The women behind Najib

Thousands of Umno women members from rural parts of Malaysia make an annual pilgrimage to the PWTC to support their leaders at the general assembly. -- ST PHOTO: YONG YEN NIE

KUALA LUMPUR - Seated barefoot on mats, catching up on gossip, thousands of women in red veils can be seen congregating at the ground floor of the Putra World Trade Centre daily, creating visuals of a red sea at the ongoing 66th Umno general assembly.

Their eyes are glued to a giant television screen where the assembly proceedings are broadcast live from a hall upstairs. When a leader gives a fiery speech, these women roll up their sleeves and cheer “Long Live Umno” excitedly. At lunch time, the hall turns into a huge picnic ground as they lay out meals packed and share with friends.

These are the Umno’s women members from the rural parts of the country, who have travelled by buses in the wee hours of the morning just to catch a glimpse of their party leaders. The annual pilgrimage to the assembly is usually followed by a shopping trip before they head back home in the evening.

Ms Khatijah Mamat is part of the contingent from Kemaman, Terengganu, which arrived on Thursday morning. “We left our husbands behind for a day to support our leaders and do some shopping,” she says. Ms Khatijah heads a village with 50 households in Kemaman. She says there are five other busloads of Umno women members and supporters who came from Kemaman alone.

She brought along five other friends who are comparing fabric purchases made at the bazaar stalls upstairs. ”We want to encourage our leaders with our presence,” says Ms Nikmah Rashidah, 53. “After all, it is the final assembly before the elections.”

Umno has about 1.3 million women members, a huge source of strength for party president Najib Razak in the upcoming elections. It is the result of efforts made by politicians over the years, knocking door to door in villages where women are usually stay-at-home moms, while the men go out to work.

For many of the women here, it is a rare opportunity to get out of their usual routine. 
Ms Zaleha Mohamad Yasin, 61, for one, has travelled for the first time from Muar, Johor, to the assembly. “I was only able to come after my children are all grown up,” she said. “Never did I imagine that I would see a huge crowd like this.”

Suddenly, there is a buzz in the hall. Mr Najib is about to make his way towards the hallway. Everyone stands up to have a look. “We are huge fans of Datuk Seri Najib,” Ms Kasmani Semadi, 48, says with admiration. “He’s the reason why we come here.”