMNO Supreme Council expressed their endorsement of Akmal’s unwavering position on the matter.. It was of the utmost importance that the UMNO Supreme Council, under the leadership of Zahid, justified Dr. Akmal’s actions for their own political gain, in order to regain the support of some within the Malay-Muslim community, which appeared to have shifted its allegiance to the opposition PN since the November 2022 elections and is now regarded as the group that more closely comprehends the grievances of the Malay-Muslims. Zahid might have also sensed this as a golden opportunity to put UMNO out there in the open in order to demonstrate that UMNO retained authority in the unity government, particularly in light of the fact that Najib was deprived of a full pardon and a significant number of its most ardent supporters believed the organisation was capitulating to the Anwar-led unity government. More importantly it was also important for UMNO distinguish themselves from PN which missed the boat on this particular issue. This matter successfully established UMNO’s continued influence in being perpetually vigilant towards the Malay-Muslims propelling the party towards a momentum that lasted for nearly four weeks.

As for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the overall handling of the issue was indeed a bad look for the unity government although deep down he would have preferred an outburst over the issue from an UMNO representative rather than the opposition PN, as the racial and religious rhetorics might have been even more damaging. The fact that the issue is sort of under the control of a party within the current unity government softens the blow because while Dr. Akmal’s excessive rhetoric has inflated the issue beyond its merits, at least it has been noted that UMNO, as a rulling party in the government is championing the issue so that appropriate measures are taken to avoid future controversies. UMNO through its actions might have knowingly or unknowingly shielded Anwar’s unity government from additional assaults by PN, which have proven to be exceedingly difficult to surmount at times although UMNO could have just been looking out for its own interest in putting itself out there ahead of PN a way of legitimising itself as the protector of the Malay-Muslim community in Malaysia. While UMNO being at the forefront of these issues is a much better option than the opposition coalition of PN; it is also important for Anwar to mitigate these issues better to avoid opening more floodgates, as a similar pattern has been identified in another matter involving a local shoe that was apparently observed to be selling high heels design depicted the word “Allah”. The potential politicisation of further controversies, including the one at hand, could pose a challenge for Anwar’s unity government. Such an outcome could further alienate voters and supporters of his Peoples’ Justice Party (PKR) and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, as it might prove to be detrimental for him and his coalition politically at the next general election.

Aaron Denison
Aaron Denison
Aaron Denison Deivasagayam is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hiroshima University, Japan. His main research interests cover Malaysian and Japanese politics, regionalism in the EU, ASEAN and the Pacific Islands and international relations of East Asia.