Rolling back the Umno behemoth

Umno’s expansion and its gradual capturing of the entire government machinery was accomplished via increasingly centralisation of both Umno as well as the government machinery, observes Francis Loh .

Malaysia is now the headline story in the global media. And for the most shameful of reasons. Perhaps the mother of all shameful reasons!

As you know, the US Department of Justice recently moved to “seize more than $1 billion in assets from the fund set up by Mr Najib”, because it had discovered that the fund, namely 1MDB had tried to “defraud Malaysia”.

Two Malaysians – Riza Aziz and Jho Low – were identified as having been involved in the scandal while a “Malaysia official 1” was identified as someone whose account allegedly received funds. According to media reports, Malaysia official 1 refers to the prime minister.

Cases are being prepared to bring particular persons and companies associated with the 1MDB fraud to court in the US and several other countries. But here in Malaysia, apparently, the authorities have concluded, clearly based on inconclusive evidence, that the sovereign fund has taken the necessary steps to put the situation right, while the prime minister has been cleared of any criminality.

Significantly, over the past months, the prime minister had succeeded in purging his party Umno of his critics, which included his deputy prime minister, a minister, a menteri besar and other party leaders.

Investigations were also ongoing prior to the calling upon of former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad to show cause why he should not be dismissed from the party.

The previous attorney general has been replaced, as have the heads of Bank Negara and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The auditor general’s report on the matter remains classified and has not been made public.

The PM has closed ranks within his party and changed the persons appointed to top positions in agencies that might have had something to do and say about the scandal.

He has also taken Umno-BN to battle the Opposition successfully in the recent Sarawak state elections and in the two by-elections in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar. Apparently, the 1MDB fiasco was not an important factor whatsoever in those elections.

How could the prime minister and his party so successfully manipulate the political situation to come out on top again, especially when something so wrong has occurred, as seen through the eyes of the outside world and of an increasing number of critics locally?

New economy, new society but old politics?

Keep in mind that we have seen tremendous a transformation of our economy and society over the past three to four decades. Malaysia has been part of the East Asian miracle of economic growth.

Nowadays, our economy is driven by services and manufacturing, rather than by the production of raw materials. This economic growth facilitated the implementation of the NEP, including all the unproductive rent-seeking activities associated with it.

The implementation of the NEP, together with the expansion of occupations and opportunities in the manufacturing and services sectors, including the expansion of the public sector, further resulted in the transformation of the old ethnic division of labour associated with colonialism.

Nowadays, we have an upper, middle and working class involving all races, although more bumiputera are employed in the public sector, while more non-bumiputera are still found in the private sector, especially in the SMIs. We also have an estimated 3m-4m migrant workers, documented and undocumented, in our midst.

More women are employed outside of their homes than ever before.

Overall levels of education among the population of all ethnic groups have also improved. Access to the internet is equally overwhelming, regardless of ethnic background.

In contrast to the above transformations of our economics and society, it seems that our politics has not been transformed so overwhelmingly.

Yes, we witnessed the formation of a new multi-ethnic opposition party, the PKR, which egged on the formation of a new Opposition, the Pakatan Rakyat. The new alliance contributed towards a greater number of Opposition MPs in Parliament and to the takeover of several state governments in the 12th and 13th general elections.

Yes, we also saw the emergence of social movements outside of the political parties and the electoral process, like Bersih and Hindraf. We also saw increasing numbers standing up for women’s rights, for the migrant workers, for environmental issues, and for an alternative media free from the BN’s and the government’s clutches.

But Umno-BN has continued to be in power in Putrajaya and continues to set the agenda for the country. And since there has not occurred this ousting of the BN and other substantive changes in politics, financial scandals like the 1MDB have persisted.

Hence there remains this contradiction between the rapid changes that have occurred to our economy and society, on the one hand, and the lack of substantive change in our politics, on the other.

We have observed that as the Opposition grew stronger, as the critical voices of civil society organisations sounded louder, and as Umno itself faces internal strife, the prime minister and his Umno supporters have resorted to the use of the 4 Rs – Race, Religion, Royalty and Repression – even more unabashedly to consolidate power.

There is evidence of this all around us. But why has the manipulation of the 4R’s proven so successful?

Umno, no longer a political party

For me this has everything to do with Umno’s transformation from a previously anti-colonial Malay nationalist party concerned not only with the plight of the Malay rulers but also the downtrodden Malay rakyat, to what is perhaps the most powerful political organisation in Malaysia today.

For indeed, Umno today is no longer simply a party concerned with aggregating the myriad interests of its members and mobilising them to win elections as what all political parties are supposed to do.

Instead, Umno now possesses wide-ranging corporate interests in banking and finance, in commerce, and in modern transportation and industry. It also owns a media empire and operates educational establishments, etc. Loyalists get to share in this largesse while those who challenge the Umno leadership have been cut off categorically and denied access to this largesse.

Having held the reins of power for almost 60 years, Umno has penetrated deep into and politicised virtually all government institutions: from the security apparatus, including the military and the police, to the judiciary and the attorney general’s chambers.

It also controls the educational system including the 25-odd public universities, employing about half a million teachers and administrators. That’s not to mention the Elections Commission, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and Department of Information, charged with disseminating propaganda.

Why, it also dominates over many sports bodies, cultural organisations and social associations.
Since the 1980s at least, Umno has also presided over the expansion of the federal Islamic agencies, which report to a minister in the prime minister’s department.

This not only finances the Islamic bureaucracy but designs programmes and projects to promote Umno-led Islamisation throughout the country, since there are equivalents of this bureaucracy, programmes and projects in all the Umno-led states as well. Why, the khutbah read in the mosques are prepared by these Umno-influenced Islamic officials every Friday as well!

More recently, to shore up its declining support, Umno has begun cooperating with Pas by removing obstacles to Pas’ push to amend various Acts of Parliament, to usher in hudud laws.

Centralisation of power in Umno and in the prime minister’s department

It is important to highlight that this expansion of Umno and its gradual but systematic capturing of the entire government machinery was accomplished via increasingly centralisation of both Umno as well as the government machinery.

Of course, the head of Umno doubles up as the prime minister, not to mention the finance minister 1, relevant to our current concern about the 1MDB fraud.

Suffice to mention that the prime minister’s department has seen a huge expansion: it has 12 ministers plus several other deputy ministers; 61 departments and agencies; 15 statutory bodies; 14 start-ups under the Companies Act; and one international organisation!

Currently, it receives the second largest allocation of the annual budget, second only to the education ministry.

In my humble opinion, this is the major problem that confronts us in Malaysia today. Umno is no longer simply a party. It has penetrated into and captured government.

Power has been centralised contrary to the norms of parliamentary democracy where we try to put into place checks and balances, and practise good governance via promoting competency, accountability and transparency.

Nowadays, Umno, and by extension the government, is not answerable to the rakyat. And it is not going to give this up anytime in the near future.

This is why our politics lags behind our economy and our society which have both been transformed. Whereas liberalisation and pluralisation characterises our economy and society, our politics is kolot.

Moving forward

I must end my talk on a more positive note. I must not spoil our evening and our dinner together.

Francis-Loh-at-Aliran-dinner-2016

In this regard, I must highlight that Umno, cannot be, and is not omnipotent. We can always navigate ourselves around its attempts to control and to manipulate us.

As well, the changes that have occurred in Umno have resulted in internal contradictions for the party. From time to time, the party has witnessed internal conflicts as in Team A (led by Mahathir) vs Team B (led by Tengku Razaleigh) during the late 1980s; between Mahathir and DSAI in the late 1990s; and most recently, between Najib and the 3M’s.

The Umno-BN coalition has also run into its own contradictions – for Umno clearly dominates over the other 13-odd parties. As Umno turns to Pas and supports its Islamic agenda, it is not unlikely that the non-Muslims within the coalition will pull out.

And of course, due to the transformation of our economy and society, incidences of New Politics have emerged.

For us in Aliran, this struggle for Justice, Freedom and Solidarity is a long-term endeavour not least because of how Umno has grown and extended itself. Perhaps we had been too naïve in the run-up to GE13 to think that the Road to Putrajaya was just around the corner. In fact, there are probably very many more twists and turns.

That said, I expect that more internal conflicts within Umno and within the BN will occur. But we also pray that the Opposition will begin to get its act together again and cooperate with one another fruitfully as GE14 and then GE15 approach.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations should be prepared to exploit these contradictions and seize the opportunities that might arise by engaging with not only critical fellow NGO-types and with the Opposition, but with Umno and BN dissidents.

The common goal ought to be rolling back the Umno behemoth. This is the spirit of Justice, Freedom and Solidarity, our theme for tonight’s celebration!

Dr Francis Loh delivered the above address during the ‘Evening with Aliran’ fundraising dinner at the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on 23 July 2016.

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Francis Loh
Dr Francis Loh served as honorary secretary of Aliran for 20 years and then president of Aliran for five years from 2011 to 2016. He was formerly professor of politics at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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