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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, January 18, 2009

Sharp Slap to UMNO Leaders

Sharp Slap to UMNO’s Leadership

M. Bakri Musa

The humiliation suffered by UMNO in the January 17, 2009 by-election in Kuala Trengganu, a seat previously held by one of its Deputy Ministers, is further proof that the party’s thumping in the March 2008 General Elections was the beginning of the end. Getting rid of its leader Abdullah Badawi will not alter UMNO’s fate; a future with Najib Razak will be no solution either.

The party is no longer salvageable; UMNO is now beyond redemption. Its leaders and members are incapable of appreciating and thus adapting to the profound changes now gripping the nation. As Tengku Razaleigh aptly put it when commenting on the results, “We are in uncharted waters with no one at the wheel.”

There are of course exceptions to the current lack of talent in UMNO’s leadership, but they are rare. Zaid Ibrahim had some sensible ideas on reforming the judiciary for example, but look what they did to him! Tengku Razaleigh’s speech at the recent ASLI economic conference was simply brilliant; he rightly pinpointed the major problems facing our nation and offered sensible strategies to approaching them. His was an insight and articulation Malaysians should expect of our leaders. There again however, he was essentially ignored by UMNO’s leadership hierarchy in his recent quest for the top slot.

In this by-election UMNO resorted to its old corrupt ways that had served it well in the past. There were the sudden announcements of generous public funds to key constituent groups as well as the usual co-opting of government agencies to do Barisan’s bidding. If those tricks were not enough, there was the literal stuffing of envelopes with cold cash for voters and reporters.

Judgement on Najib Razak’s Leadership

The victory by PAS candidate Wahid Endut is even more impressive considering that future (come this March) Prime Minister Najib Razak literally made his temporary home in Kuala Trengganu during the entire 11 days of campaigning, returning only briefly to the capital to take part in the Tahlil prayers on the anniversary of his father’s death.

Those voters viewed the upcoming transfer of power from Abdullah to Najib less a promise of better things and more a threat of the same tired corrupt and corrosive ways of the past. The political status quo would only further divide instead of bringing us together. Malaysians were rightly fed up with this.

Win or lose, this election would not alter the political reality; Barisan would still maintain its majority in Parliament. In perception however, this loss only reinforces my earlier “beginning of the end” and “beyond redemption” assertions of UMNO. Undoubtedly these were the reasons that compelled Najib to expend his political capital and risk his reputation by actively campaigning.

Ignored by voters, Najib tried to rationalize the outcome by dismissing it as a “minor setback” with “no impact on the national political landscape.” He was reduced to declaring that Barisan was “still relevant.” Pathetic!

I would have expected that as Finance Minister, Najib would be busy in Putrajaya dealing with the rapidly evolving global financial crisis now threatening our nation. Instead there he was in Kuala Trengganu acting like Santa Claus distributing candies to voters. They gleefully took the gifts, but being adults (and Muslims, at least most of them) they did not believe in Santa Claus, or Najib Razak.

These past few weeks reflect Najib Razak’s leadership priorities and sensibilities. Kuala Trengganu voters were rightly not impressed. Neither am I.

Greasing UMNO’s Slide

Come this March, Najib Razak will be the party’s (and thus country’s) leader. He will have as his deputy Ali Rustam, Muhyyiddin Yassin, or the Double Muhammad Taib, individuals with tainted pasts and less-than-impressive resumes. Sobering thought!

Barring divine or other intervention, this will also be the team that will lead UMNO and Barisan Nasional into the next General Elections scheduled no later than March 2013. UMNO has its leadership convention every three years; theoretically it could change its leadership before the next general elections. However, the party has a tradition of “no contest” for its top two positions and a past pattern whereby leaders would conveniently postpone the leadership convention till after the general elections.

That would be great news for Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Rakyat, further enhancing its chance of assuming power. This may occur even sooner if Barisan Members of Parliament, sensing the political change, were to abandon their parties. The shift could also come earlier if, as expected, Sarawak were to call an earlier election. Then there is the volatile political situation in Sabah.

The objective of any political party is in assuming power. Anything less and you will be relegated to the status of a perpetual fringe party. While that may satisfy the purists in your party, you risk being permanently dismissed by voters. The country’s political graveyard is littered by the ghosts of many such parties.

Then there is the crucial difference of being voted into office because of the positive choice of voters rather than their rejecting your opponent. Anwar Ibrahim and his fellow leaders in Pakatan Rakyat are fully aware of this. It is not enough for Malaysians to be fed up with Barisan Nasional, we must be sold on the promise and potential of a Pakatan Rakyat administration.

As leader of the party that is the centre of the political, racial and other spectra of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, Anwar has adroitly handled the many competing interests within his coalition by focussing on their commonalities and less on their differences. Differences there are, and they are many and consequential; they could potentially fracture the coalition. If that were to happen, it would crush the hopes of Malaysians long yearning for a change.

Besides, there are enough commonalities of purpose among the component parties of PakatanRakyat, from eradicating corruption and strengthening our institutions to reducing poverty and fostering economic development, among others. Ameliorate them, and you would have the cheers and votes of those currently advocating for an Islamic State, “Malaysia for Malaysians,” or Ketuanan Melayu.

Tackling each of these problems (and all must be addressed at once) would challenge the ingenuity of even the most enlightened and committed leaders. There is no need to harp on their differences. All these could be done without getting entangled with such highly divisive and emotional issues as hudud or special privileges. Besides, those slogans as “Islamic State,” “Ketuanan Melayu” and “Malaysia for Malaysians” have now become meaningless, having been corrupted to being code words for those with more sinister motives.

The corruption and incompetence of the Barisan coalition should motivate Pakatan leaders to focus on solving the glaring and pressing problems of our nation. That would be the sure way to power, quite apart from greasing the downward slide of UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition.


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