In Kurosawa Akira’s film, Ran, the great Japanese director unsentimentally had his Lear-like lord’s clan torn apart by paternal pride, fraternal fights and external enemies. Who among them – Umno, Mahathir and Abdullah – wouldn’t fear that scenario? Who among them can forestall it, wonders Khoo Boo Teik, in the final segment of a three-part series.
Such is surely not the best of all possible worlds for Umno, Abdullah and Mahathir.
Hard times for a party
Umno is morally exhausted. Its half-century trek from a historical mission of Malay nationalism to a corporate mission of Malay capitalism ended with the much (and often overly) discredited Malaysia Inc.
The party is ideologically hollow. Its so-called Malay Agenda has little vitality beyond the vested interests of the so-called Umnoputras. They can neither revert to the lean ‘spirit of 1946’ nor advance by the inclusive ‘vision of 2020’. The periodic scandals that mark the lifestyles of their unfairly rich and infamous don’t evoke ethnic pride in Malay achievement but popular revulsion.
Nor can Umno claim any more to be the source of hegemonic stability within the political system. Since the mid-1970s, the party has lain at the centre of every crisis or moment of destabilisation.
In 1976 the contrived ‘communist witch hunt’ nearly netted Mahathir. The Razaleigh-Musa fights of 1981 and 1984 deepened Umno’s factionalism. The 1983 Constitutional crisis pitted the party against the royalty. The 1987–88 Team A–Team B split engulfed the judiciary. The 1998 Anwar affair provoked Reformasi. The Mahathir-Abdullah spat foreshadowed the tsunami.
Only Umno leaders, busy jockeying for position, can’t see that theirs has become one of those political parties in the world that, having ruled too long, can only remain in power if there is socio-political inertia. Hence, they fall back on Malay unity, Malay rights, Malay royalty, or Islam to reassure themselves that they still bear the Malay Agenda.
But those are merely some facts of Malaysian political life, taken for granted, not programmatic or visionary offerings that can raise an external rallying point to stop the party from imploding.
The party’s sense of desperation is palpable since the conditions favour change, not stagnation. A multi-ethnic electoral rejection of the ‘one-coalition system’ long dominated by Umno has been growing since Gagasan Rakyat made the first stab at a ‘two-coalition system’ in 1990.
Slip sliding away
Meanwhile, Abdullah slips and slides, unwilling to pass on the reins soon but unable to master the situation quickly.
Hindsight shows him to be the kind of unremarkable figure that profits from a moment of crisis in which he’s only a bit player. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, who ever put ‘Pak Lah’ ahead of his contemporaries like Razaleigh, Musa and Anwar?
If not for Anwar’s fall, could Mahathir have conceived – if only in his own mind since Abdullah denies there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between them – letting Abdullah take power for one term?
Certainly figures like Abdullah have been known to rise to the occasion and stamp an accidental ascension to power with unexpected authority and brilliance. It hasn’t been so with Abdullah. Things slipped beyond his ken, his henchmen slipped out of control, and any hopes of glory he might have had slipped from his grasp.
After he departs, a dispassionate evaluation will remember his tenure for two moments, an April 2004 peak he didn’t fully deserve and a March 2008 trough for which he wasn’t solely responsible.
That leaves us Mahathir and the figure he cuts in these vexatious times.
Nearly 83, and combative as ever, Mahathir has reinvented himself as a blogger. Resurrecting the pseudonym and persona of his youth, namely, C H E Det the nationalist observer of the Malay world, he takes advantage of a medium that he had the wisdom and intellectual confidence to keep uncensored and practically free of harassment while he was in power.
From his bit of cyberturf, he wages virtual war against those – always lesser than him in politics and most other things – who have reduced him to a proverbial general without an army.
To that degree, a friend of mine may not be amiss to say, privately, that Mahathir now recalls the character of Shakespeare’s King Lear ‘at the end of his tether, near deranged’.
One wouldn’t say Mahathir’s deranged especially if one remembers that Reformasi types prematurely called him nyanyuk (senile) ten years ago. Yet one sees what my friend means.
Old Lear wasn’t entirely abandoned. He had a small faithful coterie about him but his time had passed for controlling the world around him.
That world turned topsy-turvy when, in the beginning, Lear imperiously disinherited one daughter out of suspicion, only to disown two others in the end when he awakened helplessly to their impiety.
For a political moral to the tragedy of Lear, we could ‘look east’ to Kurosawa Akira’s film, Ran. In the film, the great Japanese director unsentimentally had his Lear-like lord’s clan torn apart by paternal pride, fraternal fights and external enemies.
Who among them – Umno, Mahathir and Abdullah – wouldn’t fear that scenario? Who among them can forestall it?