Umno has been trying to save its body – but what has happened to its soul, wonders Maznah Mohamad as she reflects on the exit of Shahrizat Jalil.
The exit of Shahrizat Jalil was a divine performance equal to the best in sandiwara.
In court accompanying her husband for his CBT charge, she was in white. From baju kurung to head veil (not her usual diaphanous shawl loosely draped around a coiffured hairdo) to designer handbag, the leader of Umno’s women was awash in angelic hues. Was all this orchestrated to subliminally convey the air of virginal innocence?
Yes, she was toting a Prada handbag. So even the angel wears Prada.
Like Shahrizat, Umno is projecting a purity of mission, such as its latest fight to ‘save’ Muslims from ‘proselytising’ Christians and from an ‘evil’ Chinese DAP contaminating the Islamic Pas. It is a mission which belies the decadent giveaways of party leaders’ penchant for the extravagant, from Hermes bags to Wagyu beef. Through thick and thin, even unforgiveable sins, Umno will be counting on the Malays to support them.
Umno leaders exhibit little remorse or sense of moral shame while its grassroots is not drawn into any internal rebellion despite heaps upon heaps of allegations against many in the party – from misappropriation of billions of ringgit of public funds to an unsolved grisly murder.
A Leviathan rises
One way of explaining the Malay psyche of undivided loyalty to Umno is to understand Umno not as a political party but as a Leviathan (after Thomas Hobbes), a behemoth inside whose body is contained the Bangsa Melayu. To conceive of the Leviathan crumbling would be to see all of its contents and entrails spilling out. And everyone is afraid of confronting the possibility of a not-too-pretty a sight.
Umno is an old party which had single-handedly monopolised the Bangsa Melayu patent. Both Umno and the Bangsa Melayu were created at the conjunctural moment of crisis stirred by the Malayan Union plan. The Raja’s betrayal of the rakyat’s trust in acceding to the terms of the British proposal resulted in a twist of history we now live with. Instead of sovereignty bequeathed to a modern, representative government, it was transferred to the 41 Malay organisations, later formalised as the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
The move was an adroit strike; Umno representing a diverse Malay peoples, now united under the Bangsa Melayu – an identity so new, it was all-empowering. Instead of a representative people’s government (of all Malayans) in place of an authoritative monarchy, a representative network of the Bangsa Melayu would replace the sovereignty of the Raja. In exchange for the restoration of the old kerajaan’s dignity, Umno would be its protector. A Hobbesian Leviathan was thus born.
Umno was this giant body of a wise, benevolent and authoritative figure; embedded in it would be the various Malay peoples all looking up to the crown of the Raja above. The Bangsa Melayu would be a parallel ‘race-nation’ to the other Malayan nation, the Negara-Bangsa, making the tripartism between Raja, Bangsa and Negara a delicate balance. Onn Jaafar as one of Umno’s founders buckled under this tension and left to found a more multicultural alternative to his own Umno.
Tunku succeeded in keeping the Umno Leviathan intact, but not without extraordinary manoeuvres. The reconstituted demography of the new Malaysia in 1965, with ‘Chinese’ Singapore out and ‘Bumiputera’ Sabah and Sarawak in, presented itself as an opportunity to seal Umno as an even mightier Leviathan. In the Bumiputera, Umno had its majority, and in the Bangsa Melayu, its largest homogeneous bloc of a cultural community. The body-politic was secured, though in fact never stabilised. Even the creation of Malaysia post-1965 was an insufficient boost for Umno to rule the roost.
Then came the NEP, but not before the riots of May 1969 had made its impact. Although a paradox (one needs a racially-divisive tool to end racial division, says Mahathir in his book, The Malay Dilemma), the NEP, or rather its idea of affirmative action was highly successful in winning (and keeping) the consensus of the peoples within the Leviathan.
Yet again, the NEP, as pure affirmative action policy was inadequate for the nourishment of the Leviathan. The Mahathir administration intensified crony and rentier capitalism, where Umno-centric businesses were likely to be more successful with blood-ties, party-ties and patronage combining to amass anything and everything in the name of Bumiputeraism, from land, forests, and water, to the public treasury. As straightforward as that.
Umno actually came close to annihilation with the factional split between Mahathir’s Team A and Tengku Razaleigh’s Team B. The fallout of this rivalry led to another triumphant manoeuvre; like greased lightning the deregistration of old Umno was followed by the birth of a new Umno. So rapid was the delivery that no one thinks of the current Umno as being a mutant of its older namesake. This new Leviathan was even more bent on continuing. It just grew and grew, helped along by the infamous constitutional crisis, the taming of the judiciary, the mobilisation of bias of public institutions, as in getting the Election Commission to ensure its electoral advantage and the civil service to be its loyal accessory.
As it turned out, Umno, the Leviathan, was an extremely innovative beast, never failing to reinvent itself at its game of staying alive.
Over the Anwar sacking when Malays started taking to the streets in 1998 in a big way (not since 1946) Umno creatively switched to using the moral ploy to put a brake on yet another round of its possible demise. But like the NEP the morality game was a paradox; posing as the paragon of righteousness, Umno unashamedly unleashed an astounding array of immoral tactics. To rescue the Bangsa Melayu from the pull of Reformasi, it invoked sex and sodomy to stir the Malay imagination. It was as though the Leviathan was being infected by a single powerful, immoral virus, Anwar. Ridding itself of the latter, never mind its enormous costs, including ‘liberating’ the Malays from their sense of malu and pawning away the country’s dignity, would breathe new life into the besieged Leviathan.
Body without soul
But Anwar’s acquittal may have left Umno searching for another gambit. Clutching now at a few straws include saving Malay-Muslims from the threat of apostasy, from Christians, Hindus, Chinese, and pretty soon, very likely, from non-Umno-loving Malays.
In all of the above it is the body of the Leviathan that is being rescued, no longer the Bangsa Melayu as its lifeblood. Umno was pulling out all stops to save its body, not its soul, from disintegrating. The latest rescue attempt by Daim Zainuddin reduces the Bangsa Melayu and the voters of Sabah and Sarawak into pawns on a giant chessboard. In an endgame will the Queen, fair play and decency, be sacrificed to save Umno, the King? Daim says that election is after all a ‘competition’, and happily for him, the referee is on the Leviathan’s side.
What might a body sans its soul and substance look like? Like an angel wearing Prada, heavenly in form, decadently stylish, but decaying on the inside. The Devil is working overtime.
Dr Maznah Mohamad, an Aliran member, is a Malaysian academic based in Singapore.