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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.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Looking For The Next Ex-UMNO Leader

Looking For UMNO’s Next Ex-Leader

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

At a recent gregarious social gathering a colleague, whose luck in personal relationships could best be described as challenged, was teased on whether she was scouting for her next ex-husband! With the current frenzied UMNO divisional nominating meetings, I am tempted to ask a similar question of its members. Are they too looking for their next ex-leader?

If there is any lesson UMNO members should have learned is that the way they pick their leaders needs to be revamped. By now they should have realized the devastating consequences of the “no contest rule” for the two top positions and the onerous nomination quota system, as well as the equally atrocious track record of any one leader (no matter how seemingly wise and brilliant at the time) in anointing his or her successor.

There are indications that this reality is now gradually sinking in, at least on the brave and perceptive few. Thus far that is all there is, only a realization, and nothing more.

Shahrir Samad, cabinet minister and UMNO Supreme Council member, called for “a generational change” in his party’s leadership. He viewed UMNO as becoming overly bureaucratic, with heavy emphasis on seniority and hierarchy. At age 58, Shahrir considered himself too late and too old to go for a top post.

Whether that is a statement of reality or merely an undisguised expression of lack of confidence on the current generation of leaders is for Shahrir to clarify. Both Najib Razak and Muhyyidin Yassin, leading candidates for the number one and two slots respectively, are of the same vintage as Shahrir.

If Shahrir was expressing his low opinion of current UMNO leaders, then he is on to something. There are no jantans among them. In the current leadership fiasco they have chosen to remain quiet and dutiful until it becomes quite obvious that their leader has become the butt of jokes. Only then did they finally dare speak up.

Of course there are exceptions but few, and Shahrir is not among them. The caliber of present UMNO leaders, in the cabinet as well as the party’s Supreme Council, is such that were they to see their leader stark naked, they would more likely compliment him for his nice tan instead of throwing a sarong at the hapless man!

Among the few and ready exceptions are Tengku Razaleigh and Zaid Ibrahim. The Tengku saw through Abdullah very early on and challenged him for the leadership. Only the onerous burden of the quota on nominations prevented Ku Li from contesting; the same hurdle that may confront him now. Zaid Ibrahim remains the only Malaysian minister to have resigned over a matter of principle.

There have been many ministerial resignations in the past, as Abdullah’s dutiful spinmeisters in The New Straits Times pointed out in an attempt to soften the impact of Zaid’s action. What those media supplicants pointedly failed to differentiate is that all those earlier resignations were essentially forced upon or out of shame.

Incidentally neither the Tengku nor Zaid is on UMNO Supreme Council. That speaks volume as to the caliber of individuals attracted and voted to the party’s top leadership.

The current frenzy of divisional nominating activities is likened by that keen observer of UMNO politics, Kadir Jasin, to the behaviors of passengers stranded on the freeway by their broken-down chartered bus. In their desperation, they are less interested in the comfort, safety or reliability of their replacement vehicle, only with reaching their destination on time. They reason that once they get there they could then leisurely shop for a better and more comfortable substitute for the return trip. It would never cross their mind that in their haste and less-than-prudent choice now, they could end up in a ditch or worse, before reaching their destination.

Soon after Abdullah assumed power and was searching for a deputy, I suggested that he picked Tengku Razaleigh. As both are at about the same age it would be unlikely for the Tengku to pose as a potential succession threat. They would also complement each other in skills and temperament. Together they could then revamp UMNO so as to attract fresh young new talent and then completely bypass the current crop of ineffective and parochial leaders as represented by Najib, Hishamuddin and Muhyyidin.

Had Abdullah done that his fate today, as well as that of Malaysia, would be far different! It is still not too late for him to recoup. As President he could summon a special General Assembly of UMNO specifically to dismantle the nomination quota. In so doing Abdullah would effectively undo one of Mahathir’s less-than-laudatory legacies.

Abdullah would effectively make the current nominating exercise mute, and simultaneously open up the party elections. That could prove beneficial especially if his son-in-law were to be unsuccessful in securing his quota of nominations, which now appears increasingly possible. Abdullah would also then have the great pleasure of watching Najib Razak desperately scrambling to fend off a strong challenge from Tengku Razaleigh. There is little love lost between Najib and Abdullah, and that single maneuver would be the perfect finale from Abdullah to Najib: Don’t get mad, get even!

Muhyyidin the Meek

Recently Muhyyidin had been incessantly clamoring for change in UMNO’s top leadership. Much earlier, as head of the party’s committee tasked with changing its rules, he was forceful in advocating removing the current nomination quota system. On meeting a not-unexpected resistance from Abdullah, Muhyyidin readily yielded.

Now with the man he is rooting to replace Abdullah slated to win san competition, Muhyyidin has chosen to remain uncharacteristically passive. He even urged all divisions to unanimously nominate Najib Razak as party president, and only Najib, as a “show of party unity.” Quite a remarkable and considerable shift in position, and a very quick one at that! Obviously Muhyyidin is banking on riding Najib’s coattail to the top, and doing so unopposed! As an aside, someone should now ask him what he thinks of the nomination quota system.

With that tantalizing prospect, Muhyyidin is now pathetically reduced to mouthing sycophantic praises for Najib, claiming, “I have no doubt that I will work very well with Najib ….” As a preview of the kind of leader he would be, Muhyyidin reassured everyone that he “would not dictate policies.” Rather as Deputy President, his is “to support and follow whatever directions and visions the president has spelled out.” In short, a glorified office boy in the highest office of the land!

Muhyyidin does not see a higher responsibility to the party or country; his loyalty is strictly to the president, a latter-day Hang Tuah. Thankfully thus far he has refrained from dripping his keris with ketchup in defense of Najib.

Muhyyidin was the chief executive (Mentri Besar) of Johor for a decade before Mahathir “promoted” him to the federal level. In the UMNO scheme of things, a mentri besar is a major “warlord,” certainly more so than a minister, especially for a state like Johore. Back then he grabbed headlines in a regional publication over his tussle with a foreign developer with substantial holdings in his state. I believe firmly in the ability of individuals to change, for the better as well for the worse. My retelling this old story is merely to temper the fast growing enthusiasm for him shown by local commentators.

Najib No “More Bettah!”

Assured of being unopposed for the top slot, Najib wisely chose not to be a part of this emerging attempt at setting up a mutual admiration society with Muhyiddin, declaring that he (Najib) “has not decided if Muhyiddin would be his running mate.” That is quite a rebuff! Najib went further and remarked “the more the merrier” when others like the double Muhammad Taib declared their intention to seek the number two position to compete directly with Muhyyidin.

However, when Perlis UMNO Youth leader Ismail Hashim had the temerity to consider competing directly with Najib, he (Najib) abruptly changed his tune, expressing doubt whether Ismail could even muster the necessary nominations.

Najib would like to have the top prize handed to him on a silver platter, as has been the pattern throughout his political career. To ensure that, Najib expressed his definite lack of enthusiasm for dismantling the current nomination quota rule even though his mentor and champion Tun Mahathir has called for it. Najib did not rule out doing so eventually, once he is gone!

With all his sordid baggage Najib is understandably sacred stiff in getting not only a formidable competitor in Tengku Razaleigh but also insignificant ones like Ismail Hashim. Najib is scared that Ismail would provide an avenue for protest votes.

Do not expect a change the UMNO’s leadership come March 2009, merely a change of faces. The insular attitude and feudal mindset behind those familair faces remain the same; likewise the corruption and incompetence. Unfortunately that would be bad for Malaysia, unless Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Rakayt were to be successful.

Meanwhile enjoy the spectacle of UMNO members now frantically searching for their next ex-leader. Try not to let your concerns about the future of Malaysia detract you from enjoying the frivolity!


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