Can UMNO Survive?

Events of the past months may have aroused raging questions about the durability of Dr Mahathir's premiership. Deeper than this perhaps, is the question of the survival of the party he controls. Can UMNO, which has virtually become undifferentiated from the state and which has ruled the country since independence, continue to form the government, ad infinitum

By Dr Maznah Mohamad

When UMNO was declared illegal in 1988, many took it as the surest sign of its eventual demise. It did not happen. UMNO did not vanish because of judicial intervention. It was re-born as UMNO Baru, or "new" UMNO, but in its old cast. It was restored to its status quo ante.Today, the oft-echoed lamentation of "money politics" as being UMNO's bane is louder. Ummi Hafilda, key witness in the Anwar Ibrahim trial, even went as far as, it appeared, slandering and breaking up her own family, all to "save" UMNO, the party. The party president even half-seriously suggested that nothing short of his twin could fill his shoes. All of these signal that UMNO, the party, is in great turmoil, again.

However, the fear among many people of UMNO ever breaking-up is being allayed by their trust in Dr Mahathir. There is nothing that he cannot fix. In fact, he, and the party may even come out more triumphant after the crisis. So goes the thought. Will it work this time around?To get an idea, let's look at some aspects of UMNO's less bright side. To begin with the party lacks renewed idealism. Its membership is elicited among social climbers with corporate ambitions, rather than among those with a commitment to a cause. As some would see it, in UMNO, the only cause worth dying for (or lying for) is money.

While the politics of money reigns high within the party, its original dictum of "Ketuanan Melayu" (Malay ownership) rings increasingly hollow to the Malay masses. UMNO leaders are not in step with the "other" side of development. The party is marginalising many groups of "disenfranchised" Malays, who are the victims of skewed development. UMNO leaders' recurring resort to Machiavellian and dirty tactics for political survival is leaving a moral legacy that is full of holes. It is also leaving a gaping leadership credibility gap.

Identity Crisis

The party is undeniably encountering an identity crisis. What used to constitute the Malay ethos, UMNO-style, was unproblematically couched in the attainment of economic parity, political one-upmanship and the religious high ground. Democracy, human rights, and the rule-of-law were shunted aside as unnecessary inconveniences obstructing the process of Malay advancement.

Today, without doubt, what was touted as the Malay ethos is undergoing a shakedown. For one thing, economic parity per se cannot be upheld under conditions of the shrinking pie. For another, the religious high ground is being forced to take on a more pragmatic dimension. The injustice that was apparent in the handling of the Anwar Ibrahim issue has become too transparent to ignore. Hence, the ideas of judicial independence, due process of law, and human rights have almost overnight struck a chord with large sectors of the Malay community.

When Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed on moral grounds, the party president (being too much of a moderniser) was out of touch with the existence of an ancient Malay social covenant: a ruler should never resort to the ploy of shaming a subject (memberi 'aib) lest the wrath of the almighty is set upon the land to destroy it.Not once in the history of UMNO has any prominent dissident been so publicly humiliated (as Anwar Ibrahim has been) and removed on moral grounds! Even in the case of Rahim Tamby Chik, there was no formal accusation that he had committed any moral or criminal wrongdoing!

The removal of Anwar Ibrahim is the one single political event that has been responsible for unleashing the many facets of Malay resentment. On the other hand, the process of UMNO's decay had actually set in long before. This combination of recent Malay mass disaffection and a weakening party structure holds the key as to how future events will be shaped.

Lost Idealism

UMNO's lack of a single powerful agenda is related to its disdain for counter-pointing youthful voices. Since the early 1970s, UMNO has not been able to tap into the energies of youth. This was the result of the backlash of policies put into place to tame the restlessness of students and young dissidents. Students were forced to disengage from politics after their involvement in the peasant uprising of 1974. The uprising, which was partly student-led, shook the then regime so badly, that to prevent the repeat of any show of student power, the University and University Colleges' Act (UUCA) was crafted for use. It was tabled by the then Education Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The legislation has become so successful that it is now stultifying creativity, critical reflection and healthy "rebellion" among university students. Despite their energy, time, spirit and social disposition for engaging in vibrant political concerns, university students are proscribed to a life of staid and often vacuous bookish pursuits.

The consequence of this is apathy and indifference towards social issues. Those who harbour any political inclinations express themselves surreptitiously and exercise self-censorship within perceived safety limits. During the heady days of the economic boom, university students became even less concerned about fulfilling civic duties, let alone about contemplating meaningful roles in politics.

Naturally, Malay students predominantly resorted to religion because it was the only legitimate avenue for political expression (through the Islam of various shades). Even this was circumscribed. Witness the banning of the Al-Arqam influence on campus. We may recall that during the pre-UUCA days the lively proclamation of competing ideological postures was one of the healthy features of campus life.

Today, twenty-one year olds at university - old enough to choose their government - are muzzled from talking and thinking politics. As for wearing their political colours on their sleeves, that is strictly off-limits. One cannot imagine how sterile the campus environment can be these days.

Small wonder that most political parties today (except for PAS) lack any cogent sense of idealism or imagination. Without some participation from spirited, incorruptible, energetic youths, it may be difficult for political movements to renew themselves or political parties to be re-invented to avoid obsolescence.

Lately, having realised that it has no consensus among the young (perhaps the crowd that had been thought to throng the Reformasi rallies), UMNO hastily and unthinkingly proposed that the minimum age for eligibility for party membership be reduced to 16 years. This will not amount to anything since most of us know that Malaysian children are staying longer in school these days. Those who drop out at the age of 16 must be either extremely poor or extremely uninterested in school. Either way they need help of the more basic kind rather than apprenticeship into politics. As expected, this hasty move to tamper with figures to score numbers for the party did not come to fruition. The proposal was dropped.

Membership and Opportunism

One other indicator of UMNO's hold on power is its membership profile. From the mid-1980s onwards, the factor of UMNO's financial omnipotence appears to be more successful in rallying followers than its earlier more noble ideology of uplifting the Malays. Cynics equate UMNO's monolithic image as the undisputed champion of Malay supremacy with the party's ability to shore up lucrative business deals. On the other hand, this is intentional. The NEP was also specifically aimed at creating a sizeable Malay business class.

Most of the high-profile members of UMNO would make no bones about using the party as a springboard for some vested ambitions, primarily corporate aggrandisement. Other professionals, academics and civil servants join UMNO because their ultimate self-actualisation is sought in some high-level political office. UMNO is the only Malay party that blazes a sure trail for upward mobility.

Nevertheless, the number of these political hopefuls has escalated to such an extent that the playing field has become overcrowded. Due to the limited number of positions at branch, division, state, the supreme council and, finally, the cabinet level, the competition has become acute, degenerating into a "no-holds-barred" kind of endgame, with the playing-field no longer level and any semblance of rules or ethics thrown to the dogs.

Insider gossip suggests that the only things that count in this game (of jockeying for party positions) are plenty of money, sinister poison-pen letters, character-assassination plots, in some cases the help of mystics (resulting in severe fatalities), and the use (and hence abuse) of the instruments of the state. The apex of this game of out-chancing rivals was the unrivalled way that the book 50 Dalil was produced, distributed and pedalled as koranic truths. That the present national crisis was triggered by the issuance of this pernicious piece of trashy literature is even more pathetic!

Several decades ago, Young Turks (counting Mahathir among them) rebelled against the old guards and UMNO demanded swift implementation of the NEP. Helped by fortuitous economic circumstances, the redistribution strategy was generally tolerated by all races as necessary for achieving ethnic balance. By the 1990s, the developmentalist ethos stemming from the "miracle growth" phase allowed for some degree of liberalisation in economic policies and education, which pleased most of the elite of all communities. Along the way, the ISA was used in 1987 in the notorious Operation Lalang purportedly to diffuse ethnic tension.

With the NEP in place, the government under Mahathir embarked on an obsessive agenda to hurriedly create a moneyed and powerful Malay business elite. The UMNO machinery was used to the utmost to create overnight tycoons. Even if only a handful succeeded in becoming business titans and captains of industry, the rest were quite content to be relegated to the status of minions propping up the mystique of a united game plan.

Those "years of consensus" helped to build the stature and coffers of UMNO from a party protective of the Malays to a party protected by wealthy Malays. Having built itself up as a financially formidable party, helped by the spoils of the booming economy and privatisation deals, UMNO became increasingly dependent for its protection and enrichment upon a class of wealthy corporate Malays.Perhaps that is where the singular role of the party in upholding Malay identity and concerns ended and where its role as the defender of a specific class interest began. UMNO's survival now appears to be linked to the survival of big corporate conglomerates. The bailouts of some well-known companies may be seen as almost a desperate attempt at keeping UMNO, the party, intact.

In the process, cracks within the party are being exposed. Splits between the haves and have-nots, between the old elite and the new rich, between the descendants of the illustrious families and the humbler classes, between the secular liberals and the religious conservatives, and between the old guards and the young turks are all coming out in the open. Is it just a coincidence that Anwar Ibrahim and his close supporters belong to one side of the divide and that Mahathir and his allies belong to the other?

"Ketuanan Melayu"

The platform for Malay supremacy, "Ketuanan Melayu", now rings hollow. No doubt, UMNO can still hammer the line that it is the guardian of the Malay claim for "ownership", or a nationhood based on the "bumiputra" first-among-equals principle. If this is declared forcefully and frequently, UMNO may still win back some of its wayward Malay constituencies.

While it may be true that the battle-call of "Ketuanan Melayu" may not be reaching its demise yet, the phrase needs to be re-contextualised. If "Ketuanan Melayu" were to be carried through as the raison d'être of UMNO, it must be justified in credible and rational ways. Any leadership of a revitalised UMNO must be able to transcend this recourse to feudal myth-making in order to lend relevance to the newer demands of the Malay polity. There are really many other outlets for seeking fulfilment, salvation or refuge sans the spirit of "Ketuanan Melayu" for the ordinary Malay in the present time.

For instance, PAS as a political party is rightly claiming that it is also serving Malay interests and demands. Given the present political climate, more Malays are finding PAS a better alternative than UMNO. For them, PAS' alternative of a return to Islamic fundamentalism, with its unambiguously drawn-out ideal of a just and pious system, seems more attractive.

Due to the limited space for discourse and debate over other political options, Islam is seen to be the only other ideology for the Malay community that can provide the antithesis as well as the antidote to the state of political debauchery towards which UMNO seems to be verging. The only snag for PAS is that UMNO, by default, may be able to hang-on to its national mandate, because the non-Muslim majority will not countenance the possibility of an Islamic statehood. In this context, UMNO may survive only because we have a Hobson's choice in voting for a government.

The "Other Malays"

UMNO's near demise could be hastened by its indifference to the plight of the "other Malays", an indifference which is matched only by its partiality towards the business lobby. The number of Malay youths who are mired in social problems such as drug-addiction has reached alarming proportions. Malay youths involved in drug abuse problems, however, do not figure highly in the agenda of UMNO Youth.

Similarly, that there are some Muslim women who cannot get sufficient justice from the Shariah courts is not of extremely great concern to UMNO's women's wing, at least not enough for the party to take up the issue as its cause celebre.

As for poverty, UMNO is still trapped within the dualistic mind-set of the rural-urban divide. It has disproportionately concentrated its resources on uplifting the economy of its rural constituents at the expense of the Malay urban poor. The locus of Malay poverty is experiencing a demographic shift towards urban centres, and UMNO is not there to pick up the pieces.

Besides economic and social depravity, there is also this lacuna in Malay cultural development, because no one, for example, has been able to fill the shoes of P. Ramlee for the last 25 years. Small point perhaps, but it just means that there has really been no cultural renewal, which ties in with the vacuum in the department of idealism.

Credibility Gap

By far the most serious short-term problem faced by the party is the widening credibility gap within its leadership. None of the probable successors to the president of the party could come close to replicating the authoritative stature of Mahathir or the charisma of Anwar Ibrahim. To make matters worse, Mahathir himself pronounced publicly, as a way of chastising Anwar Ibrahim to the utmost, that leadership suitability must hinge on an impeccable moral track record. Critics and opponents of the party will take serious note of this. If moral turpitude can be used, it will be used to its gutter-worst, as a weapon of character assassination. As if it is not already the case!

The removal of Anwar Ibrahim has actually made Malaysians realise that the country is indeed short of an incorruptible, morally upright, intelligent, articulate, honest leader – a leader who is in tune with the demands for an open society and who is able to handle the pluralist voices of a multicultural society; a leader who is fearless about confronting new and challenging ideologies without resorting to repressive instruments; a leader who will firmly adhere to the rule of law. Anwar came close to filling in the shoes of such a leader, for some. For others, their adulation towards Mahathir for his brute decisiveness and warrior-like forthrightness debilitates their ability to think of a replacement not in his cut (or his clone as present vibes suggest).

The situation has become almost hopeless, with every single name mentioned in gossip circles (from Najib Razak to Tengku Razaleigh) only sparking comic cynicism among those trying hard to imagine if anyone of them can indeed fit the bill. If they are morally upright, they may be vacuous; if they are not vacuous, they could be morally tainted; if they do not have any skeletons in their cupboards, they may simply be inept or colourless at the job; and so on and so forth.A regional newsmagazine's recent write-up on the prospects of Razaleigh becoming a probable successor exposes a very peculiar side to this man. His office is said to be an exact replica of the Oval Office of the White House, and he is waiting for the right moment to preside.

At least Musa Hitam had the gumption to leave his job as Deputy Prime Minister back in 1986 and subsequently even had the humility to withdraw from active politics. With hindsight, one can almost admire him for leaving behind all the chicanery of a Vision 2020 administration to those with fewer scruples to spare.

In a recent interview with Mingguan Malaysia (1 November 1998) he had this to say: "My feeling is that so long as we are able to give the space and the freedom for individuals to express a second opinion and subsequent opinions thenceforth, that is for how long our credibility as a leader will be guaranteed... I am of the opinion that an attitude which falls short on tolerance and the inability to accept criticisms have triggered many of the political crises we have had leading to what we are witnessing of late."

Well-chosen words in times like this, but will he be able to leave any imprint on his embattled party, which he professes to still love and would not want to see "...face any problems in the coming general elections"?

Whither Renewal?

UMNO's dominance is tied to the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Looking at the achievements of the NEP, we see its numerous contradictions. While a few personalities have benefited from it by amassing enormous wealth, there are many more who are only living off the crumbs of the newly rich. But one thing is for sure: the NEP (for better or for worse) has forced a dramatic upheaval of lifestyles upon a large cross-section of the Malay community. One manifestation is that scores have migrated to the cities and adopted urban lifestyles; they are bound to think differently from their forefathers.

This new middle-class is endowed with the privilege of education and may even visualise a kind of personal and identity change that goes beyond the NEP. In opposition to the mantra of obedience and loyalty that is supposed to underscore Malay political behaviour, the chains of apathy and indifference are slowly being broken. Whether this is expressed through Islam, youthful rebellion, or plain intolerance of injustice, these people are making their most articulate political statement yet.

In the wake of the present political crisis, the UMNO that used to writ large over the Malay sense of survival is losing its appeal as the unequivocal saviour. Is the party addressing or responding to this groundswell of indignant voices? Will the present UMNO Baru make way for a newer UMNO Baru (as some seem to think that UMNO just needs to be reformed from the inside)?

Short of a massive upheaval, UMNO can only remain in power if it does more of the same, i.e. employ its usual tricks of the trade: continue to use money politics in a massive way to buy votes, manipulate the opinions of voters through unabashed control of the media, back big businesses in quid pro quo deals, uphold the semblance of a multiracial image by cultivating the other partners in the Barisan Nasional coalition and simply countering the opposition by unscrupulously raising the spectre of political instability, unrest and extremism, besides denying other civil rights such as freedom of speech and assembly for potential contenders. It seems like an easy formula to continue using, that is, if voters want more of the same.

However, the outwardly calm mood at the recent UMNO Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) held on 13 December 1998 was not able to conceal that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark".

The president's speech was not impressive, at least not to thinking minds. But, for a besieged president of a beleaguered party, raising the spectre of foreign domination can always be relied upon as a ploy to justify the party's survival. This he did, shamelessly, to the point of illogic.

The UMNO EGM was predictable to the casual observer. There was no mayhem, just the usual compliance and demonstration of consensus among its delegates. All of the proposed amendments to the constitution were approved, save for two innocuous proposals. The party is looking like a lost dinosaur - strong only because it is big. Its leadership struts around like the naked emperor, all the while believing that it is clothed in the finest of attires.

There is no one around, who is not beholden to the emperor, untainted or innocent enough to blurt out the truth of the observation. It looks like the party will go on, perhaps even form the next government, and we will continue to foot its hefty bill.