Trapped in a pickle of their own making

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umno youthFor the sake of the country’s children and future, it is high time the BN realised that its ethnic and religious model of politics is passé, says Andrew Aeria. Voters, please note.

For over 50 years, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition (and its precursor the Alliance) has dominated national and state politics. It has done this through a combination of political pragmatism and ethnic-based development policies that ostensibly protected and promoted the interests of the various ethnic communities in the country in varying and despairing degrees.

Helmed by the United Malay National Organisation (Umno), the BN operates within an ethnic model which sees elites of each component party articulate and negotiate "the interests of their respective communities" but within a unified coalition. The quid pro quo for membership in this governing coalition is acceptance of Umno’s political domination since it purports to represent the special position and privileges of the Malays under the Ketuanan Melayu concept as supposedly  negotiated and implicitly agreed to before Merdeka. In exchange, all other coalition parties receive a proportionate share of cabinet positions relative to their parliamentary representation reflecting the strength of their respective communities and a slice of the development pie.

Over the years, Umno has slowly but surely reserved unto itself a majority of the more powerful cabinet positions. Presently, only two of the 13 State Chief Minister posts (namely for Penang and Sarawak) have eluded Umno’s grasp. Umno commands just over 50 per cent of the seats in the current parliament. Its 13 other BN coalition partners control about 41 per cent of the seats with the opposition holding the remaining nine per cent. But despite this position of overwhelming strength, Umno has somewhat, to its credit, accommodated its coalition partners under the BN’s big umbrella.

Lucky combination of factors

That the BN has held together thus far is also largely due to the success of the New Economic Policy (NEP). All BN coalition parties subscribe to and have benefited from this affirmative action programme for Malays and Bumiputeras. Thus, even as Umno, given its access to power and the levers of patronage, has used the interventionist New Economic Policy (NEP) and its subsequent variants to enrich its membership and to create a new super-rich class of elite Malays (called ‘Umnoputeras’), so too all other BN component parties have also benefited from similar patronage and have effectively deployed it to nurture  their political support.

Additionally, a serendipitous combination of historical domestic legacies in the early years of independence (e.g. robust colonial institutions, professional administrators and English proficiency), State-led economic development policy coupled with sustained inflows of foreign investment, high petroleum prices (Malaysia is a net exporter) and consistently healthy agriculture commodity prices have on aggregate brought about prolonged high growth rates since the 1970s. GDP growth has been nothing less but spectacular, rising from GDP per capita of M$1,937 in 1970 to a PPP-adjusted GDP per capita of an estimated US$10,318 in 2005.

This has allowed for extensive redistribution of wealth via subsidies and affirmative action which in turn have greatly reduced poverty and successfully restructured society such that there is little identification of ethnicity with economic function. This growth has also been accompanied by all the accoutrements of modern living namely sparkling infrastructure, snazzy shops, better housing, more golf clubs, frequent overseas holidays, budget airline travel, sophisticated cuisine and fancy cars.

Still, although the country’s GDP and per capita income have skyrocketed, official data indicates that intra-ethnic wealth and income disparities have deepened with Malaysia having one of the most unequal wealth and income distributions in Southeast Asia.

Even so, by all accounts, the NEP has been a huge success with its original objectives largely met.

Ethnic vitriol

Consequently, one would have thought that in this current era of globalisation, the country with its new-found Malaysia Boleh!, Angkasawan in Space! confidence would be ready to cast off the NEP and embrace meritocracy and a semblance of social democracy for those still poor and marginalised. And that Umno as primus inter pares in the BN  — one would have presumed —would be in the forefront, leading this process and all Malaysians into the brave new world that is the 21st Century.

Former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, attempted to steer Umno in this direction but he failed to get Umno to give up its dependence on NEP state handouts and easy subsidies. Under PM Abdullah Badawi, things have gone from bad to worse. Instead of moving forward, the party regressed further by demanding more of the economic pie, arguing that the NEP had not succeeded since the Malays had not achieved their 30 per cent corporate equity targets. This has been most evident in recent Umno General Assemblies where Umno arrogantly presented its own insatiable agenda for continued handouts as the ‘National Agenda’.

Ethnic vitriol was duly served up in support of this insatiable addiction when senior Umno delegates declared that the party would guard ‘Malay unity’, and uphold ‘Malay supremacy’ in pursuit of the ‘Malay agenda’. Umno members also demanded the NEP be continued ‘without any time frame’ despite its original 20-year lifespan, i.e. 1970-1990. Ambitious political wannabes – some wielding the keris – deliberately played up ethnicity and religion in order to be recognised as champions of their race and religion.

Many living in the real world were deeply troubled and disenchanted by these overtly racist statements and sentiments at a time when globalisation demands intelligence, openness, competitiveness, efficiency, productivity and quality. Even BN coalition members, Gerakan, PBS, MCA and SUPP were uncomfortable with these pronouncements. Unfortunately, except for a few brave individual members, the leadership of all BN component parties remained silent, cowed no doubt by Umno.

Then, as if taking a leaf out of Umno’s ethnic and religious approach, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) recently organised themselves in response to what they believe with some justification to be the economic margina-lisation and political/religious discrimination of the Tamil community. Frighteningly, many in this group feel they have nothing else to lose! They rallied in Kuala Lumpur on 25 November 2007 in pursuit of demands for equal treatment as citizens of the country. It did not help that their rally was violently broken up by police high-handedness. They have since gone global with their plight. Justified or not, their mobilisation along ethnic and religious lines only echoes that of Umno’s and adds a stir to the racial and religious pot. Significantly, the BN government has since played up the ethnic angle of the rally to the hilt in the Malay vernacular press as a ‘racist threat’ to national security and a challenge to Malay dominance.

Coming so soon on the heels of the Bersih rally on 10 November 2007 that demanded election reforms and the Bar Council’s Walk in Putrajaya on 26 September 2007  that demanded judicial reforms, this Hindraf rally really spooked the government. PM Abdullah Badawi is now threatening to act to restore ‘public safety’. Many key Bersih, Bar Council and Hindraf activists have been arrested on trumped-up charges. The PM is now threatening the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to detain these activists and dissidents without trial. This is unsurprising since the resort to the ISA has always worked in the past to re-assert the BN government’s political control whenever the BN faces a stiff political challenge.

Opening a Pandora’s Box

But for how long more can Umno and other BN component parties continue to play this ethnic, religious and authoritarian game without forcing the country to reap its bitter fruit? Is this ethnic and religious approach to politics not akin to playing with Pandora’s Box? Is not all this ethnic and religious posturing and resort to authoritarian measures leading us pell-mell into a dead-end alley with serious long-term consequences for the country’s well-being?

There is a deepening malaise in the country arising from a distinct lack of political and economic reforms which PM Abdullah Badawi promised before the 2004 elections. Not only are these reforms required if we are to tackle the key social, political and economic ills currently facing the country (and which led to the recent rallies) but they are absolutely required if we are to compete effectively with other countries in a globalised world.

Thus, how can we really believe that mere resort to the ISA and other blunt authoritarian measures to whip all into line is going to solve our problems? Don’t Umno and the BN leadership have the required intelligence to realise the consequences of such extra-judicial approaches on foreign investors? It seems all too glib for government ministers to say that investors will continue to invest in Malaysia as long as they can make money here.

Yet, what they deliberately omit to tell us is that investors prefer situations of political stability and risk predictability where they can generate stable and rising profits. Today, that political stability and risk predictability is far more readily available in our regional neighbours such as India, China, Singapore and Vietnam.

Leadership comes with an obligation of responsibility. And in this case, it is incumbent upon Umno to show responsible leadership within the BN. Unfortunately, more often than not, over these last few years, what we have seen instead is often plain racism and the vulgar stirring up of religious sentiments. It is thus a major pity that Umno is so short-sighted. Similarly, it is a real pity that Umno’s coalition partners are unable to get them to see the world realistically, namely in a multi-ethnic, egalitarian and democratic light.

Still, some individuals within the BN are trying. Kota Bahru MP Zaid Ibrahim along with Gerakan Penang State Executive Councillor Dr. Toh Kin Woon are two voices of reason. Unfortunately, their reasoned arguments are being drowned out by jackboots like Khairy Jamaluddin, Nazri Aziz, Zainuddin Maidin, Hisham-muddin Hussein, Umno Vice-President Mohd Ali Rustam and others of their ilk. It is thus a no-brainer that Zaid Ibrahim and Dr. Toh’s days in the BN are numbered but in Dr Toh’s case he has decided not to seek re-election.

Similarly, the youth wing of Gerakan recently called for the merger of all 14 political parties within the BN coalition into a single Malaysian political party to forge genuine national unity after 50 years of independence. For many Malaysians tired of ethnic prejudice, discriminatory policies and deepening religious polarisation, this was a truly refreshing view.

Unfortunately, BN Chairman and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi vetoed the call, insisting that the BN’s existing ethnic model of politics "ensured proper representation for all the races". Oddly enough, his rejection of the Gerakan proposal came a day after he acknowledged that "religious and racial divisions had brought Malaysia to the ‘brink of disaster’ in the past and continue to hamper its growth". Puzzling as this contradiction may seem, it is not surprising since PM Badawi is as short-sighted as his party and presently appears to many to be more interested in international travel junkets to exotic locations on public expense than in providing genuine statesman-like leadership.

Slow but sure decay

Still, the BN coalition remains resilient because its ethnic model of politics allows it to dwell on deep-rooted fears of all ethnic and religious communities. As well, the BN has the power and resources of incumbency and has successfully used a combination of the civil service, patronage, authoritarian controls and a conniving elections commission to its advantage. Nor does the political opposition currently seem able  to genuinely unite to take on the BN. Their ideological differences run deep and they have had hitherto little success despite being led by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

Thus, if Umno and the BN were truly courageous and visionary, they would steal a run on the opposition by transforming and re-fashioning themselves into a single party, one that is egalitarian, meritocratic, multi-ethnic and blind to both race and religion. This would necessarily mean dissolving all current ethnic parties within the coalition. Indeed, this move would be so popular, it would likely grant the BN a further 50 years in power!

But can they even see this let alone have the courage to grasp the bull by the horns? With their deep-rooted addiction to the NEP, a current dearth of quality leaders, a lack of unanimity of purpose, sheer government inertia and disregard for deepening socio-political malaise, one can only perceive Umno and the BN coalition continuing down a road of slow but sure decay. Truly, they are trapped in a pickle of their own making.

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