Thursday, April 24, 2008

Umno still in dreamland despite wake-up call

April 24, 2008

By Karim Raslan
AS SOMEONE with a long family tradition linked to Umno and who counts many party leaders among his personal friends, the results of the last general election came as an enormous surprise to me.

Initially, I found it almost impossible to believe that Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) could have secured five state governments.

I was concerned about their ability to manage these states as well as about the potential impact of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's leadership: Could the leopard change its spots?

Prompted by these concerns, I hit the road to interview the new political players, to find out for myself what they are like. I must admit that the leaders of the new opposition states have impressed me with their seriousness and integrity.� �

Even more eye-opening was the company I found myself in when I ventured out of my privileged Damansara Heights eyrie. Descending one night into gritty Puchong, I ended up at a vast election thanksgiving dinner sitting around a table with DAP chairman Karpal Singh and his colleagues.

What a difference one day's vote can make. I never thought that I would one day end up sandwiched between DAP leaders. But as the physically weakened Mr Singh was wheeled in, and I saw the warmth and admiration with which he was greeted, I got a sense of how 'connected' the opposition coalition's leaders are to Malaysians at large. �

Compare that to Umno's and Barisan Nasional's (BN) leaders. What are we to make of the back-biting, racialist chest-beating and general turmoil that have beset the ruling party since the elections?

I'm beginning to wish that BN had lost on March 8. Because it held on to power, the ruling coalition is still deluding itself that it will be business as usual. It appears to feel that it can continue to rule without a total overhaul of its policies and principles.� �

Umno leaders should be learning from Asia's other, once dominant parties - Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT), India's Congress and Indonesia's Golkar - which lost office but were able to reinvent themselves and regain power. The KMT in particular should be a sterling example to Umno. The parallels between the two parties are startling. Both led their respective people to self-governance. Both oversaw tremendous economic growth, but at the cost of spiralling corruption and autocratic leadership. Like Umno, the KMT lost power in an election, but its defeat was complete whereas Umno's was not but should have been. After 50 years of rule, the KMT was defeated in Taiwan's 2000 presidential election and suffered the further indignity of being routed in the 2001 legislative polls. �

The Nationalists, however, looked themselves in the mirror and did what needed to be done. They took steps to dismantle the business empire that the KMT had acquired through decades of patronage. They also broke many policy taboos that would have been unthinkable under Chiang Kai-shek.

By contrast Umno, after the election result, is dealing mainly with the superficial - blogs for MPs, say, or outbursts against ungrateful voters. The substantive - namely whether or not the party should pursue a more multiracial future - is being ignored.

Several Umno leaders like Datuk Razali Ibrahim and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin have tried to place this issue on the agenda. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has also surprised many by calling for Umno to become a 'supra-ethnic, national party' that deals in a just manner with all Malaysians regardless of race while still defending its 'traditional vision'.�

These leaders recognise that Umno has to move either to the 'right' - embracing a more Malay nationalist and Islamist ethos - or to the 'left' - to garner votes from the multiracial 'Middle Malaysia'.

To my mind a push to the right would be disastrous for the party. Umno can never hope to defeat PAS on its own turf. Moreover, in pursuing the nationalist and Islamist vote, Umno would destroy its chances with the larger vote-banks in 'Middle Malaysia'.�Sadly, while Malaysia has changed, the party of 'Merdeka' is still locked in a time warp, regurgitating credos about Malay rights and power. What party leaders do not seem to want to acknowledge is that their monopoly of the Malay vote is gone - forever. Their arrogance and smug complacency have repelled large chunks of the community. The community has become too diverse to be represented by one political party and this is why the PKR and PAS were able to reap the electoral harvest. �

The burden of history and the party's own failings are preventing Umno from regaining the Malay vote, much less the support of 'Middle Malaysia' - the world that slipped its grasp on March 8.

Umno and its leadership do not seem to have realised that a broader, non-communal approach could well regain for BN much of what is currently under opposition control. The party is trapped in the arrogance and rent-seeking that cost it so many votes. One wonders if a defeat on the scale that the KMT suffered would be the only thing that could truly shake up Umno. Is it possible the strong medicine Umno needs to save itself is a good four or five years on the opposition benches?�

The writer is a Malaysian columnist.

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