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Sharing The Nation

Published: Sunday December 7, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday December 7, 2014 MYT 7:20:06 AM

It was business as usual

WE have heard it before. After the debacle of the 2008 elections when Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds majority and four additional states, the then Deputy Prime Minister ominously warned Umno to “change or perish”.

Of course, we all did not hold our breath and Barisan went on to do even worse in the 2013 general election. For the first time ever, they lost the popular vote although they still returned to power, but with a reduced majority.

Now it’s the turn of the current Deputy Prime Minister to warn Umno members yet again to “change or be dead”.

But who really is listening? Certainly, in content and tone the debate at the recent Umno general assembly did not provide voters with any indication or hope that Umno is capable of change to win back the support it has lost in successive elections.

It was, as many said, “same old, same old” debates and the de riguer threats – from “liberalism, pluralism and secularism”, to threats from people who supposedly attack “Islam, the Sultans, the national language, the NEP” all rolled in one breath, and threats from “oh, those forever ungrateful Chinese”.

And then, of course, the same old demands for more handouts and economic assistance for the Malays. And nary a curious squeak as to why a Malay dominated government that has implemented affirmative action policies for over 40 years, with billions, if not trillions, spent on bumiputra empowerment and economic advancement plus dozens of accompanying policy instruments, have still failed to address the needs of those left behind and build the resilient commercial and industrial community as envisaged.

Why is there still so much relative poverty in this country? How come 75.5% of the bottom 40% of Malaysian households earning about RM1,847 a month are bumiputras? In spite of the billions poured into education and special boarding schools, how come 64.3% of the bumiputra workforce have only SPM qualifications? Of the RM54bil worth of shares allocated to bumiputra individuals and institutions between 1984 and 2005, how come only RM2bil remained in bumiputra hands?

These are serious issues that should have been debated at the Umno general assembly, instead of asking for more handouts without gravely analysing the weaknesses, failures and leakages in the implementation of the New Economic Policy - based on facts and figures, not emotions. This dismal lack of critical self-examination when the party is at a “do or die” crossroads can’t represent an Umno serious about wanting to change to bring back the popular support it has lost.

Forty-six percent of Malay voters in the 2013 general election did not vote for Barisan. Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the party deputy president, gave a dire warning in his closing speech - that just a 2% swing in votes will cost Barisan to lose power.

Forty-four of the 133 Parlia­mentary seats Barisan currently holds are regarded as “grey” seats where the party won by a mere majority of between 0.1 and 5.9%. Without new initiatives to appeal to the electorate, Barisan will be in a “precarious position”, he said.

Indeed. But the big news that came out of the general assembly was that the Sedition Act will stay, nay be expanded to include more issues that the rakyat have no right to question, criticise, or demand reform. What a lost opportunity. Instead, Umno told the electorate that the Prime Minister will renege on a major promise of his political transformation programme to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with National Harmony legislations. This is business as usual. Not a change agenda!

From the late Tun Hussein Onn, to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to this current Prime Minister as he prepared to take over in 2009, the call for change had been heard over and over again at Umno general assemblies. But year after year, it just has gotten from bad to worse, with no political will nor courage displayed to bring about the painful changes needed. Too many have been on the gravy train for too long to have the willpower to return to pangkal jalan (return to their roots in order to start again).

I met a few Umno leaders who were at the general assembly who said they cringed listening to the speeches and the non-debates. They felt they were in a sinking ship.

Then why didn’t you and people like you in Umno speak out, I said.

One said, “Are you kidding me? I speak out, I turn my back, no one is behind me.”

That must be part of the budaya ugut (culture of threats) and budaya pak turut (culture of blindly following the leader) at work within the party that Muhyiddin mentioned in his speech as to the reasons why young people told him they were not attracted to Umno.

For someone like me who has observed Umno politics for decades, it is really déjà vu. My heart sank after the 2006 Umno general assembly, watching the belligerent and supremacist language in full display on live television. A party that until then had prided itself as the bedrock of centrist politics in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia presented an extremist face to Malaysians.

I wrote then that those belligerent speakers, fed on months of inflammatory and orchestrated propaganda of “Islam and Malays under threat”, thought they were reflecting the mood on the ground. Little did they realise that the mood had already shifted and that they had actually lost ground. Two years later, the 2008 elections bore out this shifting voter mood.

A new prime minister came in to stem the loss of support and supposedly bring back Umno and Barisan to the right path. But the long list of grievances remained unresolved, nay, they extended. The rakyat spoke their minds again through the ballot box.

The indicators were actually all there as early as 2010.

A Merdeka Centre survey that year found that 70% of Malays felt the main threat to the Malay political position in the country was due to corruption among Malay leaders. Only 22% said it was due to demands made by other races in the country. Forty-five per cent of the Malays surveyed believed that government assistance programmes only benefited the rich and politically connected. A significant 40% of Malays believed that citizens should be treated and accorded the same rights in Malaysia, regardless of race and religion.

Malaysia has changed, the Malays have changed, but Umno remains trapped in a time warp. The disconnect continues to widen between its shiok sendiri (self-indulgent) world where it believes that everyone should forever be grateful to Umno, and the rest of Malaysia.

Instead of demonising liberal democracy, human rights, women’s rights, liberalism, and pluralism, it behooves the Umno leaders and their followers to wake up to the reality that these values and principles constitute the dominant ethical paradigm of the 21st century.

Umno has no one else to blame but itself that most Malaysians no longer see it as the protector of the Malay race nor as a centrist party that underpins Malaysia’s political stability and prosperity in collaborative partnership with other parties in the Barisan.

> Zainah Anwar is co-founder and former executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS Forum) and the co-founder and director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She is a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Umno, Sedition Act

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