MINISTER of International Trade and Industry Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin says Umno needs to reform or it, and by extension the Barisan Nasional (BN), may perish by 2013.
He is spot on, but what kind of reforms does Umno need to undertake? What has gone wrong with Umno and the BN?
For people like Muhyiddin, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and most critics of prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the problem is the individual in power. Change the person in charge, and the party will rejuvenate. Nothing can be changed without a change in leadership first.
This writer begs to differ.
The electoral one-party state that Umno has built and defended virtually since Independence is the disease, the leadership only its symptom.
The perils of an electoral one-party state, part one:
The one-party state was built on the false premise that this multiethnic nation can ill afford political competition, or “politicking” as Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the late founder of the BN, liked to call it.
Fleshing out the BN’s discourse on communal unity and power-sharing, its ideal Malaysia is one where every community unites to support the respective BN component party that claims to reciprocate support for the community, i.e. Malays support Umno, ethno-nationalist Chinese support the MCA, ethno-nationalist Indians support the MIC, “multiracialist” Chinese and Indians support Gerakan or the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and East Malaysian communities support their respective parties.
In such an ideal world, in the virtual absence of opposition parties, contestation of ethnic interests takes place within the grand coalition.
How is intra-party negotiation à la the BN superior to open and free inter-party competition?
The short answer — power sharing. There will be winners and losers in inter-party competition, whereas within the BN there are only bigger and smaller winners.
Even if the junior partners do not get much in policy concessions, they can count on some perks such as ministership, senatorship, local councillorship, government projects, licences, permits, scholarships and low-cost housing projects to be distributed among party leaders and members.
Similarly, to keep the winners playing this game of power sharing, their gains — both in policy and perks — must be greater than the costs of having an open competition.
Hence, a reminder: the centrality of political and economical patronage is clearly the antithesis to transparency and accountability.
The perils of an electoral one-party state, part two:
Perpetuation of ethnic politics
Theoretically, the more successful a component party is in an election, the greater bargaining power it will have within the government.
Hence, elections are turned into a race among component parties in a coalition to mobilise popular support for the regime.
At first glance, the mechanism looks perfect because any component party’s success will increase the legitimacy of the regime.
The catch is: what’s in it for the electorate to play along in this game? The answer would have to be the latent threat of other BN component parties and the ethnic communities they represent.
In other words, the reasoning is that Umno/Malays must remain a threat to the Chinese for the latter to vote MCA, and conversely the MCA/Chinese too must remain a threat to the Malays for them to vote Umno.
(This was why then-Bukit Bendera Umno chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail was so furious that the Chinese press reported on him calling the non-Malays “squatters” and “immigrants”. His remarks, to him, were exclusively catered to the Malay constituents.)
If the BN parties treated all Malaysians as equals, there would be no fear factor that would drive voters to choose them.
The raising of the keris raised the fears of non-Malays
(Source: Wikipedia.org)And because the BN parties are trapped in this intra-coalition zero-sum game, their intra-party competition also rewards, and produces, ethnic champions.
(This explains why Umno Youth chief Datuk Hishamuddin Hussein needed to raise his keris for three consecutive years despite representing a parliamentary constituency with a 51% non-Malay composition.)
The perils of an electoral one-party state, part three:
Suppression of freedoms
Given its internal contradictions, the electoral one-party state that is built on patronage and mistrust is simply untenable in the long run.
It is extremely vulnerable during economic hardship since patronage will be short in supply. This explains Umno’s two schisms that followed the economic recession in the mid-1980s and the financial crisis in the late 1990s.
Besides the flawed electoral system and processes which denied the opposition a hopeful future, the electoral one-party state was saved thus far mainly through suppression of civil and political liberties and the taming of the judiciary.
If only Malaysians were allowed to think freely, non-ethnic cleavages — economic left, centre or right, pro-business or pro-environment, moral conservative or liberal — would have developed much more successfully to fragment watertight constructions of ethnic identity and paved the way for multiethnic politics.
But why do we take the suppression of our freedoms lying down?
The coercion by the state is widely seen as a lesser evil compared to the eruption of ethnic riots. It is no coincidence that the 13 May riots preceded the formation of the BN which then rejuvenated the electoral one-party state.
In this sense, it is sad that the Ahmad Ismail saga may have provided the pretext for more regulations on thought and speech.
How Abdullah has wronged Umno
Abdullah did not build the electoral one-party state. He merely inherited it from Dr Mahathir, who expanded it and made it more authoritarian during his 22-year reign.
In fact, Abdullah won the 2004 elections by a landslide because many believed he would open up the system. He was a pragmatic alternative to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim when the latter was languishing in prison.
However, many Umno leaders today blame Abdullah for being too soft on the opposition and civil society. The truth is, if he was not seen as Umno/BN’s answer to Anwar, he could not possibly have won 64% of the popular vote and a 91% parliamentary majority.
If Mahathir had chosen to stay on or had picked Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak in 2004, the political tsunami might have happened even then.
With the maturing of its citizenry (thanks ironically to Dr Mahathir’s authoritarian rule), the advancement of technology and the pressures of globalisation, Umno’s electoral one-party state has simply outlived its shelf life after the turn of the millennium.
It is time to transform Umno into a competitive party, which will likely prolong its rule for perhaps another 10 years.
Will Abdullah be a victorious reformer like Taiwan’s Lee Teng-hui, or an
unwitting failure like the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev (left) or
Indonesia’s BJ Habibie? (Public domain. Source: Wikipedia.org) If Abdullah had courageously used his 2004 landslide victory to reform Umno, he could have been a Lee Teng-hui rather than a Mikhail Gorbachev or a BJ Habibie, whom some in his inner circle worry he has become.
In a way, Lee was luckier than Abdullah as his farsighted boss Chiang Ching Kuo had kick-started Taiwan’s democratisation process before passing the baton in 1988. But it was Lee who went on to introduce direct presidential elections in 1992 and won the next two terms to extend the Kuomintang party’s rule by eight years.
Abdullah, however, has not reined in his party warlords to reform the system.
The backlash on the Lingam tape, electoral corruption and marginalisation of ethnic Indians, all of which led to a resurrection of the opposition after the Ijok by-election and eventually the perfect storm on 8 March — this was the price Abdullah had to pay for doing nothing.
Abdullah was a failed reformist. And this is how he wronged his party. But was there anyone more reformist than him at the time when he came to power?
The inconvenient truth
Umno indeed needs to reform now, but perhaps not for the reason Muhyiddin has in mind — which is to win the next elections and survive.
Rather, Umno needs to reform in order to survive after losing the next polls.
Because it is almost impossible for Umno/BN to win the next elections, whether they are held next month, next year, or in 2013. Non-Malay voters will not go back to the BN. Neither will East Malaysians. And can you expect Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS to lose their grip on their share of Malay votes?
The inconvenient truth for Umno/BN is that it should prepare to survive as a credible opposition after the next election so that it may make a comeback, perhaps in 2018.
Like a strong castle that is hard to conquer but easy to defend, its electoral one-party state — built on patronage, ethnic politics, and suppression of freedoms — will work against it once the castle falls into the hands of the Pakatan Rakyat. It’s better to dismantle the fortress sooner rather than later.
Am I crazy to call on Umno to embark on democratisation? No, because losers always need and cherish democracy more than winners. The challenge is: How do you get a party that sees governing power as its birthright, to admit the inconvenient truth?
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.