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It has not been the happiest leadership transition for the ruling coalition. Khoo Boo Teik looks at the unusual position the BN is in, having lost four by-elections in the peninsula since the last general election. At the heart of Pakatan Rakyat’s advances is a sea-change at the social level – a phenomenon which has been captured on blogs, websites, and Youtube.

Even if you’re not one to take pleasure in the pain of others, you’ve still to marvel at the present discomfiture of the Barisan Nasional, and especially the United Malays National Organisation.

Within a year of the 2008 general election, BN has lost 0–4 to Pakatan Rakyat in the peninsular by-elections of Permatang Pauh, Kuala Terengganu, Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, each time by a larger losing margin. Of the four defeats, three were suffered by Umno, once at the hands of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, twice against Parti Islam.

Even BN’s single victory in a fifth by-election, in Batang Ai, Sarawak, starkly exposed the ruling coalition’s regional quandary. What sort of hegemon is Umno – which some of its leaders boasted could rule on its own –when it’s stalemated in the peninsula, its message is shredded, and its writ runs at the mercy of the fief politics of Sabah and Sarawak?

Walk on by

Presumably that’s why the new Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak, floated the possibility that BN would hand a walkover to PR in the Penanti by-election scheduled for 31 May. Najib’s idea, dutifully parroted by other BN leaders, is to spare the people another by-election in this time of economic crisis.

That’s really not a bad idea.

But one understands that Najib’s making a virtue out of trepidation that if BN enters the fray, its record would extend to 0–5 in the peninsula. Should that happen, with the first two by-elections lost under his campaign command, and the next three under his watch as BN chief, what would the record say of Najib’s qualities as a leader?

Perhaps some such consideration led ex-Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to affirm a few days ago that he’d remain a backbencher in Parliament. Imagine a seventh by-election, in Kepala Batas, with Abdullah’s supporters resentful at his shoddy shove-off and Khairy Jamaluddin’s camp incensed over his exclusion from Najib’s Cabinet!

This unenviable condition of BN’s, and not the self-trumpeted or media-hyped merits of particular personalities, marks the Abdullah-Najib leadership transition as the unhappiest one in our political history. How has the condition arisen?

Crises and the man

Exit Abdullah. No pomp, little hand wringing, few tears; merely a half-sad, somewhat rueful farewell speech that punctuated Umno’s year-long ‘transition’ melodrama.

Just like that the fifth Prime Minister and sixth Umno President was gone, overshadowed by Umno’s elections, Najib’s ascension, the by-elections in Batang Ai, Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, and the judicial outcomes in the Perak crisis.

But has the transition, reluctantly accepted by Abdullah, cleared Umno’s impasse?

Abdullah was an unlikely survivor of Umno’s intense factional fighting. He emerged from Team B’s loss in the splintering election of 1987 to be reappointed to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Cabinets of the 1990s. He even overcame a personal defeat in 1993 by Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘Wawasan Team’ to be Mahathir’s sole successful ‘anointed successor’.

Crises unexpectedly raised Abdullah to leadership and crises unceremoniously removed him from it. He was beneficiary and casualty of the political flux spun by Reformasi and swirled by the ‘tsunami’.

He succeeded Mahathir after the 1997–99 conjuncture of Asia’s financial meltdown, Anwar’s fall and Umno’s defeats at the 1999 general election. He was ejected by the 2006–08 combination of a bitter spat Mahathir forced upon him, Reformasi’s resumed revolt and BN’s electoral debacle.

Unable to build on his 2004 triumph, Abdullah could not contain BN’s humiliation by PR’s rise. Hence, he departed to media ruminations of how he could have been a great prime minister had he walked, or made Umno walk, his talk of reform.

So much for so little

Yet the manner of Abdullah’s toppling – which Mahathir demanded ‘from outside’, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin manipulated ‘from below’, and Najib nudged ‘at his side’ – points to Umno’s persisting predicament.

When a majority of Malay voters spurned him in 1999, Mahathir lamented that Melayu mudah lupa (‘Malays easily forgot’). When Umno was recently spurned by the Bukit Gantang voters, Muhyiddin said the Chinese were ungrateful (tidak membalas budi) and didn’t appreciate (tidak menghargai) benefits they’d received.

But in tagging Abdullah as the source of Umno’s defeats, conveniently personalising the party’s errors, the anti-Abdullah factions ungratefully forgot that he’d saved them from the Malay anti-Mahafiraun wave of 1999.

With only small-scale populist measures for the rural populace, minor overtures to the civil service and reformist rhetoric, Abdullah managed to raise Umno to an unprecedented height in the 2004 general election.

There was the rub. So little was actually offered by Abdullah, and so little did he try to change Umno. Yet, so warm was the response of an electorate that clamoured for reforms, and, relieved to see Mahathir leave, wanted a closure to the Anwar affair.

But a person is not a party, or only very rarely so. And image can’t substitute for reality, or only very briefly so. The flip-flop gentility of an avuncular ‘Pak Lah’ melted in the hubris of an Umno that mistook a momentary reprieve for an unstoppable resurgence.

Umno forgot: its spell over the voters, strongest in 1995 when Mahathir was virtually BN, was broken by the mauling of Anwar. But the voters who grew up with or after Reformasi remembered: in defiance of Umno’s post-2004 antics, they swelled the ‘tsunami’.

No longer spellbound

Today, Najib can hardly restore the spell.

One obvious reason is personal. No other premier has assumed power burdened with a low popularity rating and serious allegations which he has denied without being able to dissipate.

A second reason has to do with the voters’ attitudes. Having fallen for the media applause for Abdullah when Mahathir departed, they’re much more guarded against similar exercises in praise of Najib.

A third reason is organisational. Over and over again, Umno has shown itself incapable of internal reform, the latest evidence for which comes from its party election which was plagued with ‘money politics’. As Khairy was to learn it the humiliating way, his election as Pemuda Umno chief was immediately greeted by jeers of ‘Rasuah, Rasuah’ (‘Bribery, Bribery’).

In vain, therefore, did Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah argue for a drastic organisational and ideological transformation of Umno, he being probably the only leader who could credibly oversee such a transformation.

The drubbing

By now, BN’s 0–4 drubbing in the peninsular by-elections since August 2008 makes clear that it’s not one discrete matter or another that stands in Umno’s path of electoral revival.

Led by Najib, Umno entered Permatang Pauh to ‘bury Anwar’, as Khairy boasted, with a Sodomy II-based campaign only to be buried itself, as Razaleigh sneered. Parti Islam triumphed in Kuala Trengganu despite another Najib-captained campaign that brazenly handed out ‘development instant noodles’ to local contractors and ill-disguised warnings to non-Malay voters.

Under Muhyiddin, the new Deputy Prime Minister, Umno relentlessly attacked Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin in Bukit Gantang for the latter’s alleged treason (towards the Sultan of Perak). Umno’s campaign portrayed Pas as the Democratic Action Party’s stooge. But Nizar’s majority rose by 80 per cent over that of his deceased predecessor’s.

In Bukit Selambau, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, a new Umno Vice-President, managed the BN’s deployment of the Malaysian Indian Congress in a contest mysteriously crowded by independent candidates. The voters rejected the BN and the independents to give the young Parti Keadilan Rakyat candidate a higher majority.

Different Umno bigwigs leading different campaigns in variously composed constituencies in four separate states had the distinction of achieving a uniform result: defeat by a larger margin. Umno’s overall predicament is now larger than the sum of its parts.

Learn from history, Mahathir tediously intones, fearful the young won’t listen to him (which might well be so). Yet the voters have learnt their history, specifically their error of 2004: there’s no change without opposition. It’d be pointless for Najib to invite them, as Abdullah once did, to ‘work with me, not for me’.

Who’s working?

Who then can Najib have working with him?

Asked to be judged by his actions, Najib dropped several ministers, among them Abdullah loyalists, from his Cabinet. But Najib retained as the Chief Minister of Melaka, Mohamad Ali Rustam, the front-runner who was disqualified from the Umno deputy president’s contest because the party’s disciplinary body found him guilty of ‘money politics’.

Seeking to reunite Umno after the election, Najib sidelined Khairy while appointing as a deputy minister the latter’s defeated opponent, Mukhriz Mahathir, noteworthy for trying to be his father’s clone.

Through the ‘back door’ of the Senate, Najib brought into his ‘People’s Cabinet’ several losers from the 2008 election, including Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, Datuk Seri Sharizat Abdul Jalil, Datuk Dr Awang Adek Hussin and Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun. What message does this act send? Wouldn’t it be, as Kadir Jasin, Umno’s one-time scribe, suggests (albeit via unsigned comments at his blog), that many capable people couldn’t win elections while many MPs who won were not capable?

Moreover, when Koh accepted his posts, he broke his word, publicly given on the eve of ‘8 March’, to refuse a senator’s appointment if he was defeated – for then ‘I can no longer speak on behalf of the people if I am no longer representing them’. Does his action rejuvenate Parti Gerakan Rakyat or add ridicule to a party many think is politically dead but won’t lie down?

What’s working?

Away from personalities, Najib’s initial offerings are made ‘too little, too late’.

Just as he’d promised to respect media freedom, the police banned the mention of Altantuya Shaariibuu’s name in the last three by-elections, while Minister of Information, Communications, Arts and Culture Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim has lately warned bloggers not to ‘twist the truth’.

In any case, innumerable online journalists, bloggers, netizens, and their fans and followers – including, for the record, C.H.E. Det and Ku Li – have seized media freedom for themselves.

For vision, Najib offers an alpha-numeric ‘1Malaysia’. But how many Malaysias did he think there were before when every Umno General Assembly from 2005 to 2007 cynically gutted Bangsa Malaysia – the one Mahathirist legacy worth preserving – with no demur from Najib?

But, again, many of our people, especially the youth, have on their own learnt and practised new ways of seeing and regarding themselves as social equals in a single Malaysia.

Who’s cooperating?

With each loss since ‘8 March’, BN parties were trapped in intra-coalition differences which were practically inter-ethnic recriminations. Had Umno further alienated non-Malay voters by its aggressive ketuanan Melayu assertions? Were the Malaysian Chinese Association, Gerakan and MIC no longer able to command the loyalty of unappreciative non-Malay voters any more?

If Umno’s calls to preserve ‘Malay unity’ couldn’t move the Malay-majority constituencies, and its non-Malay partners in BN couldn’t frighten non-Malay voters with Pas’s ‘Islamic state’, how was BN to reinvent itself?

In contrast, DAP, Pas and PKR seemed to have taken a leaf out of the BN’s book of intra-coalition amiability. The PR parties are troubled by putative ‘incompatibilities’, inexperience in governing, and many real problems of coalition politics. And yet, PR attained a level of cooperation that was both cause and effect in its 4–0 thrashing of BN.

The reason for this achievement, crucial to PR’s establishment of a lasting two-coalition system, is not Anwar’s charisma as PR leader although his charisma and influence are not to be discounted at all.

Critical shifts

At the heart of PR’s advance is a sea-change at the social level. Attitudes and conduct, especially of the youth and young voters, have altered although they’re not wholly formed or fixed. Still, the outlines of that potentially far-reaching change are discernible in peculiar ways.

To his credit, Khairy, callow in his politicking, has a shrewder sense of this social development than his Umno enemies who hem him in now that his father-in-law is out. For example, he differed from the politicians who sat on sinecures in sporting bodies. He went to the ground, sponsoring his MyTeam socceroos, mixing play with pride in a manner that youth would appreciate. Better still, he’d not reacted viscerally against the Mat Rempits. He’d urged society to listen to them, give them space and socially re-induct them.

Had Khairy been given the ‘youth and sports’ ministry – the portfolio that traditionally blooded the Pemuda Umno chief – he might formulate policy initiatives that showed an empathy for the unpredictable ways of being young and ‘drifting’ instead of routinely condemning manifestations of budaya lepak (culture of idleness).

In a different way, Farish Noor had captured the change at the social level in his brilliant coverage of the 8 March election in Kelantan. Farish recalled that outside the counting centre in Kota Bharu, upon hearing that Lim Kit Siang had won, Pas supporters gave thanks, ‘Allahuakhbar!’ How could it not be, as Farish’s article was titled, ‘Another Country, Another Election’ (Off the Edge, April 2008)?

YouTube clips

More recently, the YouTube has become a rich source of multimedia experiments that express new attitudes.

On 29 March 2009, nomination day for the Bukit Gantang by-election, thousands of PR members and supporters held a carnival-like gathering, separated by a cordon of riot police from BN supporters, likewise numbering thousands.

If the symbolism of its supporters was anything to go by, PR took its proclaimed brand of multi-ethnic politics seriously. The PR contingent had a (Chinese) lion dance troupe, a group of (Indian) drummers, and a (Malay) chorus led in mass renditions of nasyid by some singers using hailers.

The relatively solemn singing of nasyid by the chorus of Malays and mostly Pas members and supporters was immediately understandable. A seemingly incongruous novelty was for the chorus to yell homespun electoral battle ‘hymns’ in Malay (Kita lawan!, Kita tawan!, Re-for-ma-si!, Hidup keadilan!, Hancur rasuah!, Hancur BN!, Pangkah bulan!, etc.) to the tune of … When The Saints Go Marching In!

The moon and I

During its 2008 election campaign, Pas once unveiled an imaginative, not to say strikingly inclusive, slogan: Ride the Rocket to the Moon for Justice! In Bukit Gantang 13 months later, some of the DAP’s women leaders, including MP Ms Chong Eng, rendered a refrain, so to speak.

They sang Yueliang daibiao wo de xin (The moon represents my heart). Perhaps they sang with more feeling for the cause than a feel for the song. But they thereby lent a subliminal tenor to their call to the Chinese voters to support Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin: ‘The candidate of the moon represents us.’

At one point in the campaign trail, the Mandarin-, Cantonese- and Hokkien-speaking Nizar, the embattled icon of the gambling-prohibiting Pas, did the honours of starting a mah jong game for some constituents. At another point, in the poor fishing community of Pulau Langga, some voters who met him referred to Pas’s ‘moon’ as a ‘ping-pong’ that could ‘rise high’.

Culturally yours

Elsewhere in Batu Gantang, even as the Ministry of Home Affairs and the police banned the name of Altantuya Shaariibuu from the by-election campaigns, some PKR politicians performed cheng beng rites for the soul of the poor Mongolian woman. Theirs was not a political act, they said, which only served to make their gesture oblique but defiant.

Evidently BN wasn’t to be left behind in all this. Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, then Minister (for Religious Affairs) in the Prime Minister’s Department, attended a concert where ‘sexy and scantily clad women’ staged skits that Zahid pronounced to be ‘part of Chinese culture’. He told the press he wouldn’t have performances like those ‘in my constituency’, though. To each his own culture, presumably, but it wouldn’t be quite ‘1Malaysia’, would it?

New senses

These and many more episodes are captured on YouTube clips. Via them, one can retrace ‘alternative’ multimedia innovations, such as the uproarious Comedy Court and the creative Nut Graph, in one long, deepening movement from the tsunami to Reformasi.

Today’s bloggers, netizens, and YouTubers are part of an imagined community of dissent that columnist Amir Muhammad, diarist Sabri Zain, journalist Steven Gan, nascent webmaster ‘RPK’, novelist Shahnon Ahmad, and cartoonist Zunar, among many others, helped to create a decade ago.

In showing what it means to reinvent so that one sees the world and feels the pulses of society afresh, they’ve continued the journey in socio-cultural experimentation that paralleled the political evolution of ADIL into KeADILan, of Gerak into Barisan Alternatif, and of BA into PR.

In this aliran (flow) where invention is dissidence, how can BN not be adrift and clueless?

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