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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"916" Not A Failure

First posted on my SEEING IT MY WAY column, Malaysiakini.com, September 24, 2008

“916” Not A Failure

When (it appears less of an “if” now) Anwar Ibrahim takes over the government, he will face the monumental twin problems of undoing the damage wrecked upon our institutions as well as containing the inevitable implosion of UMNO.


Failure in either would effectively doom Anwar, Pakatan, and Malaysia. The good news is that both challenges could be handled simultaneously through the same strategy, and with the subsequent success benefiting all.

The blight on our institutions and governmental machinery, as well as the urgent need to rectify it, is well appreciated. Less recognized is the need to manage UMNO’s certain breakup.

For those who venture that UMNO’s fate is the least of Anwar’s (or our) concern, consider this. The tumultuous and unpredictable demise of the Soviet System may have ended the Cold War, but the world paid a severe price, one that could have been mitigated had the breakup been more orderly.

The world is still paying the price. There is the recurring nightmare that the Soviet’s old nuclear warheads might fall into unscrupulous hands. Those still unconvinced of the price being paid, just ask the Georgians and Ukrainians.

UMNO dominated Malaysia for over half a century; its implosion too will have unpredictable fallouts. If not skillfully managed, the consequences on Malaysia would be on a scale similar to that inflicted on Eastern Europe by the collapse of the Soviets.


Unity of Purpose

Even if Anwar were to secure substantially more than the 31 promised crossovers in Parliament, his government would still be a coalition of political parties with diverse and often opposing ideals. Besides, the parties have had only a very short experience of working together, not to mention their equally contrasting and conflicting personalities!

Anwar could learn much from his predecessors. In the 1950s, the distrust among the races was even greater, yet Tunku Abdul Rahman was able to forge an “Alliance” (the name of his coalition) of UMNO with the Chinese (MCA) and Indian (MIC) parties.

He was able to overcome their considerable differences by focusing on the few agreed-upon objectives, among them the sharing of political power and seeking the end of colonial rule. Each party had to make considerable concessions to secure their common goals.

It helped that those early leaders genuinely liked each other, having shared their formative years together as students. They knew each other’s families and attended each other’s social parties. Consequently they harbored considerable personal goodwill towards each other that eased their inevitable policy differences.

Anwar successfully used his awesome political skills to make his coalition partners concentrate on their commonalities and less on their differences. Before the elections he made them focus on a singular objective: denying Barisan its supra-majority. He succeeded, and then some. In governing, Anwar should similarly emphasize the twin objectives stated in my opening statement, and only on those two.

Anwar is also gifted with many of the charms and warmth of the Tunku. It is no mean feat to have Hadi Awang and Lim Kit Siang share the same table! Anwar should continue using that special talent not only on his Pakatan coalition leaders but also across the aisle. He should consider his earlier tenure as an UMNO leader an asset, and leverage that to foster greater cooperation with its leaders.

He must adopt the personal philosophy of President Reagan: party politics stops at 5 PM, and once you cross the border. The Republican Reagan used to invite the Democrat Speaker O’Neill over to the White House in the evening to share a glass of Irish whiskey. Reagan would also include many Democrats in his overseas trips.

Differences in policies and philosophies will always be there, but these ongoing social relationships would help lubricate those differences and prevent them from reducing us to shrill denunciations of each other.

If UMNO Youth leaders could play regular golf tournaments with their PAP counterparts, then surely Hadi Awang could listen to sermons by Abdullah Badawi, and vice versa.

Ramadan is a splendid opportunity for such social interactions by inviting non-Muslim fellow leaders in and out of Pakatan to a community iftar. Others include the wonderful Malaysian tradition of “Open House” during festive seasons. These would provide excellent occasions for our leaders to socialize with each other, and more importantly, to be seen doing so. Such public gestures of goodwill would percolate down.

Government of National Reconciliation

Anwar could also take a leaf from another illustrious predecessor, Tun Razak. Following the May 1969 riot, Tun Razak formed a government of national reconciliation by inviting all parties to participate in his much-expanded Barisan Nasional.

Anwar need not necessarily expand his coalition but he could tap outstanding members from UMNO and other Barisan parties for his cabinet. American presidents often have in their cabinet individuals from the other party, for example, Republican William Cohen serving under Democrat Bill Clinton.

Undoubtedly Anwar will encounter resistance from his side, especially those who consider ministerial appointments as the spoils of war, to be distributed only among the victors. To help overcome this, Anwar must select only the most capable from the other side. This would also demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy.

There will be resistance too from across the aisle, as evidenced by their refusal of Penang Chief Minister Lim’s offer. Used to the culture of corruption, they would consider such good faith gestures as attempts at corrupting their members. To overcome that, appeal to their sense of patriotism, that this would be a national service. Also reassure them that they would still maintain their party affiliation.

One leading candidate to offer a cabinet position would be Zaid Ibrahim. His commitment to reforming the judiciary matches that of Anwar and Pakatan. Another would be Tengku Razaleigh, unless of course he wins UMNO’s Presidency this December. His intimate knowledge of the economy and wide business experience would reassure the nation. There are a few other promising candidates deep in the belly of UMNO Youth who have not yet succumbed to the corruption culture of their party.

Anwar should cast his talent net wide and deep. There are many highly capable Malaysians in academia, the professions, and private sector. A note of caution; they may have the knowledge and executive skills but they often lack the necessary political polish. However, a brief tutelage by the master should equip them well.

Inevitably there will be those over-exuberant members of Pakatan who would like to punch the final nail onto Barisan’s (UMNO specifically) coffin. Resist the temptation. Pakatan’s folks should value the importance of a viable and vibrant opposition. Relishing the collapse of Barisan or UMNO would not be good for anyone.

Unlike many, I do not consider the uneventful passing of “916” a failure. On the contrary, Anwar is wise in being cautious and not stubbornly adhere to some artificial, self-imposed deadline.

After over 50 years of domineering rule, UMNO’s imprint is strong everywhere, in the civil service, academies, military, and even the private sector. Overcoming these considerable institutional inertias would be formidable. Go easy; let those operatives get used first to the idea of change.

Anwar’s assurance of no “witch hunting” is appropriate and timely. Perhaps he could have a “Truth and Amnesty Commission” comparable to Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Inquiry to ferret out corruption and abuse of power, granting amnesty to those who voluntarily come forward. Apart from saving the nation’s precious resources in trying to investigate and prosecute, we might also learn something about the underlying mindset and culture. The educational value of such an exercise would definitely be much more than any high-profile punitive prosecution.


We do not need a tumultuous or worse, an unexpected switch. That would be disorientating, and can be destabilizing. Instead, let the existing establishment be the first to get fed up with the present power struggle and ensuing uncertainty. Then they would be begging for someone, any one, to take charge!

There is no need (as well as unwise) to involve the palace; it may come back to haunt you. Instead wait for the palace to beg Pakatan to take over! If nothing else, there is more class that way. Similarly, dissolving Parliament and calling for fresh elections would not go well with the electorate. Citizens would not welcome yet another season of politicking and campaigning; they want the mess cleaned up! I am certain the palace is aware of voters’ sentiment.

I would prefer that UMNO and Barisan collapse from within rather than through Pakatan’s instigation. Pressure, yes, but not instigation. The difference between the two? Salesmanship, and thus public perception.

Be patient, the infighting will intensify; UMNO and Barisan will implode. When that happens, be ready to pick up the pieces. Malaysians would be grateful to Pakatan for doing so. However, if Pakatan were to initiate the downfall and in the process trigger political instability, it would not endear itself to citizens. Public perception is supreme.

This is a time to tread carefully. UMNO’s leadership convention will come soon enough this December. Relax and enjoy the expected fireworks. Like an overripe durian, UMNO will fall. Be careful that you are not underneath it when that happens. Stay to the side; it will be yours for the picking when it falls under its own weight.

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