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COVER STORY


UMNO: A threat to national prosperity

Umnoputeras are deeply addicted to their ethnic privileges and subsidies - but what happens when the petroleum runs out?

by Abang Bennet
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 7

umno
 
start_quote (1K)...while Abdullah Badawi was obviously thinking and talking of a giant step forward for the Malays, the assembly delegates were thinking and talking of a giant step backwards.
end_quote (1K)
Abang Bennet

 
In last month’s Aliran Monthly, Martin Jalleh provided us an astonishing account of expensive government bailouts of bungled privatisations mainly involving the crème de la crème of the crony Malay-Bumiputera community.

Under the guise of NEP imperatives to eradicate poverty and eliminate identification of economic function with ethnicity, the UMNO-led BN government’s privatisation policy was implemented from the mid-1980s to fast-track the attainment of 30 per cent corporate wealth ownership by the Malay-Bumiputera community. When this figure was apparently not achieved by 1990, the NEP was re-fashioned under the Seventh Malaysia Plan as the National Development Policy (NDP) and extended a further 10 years until the year 2000. Ironically, most of the beneficiaries of this privatisation policy were not Bumiputeras but Umnoputeras!

New national agenda

Thus, it was most troubling to hear this year’s general assembly of Umnoputeras baldly declaring that NEP objectives had not been achieved and that the NEP was in fact a “failure”. Indeed, so impassioned were the delegates that, led by a braying UMNO Youth leadership, they resolved and “demanded the reintroduction of the NEP and the doing away with meritocracy”. Citing that “UMNO and the government want to complete unfinished business”, the delegates demanded the government give “whatever assistance or affirmative action to Malays and bumiputeras”. The assembly also advocated a New National Agenda (NNA) policy be fashioned to advance the “unfinished Malay agenda” for a further 15 years.

Surprisingly, this demand comes nearly five years after ethnic parity was supposed to have been achieved. It also comes after previous UMNO General Assemblies (2000-2004) had had ample opportunity to debate the issue, but did not. Apart from the fact that UMNO’s argument about an “unfinished Malay agenda” is contentious both statistically and as to who benefited most (Bumiputeras or Umnoputeras?) from the NEP, why was this issue not raised as articulately when Dr. Mahathir was in charge of UMNO and the government?

After all, didn’t this same assembly previously support Dr. Mahathir in his quest to change the Malay mindset from one of dependence on government crutches to one of becoming independent globally-oriented Malays (and Malaysians) capable of taking on the world? And why no analysis and apportionment of major responsibility for this dismal “failure” of the NEP to the UMNO-led BN government that implemented the NEP and NDP since 1970? Selective memory perhaps?

Does this volte-face and raw ethnic posturing have anything to do with UMNO Youth’s current leadership trying to show off their “Melayu (Malay)” credentials given their Anglophile accents, education and lifestyles? Is this a case of strutting UMNO young cockerels opportunistically trying to discredit the previous UMNO president for the ‘failure’ of the NEP now that Dr. Mahathir is not around? Does it have anything to do with both Hishammuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin having an eye on the next UMNO elections in which their “keMelayuan (Malayness)” will be appraised by their fellow delegates? Is that why Hishammuddin Hussein brandished a Keris during his policy address while Khairy Jamaluddin brandished his ethnic rhetoric?

Abdullah tries to set the agenda...

To his credit, Abdullah Badawi had attempted to set the agenda, tone and context for the assembly when he outlined the dire challenges facing the Malay-Bumiputera community. Among some of the key policy issues he outlined was the fact that Malaysia’s vision of achieving developed country status was to be accomplished within 15 years and in the context of an increasingly competitive international environment.

After outlining Malaysia’s achievements, he spoke on the role of Islam Hadhari in meeting the developmental and security challenges facing the country and the global ummah. He then discussed his 10-point plan to move Malaysia forward. He urged renewed efforts to achieve higher and sustained economic performance. He emphasised fiscal prudence and a reduction in the budget deficit to preserve the country’s interests ahead “of the political interests of certain groups or individuals”. He urged UMNO to spearhead the building of a knowledge society and to create new sources of economic growth via the utilization of sophisticated technologies.

He opined on the importance of an efficient and world-class public service. He committed himself to enhancing integrity and eliminating corruption in public life. He spoke of improving the quality of life and eradicating hardcore poverty. He stressed the reduction of ethnic and regional income gaps. And he supported capacity building and capacity enhancement of human resources. All were necessary, he said, to ‘build a nation that is stable, united, peaceful and prosperous.’

It being the UMNO assembly, Abdullah Badawi referred to the Malay agenda too, but with a difference. Like UMNO Youth, he agreed that despite great strides, much still needed to be done if the Malays were to achieve ethnic parity. Unlike UMNO Youth, however, he stressed that this parity was to be achieved by developing a “new mindset and a fresh spirit”, one that was based on education and training in science and technology, and an approach that was not premised on “excessive reliance on the government”.

He urged diversification and risk-taking, and talked of ending the practice of awarding “licences and permits without taking into account merit and performance” - which is “a form of wastage”. He stressed the necessity of developing a new culture of “excellence based on merit and performance among Bumiputeras”. On this issue, he said the most durable foundation to succeed is [for the Malays] to have desire, skill, expertise, knowledge, resilience and industry.

He also stressed the need of UMNO to rid itself of the culture of corruption to ensure that the party remained true to its founding values of “struggle for the people and service to the community”.

No discussion of PM's speech

But did the delegates discuss and debate the issues the PM outlined? They did not. Instead, they bit the ethnic bait laid by UMNO Youth. Accordingly, they swept away any possibility for reasoned policy discussions. Their speeches largely showcased a collective inability to consider their president’s opening speech entitled, “A Giant Step for the Malays”. Once ethnic emotionalism kicked in, few Umnoputera delegates discussed the real challenges, threats or even opportunities facing UMNO and the country. They preferred talking of the “unfinished Malay agenda” before asking for more subsidies and the continuation of Malay privileges.

There was little examination of the tight financial straits of the present government, its high debt levels and consequent austerity measures. Little was said about the grave reduction of foreign direct investments and rising competition posed by China, India and other ASEAN countries. Malaysia’s increasingly inappropriate education system and its impoverished teaching standards were not critically examined. Few chose to grapple with the genuine causes of graduate unemployment and its possible solutions. Few discussed the inefficiencies of a bloated cabinet and civil service; the huge costs of corporate bailouts via resort to EPF, Kumpulan Wang Amanah Pencen and Petronas funds; and the impending privatisation of the health service via a national health insurance scheme. Few talked about hardcore poverty, excessive intra-ethnic wealth inequalities, and the continued denial of a minimum wage for workers, most of whom are Malays.

Rather ... a step backwards

Instead, the general assembly was held in thrall to the emotive “unfinished Malay agenda”. Thus, while Abdullah Badawi was obviously thinking and talking of a giant step forward for the Malays, the assembly delegates were thinking and talking of a giant step backwards. UMNO missed the whole point of their president’s policy speech. Indeed, so strong was this feeling during the assembly that Abdullah Badawi, despite his best intentions, was constrained to address this theme in his summing up speech.

This general assembly’s deliberations simply confirmed that the Umnoputeras are addicted - deeply addicted - to their ethnic privileges, subsidies, quotas and government handouts. Despite current global realities and despite the best efforts of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and current president Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, UMNO is unwilling to be weaned off this 35-year-long structural addiction. To these addicted and greedy Umnoputeras, the UMNO-led BN government is certainly “Santa Claus”.

When the oil dries up...

More troubling is UMNO’s deep conviction that a return to the NEP is economically viable. Certainly nobody acknowledged that Malaysia’s oil and gas reserves are running out - and fast.

Official Petronas estimates suggest Malaysia’s petroleum and natural gas reserves stand at some 3.4 billion barrels and 84.4 trillion standard cubic feet respectively. At 1998 levels of production of 630,000 barrels per day for petroleum and 5261 million standard cubic feet per day for natural gas, petroleum reserves are expected to be exhausted in 14.8 years and natural gas in 44 years. Note however, that these levels of production are outdated and are likely to have been increased. Thus, Malaysia is certain to run out of oil reserves before 2020, and this UMNO-led BN government, if it is still in power, will certainly be cash-strapped for NEP-style development funds, let alone Petronas-linked financial bailouts for the Umnoputeras, if it continues to think and talk NEP.

Whither then the people when the petroleum runs out? Will the Umnoputeras still be demanding free lollipops from the government for their ‘unfinished Malay agenda’ then? Will they play Nero while the country burns?

Instead, should we not be taking urgent action now, while we still have oil and gas reserves to cushion our national efforts in upgrading ourselves into becoming truly competitive global players both economically and technologically? Should not all our structural bottlenecks be grappled with urgently and rationally? Should not new and alternative (to oil and gas) sources of national revenue streams be developed to keep our children free from misery and destitution?

For deliberately avoiding responsibility, UMNO is now a clear and present threat to national prosperity.

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