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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, November 23, 2008

UMNO Crippled By Institutional Inertia


Notwithstanding the high hopes and exhilarated expectations of many, especially its members, the upcoming UMNO leadership elections [now deferred to March 2009] will not bring any change to the party. There will only be the changes of faces, nothing more. The party is crippled by institutional inertia; it is incapable of self-renewal, of making the desperately needed reforms to meet the changed environment.

All institutions suffer from some degree of inertia; that is how they maintain stability and continuity. The law of inertia, otherwise known as Newton’s First Law of Motion (“A body in motion tends to remain in motion, a body at rest tends to remain at rest.”), is not the curiosity of physics, it is also applicable to social systems.

The reason is obvious. Those currently benefiting from the status quo would vigorously resist attempts at change. The promised gains from any change will remain just that, a promise, and only a potential until that change is successfully accomplished. Meanwhile the loss is being felt right away whether the change is successful or not.

For another, the beneficiaries of the current system, while may be small in number, clearly see their self-interest linked with maintaining the status quo. They will be vigorous beyond their small numbers to resist change. Meanwhile the likely beneficiaries, even though they may be more numerous and even be the majority, are diffused. They have yet to be convinced that they would benefit from the change. Even if it could be shown that they would, they first would have to be convinced that the change would be feasible. Otherwise they would not risk investing their stake (personal and otherwise) to bring about the needed change.

Such an asymmetric dynamics will remain so until the later stages when the whole system would break down (or threaten to) and everyone would be the loser.

This is the perennial dilemma plaguing those charged with formulating public policies.

To its members, UMNO is not yet at that final stage; it will be inevitable come the next general elections, if not sooner. It lost significant power in this last elections but the magnitude of that loss has not registered on the members and leaders because they still maintain a simple majority at the federal level despite major losses elsewhere.

To UMNO, the last election was an aberration, not a portentous defeat, the harbinger of future collapse; hence the lack of a sense of urgency.

Re-Branding Instead of Re-Engineering

At the last UMNO Supreme Council meeting, the party’s governing and policymaking body, the leaders were preoccupied with “re-branding” the party. The assumption is that there is nothing wrong with the organization, only it is being wrongly perceived by voters. Hence the preoccupation is not with reforming the organization, rather with public relations exercises.

The millions spent by the party’s Youth and Puteri wings to set up cyber-troopers and UMNO-friendly websites reflects this mindset. When that did not work, party operatives did not re-examine their assumptions. Instead they assumed that they were right all along and re-directed their efforts towards intimidating and censoring individuals, organizations, publications, and websites they deemed hostile to UMNO in the hope to neutralize if not eliminate them. The jailing under the ISA of Malaysia-Today’s Raja Petra is part of this nefarious scheme.

This search for a convenient scapegoat, somebody or anybody to take the blame for the party’s recent electoral debacle, has also turned inwards. To me the surprise was how quickly the blame landed squarely on its leader Abdullah Badawi. After all, this was the leader who right after the last elections claimed that he still had a “victory.” Even more remarkable, his assertion was supported by everyone in the party, barring a few brave dissenting souls like Tengku Razaleigh.

Abdullah is without a doubt an inept, incompetent and far-from-incorrupt leader. His earlier “Mr. Clean” moniker is now a cruel joke. Though necessary, getting rid of Abdullah will not solve UMNO’s problems.

The party has yet to address the fundamental issue of how such a clearly untalented individual could have risen to its pinnacle of leadership. Thus far it has failed to do that.

UMNO’s biggest structural impediment to adopting reforms is its inability to attract new talent. This is due to three major factors. First is the concentration of power within the party, made worse by the coupling of party with governmental positions. State party leaders are also division heads, Supreme Council members, and heads of the party’s many wings. In addition they may be in the cabinet or holding senior government positions. Such a concentration of power not only breeds corruption in the party as well as in the government but it also inhibits the nurturing of fresh leadership talents.

Dismantling the system so party leaders are not allowed to hold more than one position would immediately open up many leadership channels, and a chance to preview new talents. A leader cannot be a division head, wing chief, and a Supreme Council member all at the same time, except in an ex-officio capacity. Nor should party leaders (except for the president) be appointed ministers. Decoupling party and governmental positions would also make these leaders more effective. It would also provide some rudiments of checks and balances, at least within the party. Besides, it is tough enough being a Youth leader without at the same time leading the Ministry of Education. You cannot do justice to either simultaneously.

The second impediment is that the current election system heavily favors incumbents. The glacial change in UMNO’s leadership matches only that of the old Soviet Politburo! Mahathir introduced this nomination barrier following his close leadership battle with Tengku Razaleigh back in 1987. It was meant to minimize divisive party politics, but the long-term price was high. Even Mahathir is now calling for dismantling it!

If the American Democratic Party had UMNO’s nomination system, it would not have discovered Barack Obama to be its presidential nominee.

The third deficiency is that there are no recruitments into UMNO at the senior levels. Its leaders all have to trek the ladder from the very bottom; consequently they are very insular and susceptible to dangerous “group think.” By the time they reach the top they are old and sclerotic. Many young and highly qualified potential candidates are too busy developing their careers to be bothered with party politics at the ground floor. Consequently those entering UMNO are those who by their own assessment feel that they could advance further and faster through UMNO than on their own. They are benefiting from and using the party, instead of the other way round. UMNO fails to attract the cream of the professions as they are too busy honing their skills.

The party provides for the president to “helicopter in” high profile candidates into its Supreme Council; he could appoint 10 out of its 40 members. No president save the late Tun Razak has wisely exercised this provision.

Looking at the crop of the next generation of UMNO leaders currently in its Youth and Puteri wings gives one little reason to be optimistic. Many are bright and talented, infused with generous doses of idealism – initially. Many professed their commitment to changing UMNO, but after being in the party, instead of changing the party they were changed by it. These young leaders are even more chauvinistic; they are hopelessly trapped in a warped time frame. They too are fond of the current system; this practically guarantees that UMNO will never grow.

The one bright spot is that at least UMNO Youth members collectively have yet to acquire the sheep-like mentality of their leaders. These youths have shown wisdom in nominating at least three candidates to lead their wing. They have not succumbed to the misplaced faith of their elders; at least these young members still believe in competition. Give them time, however!

Money politics, corruption at all levels, and continued factionalisms with various “warlords” exerting their controls are all signs of an organization unable to correct itself and incapable of self renewal.

The current leadership of UMNO is in no hurry to change the rules as they are clearly benefiting from the system. Besides, their mindset is already fixed; there is nothing wrong with UMNO, the fault lies with “them,” those outside the party. Consequently, expect the momentum towards UMNO’s implosion to remain unabated.

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