Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Post-mortem necessary for Umno to understand March 8

OCT 22 - Immediately after the surprising results of Malaysia's March 8 general election became official, there was a rush by journalists, analysts, academicians, laymen and politicians – though apparently not from the ruling BN – to study the preceding months and to make a list of the things that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's people did or did not do that caused things to go so seriously wrong for them.

Since then, many books have appeared, and continue to appear, on this subject. The questions are simple, even if the answers cannot be.

How did the BN go from holding 90.4per cent of parliamentary seats to having only 63.1 per cent in four short years? How did the oh-so-dominant Umno manage to lose 28per cent of its federal seats?
Also, how could the other BN parties on the peninsula do so badly as to lose 51.6 per cent (MCA), 66.6 per cent (MIC), 80bper cent (Gerakan) and 100 per cent (PPP) of their strength?

Most interestingly, what do these figures say about the internal dynamics, and the public perception of, the ruling coalition?

The first sign that the establishment was not going to dig too deeply to identify the problem came when Abdullah, under pressure from the likes of former premier Mahathir Mohamad to resign, instead of generously taking blame for the results, declared on March 10 that "we are all collectively responsible for all that we have been doing because the government has been making decisions on the basis of consensus."

In line with this distancing stance, he stated that the BN – and not Umno as such – would set up a body to carry out a post-mortem. No further information about what such committee has been doing has been made available.

Former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, strongly concerned about what he saw as a serious crisis for Umno, sent an open letter on 12 March to all 193 division leaders, pleading for an emergency general meeting to be convened to discuss the party's worst election results in history.

The Tengku was right in focusing on Umno as the body where reforms were most needed. As he pointed out, Umno once controlled two-thirds of Parliament all by itself. Today, it has 35.6per cent of the seats.

Supporting Umno has obviously gone out of fashion among young Malays. Is that Umno's fault, or is that everybody else's? His plea to the divisions fell on deaf ears.

Seven harrowing months later, it is time for analysts to make another list, this time to explain, not what Abdullah's people did wrong before March 8, but why they stay mired in reactive mode.

The recent decision to ban Hindraf was shocking for what it revealed of the establishment's inability of understand the country's socio-economics, and its reliance on old solutions to solve problems it does not even care to understand.

Certainly, Anwar Ibrahim's incessant taunts at the government had something to do with it. But he was able to do that because Abdullah was not doing enough to inspire confidence among his people.

That is now the job of his heir apparent.

If it had been brought home to Umno and the BN that government arrogance, the lack of reforms and the breaking of promises on reforms were the cause of their troubles, then adequate measures could have been taken to encourage its supporters. That did not happen.

Even now, when Abdullah has been forced to leave by March 2009, he continues to promise reforms.

But sadly, a reform deferred is a reform denied. There is only so much disappointment a voter can take, before he starts looking elsewhere.

To be fair, there was an attempt – perhaps half-hearted, but still an attempt – by Abdullah to revamp his image. On March 18, he presented his new Cabinet in which was included the much-respected lawyer from Kelantan, Zaid Ibrahim, as minister in the Prime Minister's office in charge of the judiciary.

Abdullah also relinquished his Internal Security portfolio, giving it to Syed Hamid Albar, who was moved from Foreign Affairs to Home Affairs.

Since then, Syed Hamid has made himself a very unpopular person by invoking the hated Internal Security Act to arrest blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, opposition politician Teresa Kok, and Tan Hoon Cheng, a young journalist. Raja Petra remains in custody, while the Teresa Kok case threatens to escalate into an inter-ethnic issue.

Syed Hamid's recent move to ban Hindraf is incomprehensible because it does not promise to solve any problem at all, aside from giving police more excuses for arresting Indians angry with the system.

It was his use of the ISA that led to Zaid Ibrahim leaving the government in protest, badly disheartening government supporters who had been hoping for substantial reforms to the judiciary.

Abdullah's government is therefore no longer championing – even rhetorically – any open agenda for reform. It should have listened to Tengku Razaleigh, and perhaps it could then have stopped undermining its own legitimacy. - The Malaysian Insider

About the Author:
The author, Mr Ooi Kee Beng is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is Lost in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah (SIRD & ISEAS 2008).

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