WHICH WAY FOR UMNO?

After the Malaysian polls, parties must embrace new competition in policy-making

Ooi Kee Beng

THE remarkable results of the Malaysian general elections of March 8 almost certainly mean that the country’s politics has changed forever.
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Five states are in opposition hands and the government has lost its two-third majority in Parliament.
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At the individual level, a sense of empowerment is widely felt in the northern states that fell to opposition parties.
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Even supporters of Barisan Nasional (BN) parties such as Gerakan, which governed the state of Penang for 38 years, are pleasantly surprised by the sense of relief felt in coffee shops and on the streets.
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With this change in political climate comes a mindset shift. Suddenly, a concept of “new politics” has appeared in contrast to “old politics” and to the discourses that emanated from the race-based system of the BN.
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Public enthusiasm has entered the political arena in a way not seen in decades. This is evidenced by the sharp increase in membership that opposition parties have experienced over the last month, as well as by the sudden rise in popularity of all the newspapers in the country.
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The strategic thinking of all of Malaysia’s political parties cannot but change to accommodate this.
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Where the opposition parties are concerned, the main challenge is to avoid disappointing voters. This is easier said than done for a variety of reasons.
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First, state power is restricted by federal authority, and the depth at which state level reforms can go is in many areas consequently dependent on the goodwill of the central government.
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Second, the competence of their elected officials may not be what it should be, given how suddenly their former fate of being the eternal opposition was changed on March 8.
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Third, there is an inevitable disconnect between what voters think the new state governments should achieve and what these governments wish to achieve or are capable of achieving.
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But given how bad the state of governance was perceived to be before the elections, the public is bound to exercise patience with the new governments.
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Member parties of the ruling coalition, on the other hand, are having a harder time adjusting to the new terrain. On the peninsula, most of them saw their strength radically diminished, even to the point of eradication.
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The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which had been growing in dominance within the coalition ever since it was formed, now must rely on support from East Malaysia to stay in power.
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Umno is thus in crisis again. The last time that happened was in 1998, when Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who was Prime Minister then, sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim. The subsequent revolt — the Reformasi — saw Umno suffering defeats at the hands of the opposition in the 1999 elections.
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A decade before that, Umno’s crisis involved being declared illegal in the aftermath of a political clash between Dr Mahathir and Mr Razaleigh Hamzah.
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Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was Umno’s highly-successful answer in the 2004 general elections to reverse the anti-Umno swing among Malay voters.
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By 2008, however, the answer had become the quandary. The same old names are back in the fray. In that context, Mr Anwar is the one who has most successfully reinvented himself and is now better placed than any of the others to decide the direction of Malaysian politics.
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His achievement of getting the opposition parties to work together has been much more significant than most had expected before this year’s polls.
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Umno’s dilemma goes much deeper than merely a bad election. For one thing, the vehicle on which the party depends to stay in power is the BN. That coalition is looking very weak, making its claim of representing all races through its race-based member parties shaky indeed.
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For another, its contention of representing the Malay community is no longer tenable. With the Parti Keadilan Rakyat now the largest opposition party in Parliament, the Malay vote is split three ways.
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In declaring multi-racialism and social justice as its goals, Keadilan has captured the urban middle-ground among all the races. Its Islamic ally, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), in toning down its rhetoric on the Islamic state, has made major inroads into Umno territory, making it acceptable to non-Malay voters for the first time.
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Umno is thus losing discursive relevance more quickly than it is losing political power.
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With a grand battle for the party presidency approaching, and Mr Abdullah’s position weakening, Umno’s future has to go in one of two directions.
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First, it can persevere for a return of its former glory and defend its badly-discredited techniques of patronage. To do this, it must rely heavily on its East Malaysian allies and retain the racialist character of governance. This conservative option will meet less resistance within the party but is also short-sighted in its ambitions.
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Its second and more long-term option is to adapt to “post-March 8 politics” and to accept the fact that its dominance has been broken for good.
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It may still be the biggest party for now, but it can no longer take that status for granted.
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There are signs that Premier Abdullah is trying to respond to popular demands for change.
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He is doing this by honouring judges sacked for dubious reasons — although without apologising to them — by deciding to form a judicial commission and by wishing to make the Anti-Corruption Agency an independent body.
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With four parties actually running state governments, it is inevitable that the essence of the “new politics” will be one of policy competition.
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In the foreseeable future, Umno, PAS, Keadilan and the Democratic Action Party must act with the full consciousness that voters are watching and are endlessly comparing them one to the other.
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The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. His latest book is Lost in Transition: Malaysia Under Abdullah.

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