BN and Umno risk demise if they don’t change

The BN parties need a new narrative to address the pressing issues affecting people's lives

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Is there any hope left for the Barisan Nasional coalition and its dominant party, Umno, in particular?

These entities have been integral to the development of Malaya, later Malaysia, and held the reins of power for decades.

Yet where are they today? Is there a bright future for them?

Their future will depend on two key critical parameters – a new and enlightened leadership and a vision for the nation over the next five decades.

But the fact is, neither of these is present today. It is the same old leadership with the same slogans, which are only counterproductive.

The ‘socks’ controversy was an issue that could have given them political mileage. Umno could have met the MCA and devised a strategy through mediation and conflict management and turned a dire situation to their advantage.

They could have emphasised the Rukun Negara (National Principles), accepted the apologies and stressed that the matter related only to several socks imported from China. There was no malicious intent to hurt anyone’s feelings.

In they had done so, these parties, which are now part of the “unity government” would have not only defused the issue but gained respect for BN.

Instead, these parties, remain an ethnic ghetto with national unity far from their minds. Further, neither the MCA nor the MIC has the required self- respect to hold Umno to the highest standards. So, they sink with them.

Who would like to vote for such parties? There is a need to pull the electorate with you if you want to win democratic elections.

The Malay community is severely fractured, and many groups are playing the Malay card, using issues of race, religion or development.

The present level of political acumen within Umno is well below mediocrity. What is the use of doctorates when common sense is lacking?

Old mindsets

We need a new narrative and a fresh way of reaching out to the territories of Sabah and Sarawak. The agenda should cover economic development, employment, higher wages, increased growth rates, more meritocracy, inclusivity and a unifying invitation.

The ground has shifted, and neither BN nor Umno is addressing this reality. Instead, what we hear is still the language of entitlement.

As long as this continues, the Umno leadership will fail to unify the nation. You cannot prosper eternally at the expense of others, whether they are a class or a group.

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Turn the magnifying glass inwards and look at the injustice you are perpetrating. There may be short-term advantages necessary for balance, but if this continues for decades, it leads to decadence.

The nation has had positive discrimination for a majority community for over five decades. This is something rarely, if ever, seen in any other part of the world and for this length of time. Yet, certain quarters remain envious of ‘the other’!

Look at the scandals that have plagued the nation over the last three decades. Many among the elite have prospered, often at the expense of the poor.

Why are these questions not addressed by BN and Umno? This requires guts and the capacity to look at oneself, to admit mistakes and to make changes. The blame game is easy and effortless. Driven by envy, it may also be easily justified, but it changes nothing.

The late Onn Jaafar was a visionary ahead of his time: he realised that a race-based agenda could only go so far in meeting the needs of multi-ethnic Malaya. So he founded the Independence of Malaya Party in 1951, but it won only one seat in municipal elections the following year.

Today, with the lessons of the last five decades, we need a solid dose of honesty.

Corruption and excesses

Our society has endemic levels of corruption and our institutions have been compromised. The nation bears the hallmarks of a kleptocracy, with billions of ringgit lost – money that could have gone to meeting societal needs, especially in education, healthcare and other social services.

Vested interests have also exploited the New Economic Policy (and successive policies) for their own gain at the expense of the more deserving.

That said, these policies have not been an absolute failure. They have created a larger ethnic Malay middle class, with better educated and more informed Malays, many of whom have greater expectations in a globalised world. They are likewise frustrated with what has happened in recent years.

On the flip side, the nation has backslid into conservatism as a reaction to societal changes and to a religious stress on the next world, the hereafter.

While the progressives speak out as individuals or as part of civil society, political issues and controversies find a response from middle-of-the-road parties that are part of the “unity government”.

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BN and Umno have failed badly in drawing votes from the ethnic minorities, highlighting the polarisation in society. To ensure a future for themselves, these parties must change strategy and focus on national unity and inclusivity. Addressing key issues that will make a difference to people’s lives is the only way for them to win support.

Championing race and religion is the agenda of the past. You cannot solve the problems of the present by using the same mindsets of the past. It is sheer stupidity to expect different results.

You will only end up making the same mistakes, in the eyes of a more enlightened public. In a changing, more informed, interdependent world, the call is for a new outlook. We can no longer afford to be imprisoned under a coconut shell shouting race and religion!

There needs to be a ‘new adjustment policy’ to correct the excesses of the NEP.

If they fail to change, BN and Umno are digging their own grave. The next election may see the green wave (Pas and Bersatu) and Pakatan Harapan extending their share of votes at the expense of BN. Survival for BN and Umno requires proper planning with a fresh outlook and leadership.

Lessons and sacrifices

It is sad that this is currently missing. The narrative has to be different to manage the nation into the future.

Unless the rhetoric changes, BN will not secure any further votes from the ethnic minorities in the peninsula nor will it find greater affinity with voters from East Malaysia.

Identity politics denies respect for the other and evokes blame and hatred. Whether it is race relations in the US or the issues of apartheid in historic Palestine, the net result is a fractious society.

Look at Pakistan, a nation that played the religious card. Even East Pakistan fought a war and became Bangladesh, even though both nations shared Islam as their faith tradition. Pakistan is still Islamic while Bangladesh remains a secular state.

Another nation is Sri Lanka, which experienced a long ethnic civil war. The country’s then leaders looted much wealth and later, some of their assets had to be mortgaged to China. The ordinary people have suffered immensely as prices soared, and the country had to seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). So many people suffered until the race card could no longer be exploited.

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A nation like Malaysia has to learn from these lessons. If, after five decades, we have not experienced equality and fairness, then this is due to the failure of successive governments and their unjust race-based policies. Meanwhile, the elite have made it big, exploiting race to secure wealth for themselves.

Consider the immense hidden sacrifices made by many in Malaysia. Many parents had to send their children abroad, and when they returned to Malaysia after their studies, the young graduates found relatively few jobs available to them in the public sector. So their options narrowed to opportunities in the private sector in Malaysia. Talent Malaysia is a reflection of this failure to recognise young local talent.

Many of these young adults then went back to Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Had there been more opportunities in Malaysia, many of them would have gladly remained in Malaysia to be nearer to their parents. Today, even Malay students are opting to live in countries like Australia and New Zealand, not to mention the many working in Singapore. Think of the loss to the Malaysian economy.

The elderly parents later travel to these foreign countries to spend some months with their children, before returning home. As the older folks reach their twilight years in Malaysia, their children overseas miss being with them or find it difficult to attend to their needs from afar. Some of these children are even unable to return home in time for their parents’ last rites. For an idea of the numbers involved, 1.8 million Malaysians are eligible to register as overseas voters.

We have to move away from a race-based vision which distorts Islam and its magnificent vision of an inclusive, just and fair society. With all that the Malays now have under their control, can their leaders not exhibit leadership that is fairer, more ethical and inclusive?

Religious rhetoric without moral standards and principles is mere hypocrisy. This applies to believers of any religious tradition.

Will a ‘new’ BN and Umno step up to manage this changing reality – or will the old parties continue to flounder as they prepare for their ultimate demise?

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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K Haridas, an Aliran executive committee member, is the current honorary secretary of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia, chairperson of the Association For The Promotion Of Higher Education In Malaysia and chairperson of the Malaysian chapter of Initiatives of Change International.
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Balram Menon
Balram Menon
31 Mar 2024 3.55pm

Well thought out