Thursday, November 20, 2008

BN’s power play

by Ng Boon Hooi
20 Nov 08 : 9.00AM

Bullying giants

IN George Orwell's novel Animal Farm, there's a line about how all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. The same could be said about the component parties in the Barisan Nasional (BN).

The BN is made up of 13 disparate parties — five based in the peninsula, and the rest in Sabah and Sarawak — with Umno, the MCA and MIC forming the backbone of the coalition. This formalised power-sharing agreement helps ensure that the various voices are heard and the interests of the different ethnic minorities are represented.

But Umno is the dominant force in the BN, taking the lion's share of leadership positions in the government by virtue of it representing the Malay-majority populace.

This has resulted in some component parties complaining of being sidelined in the decision-making process. The BN formula of mutual cooperation, it seems, doesn't always work.

During the 55th MCA general assembly on 18 Oct, outgoing president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting raised eyebrows when he said the BN has to reform to resolve the perception that Umno dominates over the other component parties in the ruling coalition.

Despite an almost immediate denial by BN chairperson and Umno president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the "Umno bully" theme seems to have struck a nerve among the component party members.

The MCA and Gerakan leaders have blamed some Umno leaders' actions and perceived arrogance over the past few years for the results of the 8 March general election, which saw the non-Malay vote bank defecting to the opposition.

The imbalance of power within the BN is recognised, if not articulated, by other component parties as well. And if so, can anything be done to address this issue?

Rebalancing the BN

Newly-elected MCA Youth chief Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong (right) believes that there is room for discussion within the BN. He tells The Nut Graph that the MCA Youth has always spoken up regarding whatever issues they disagree with, such as the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA), and bumiputera equity.

However, unlike many of the delegates at the MCA assembly in October who were very critical of Umno's dominant role in the BN, Wee prefers to focus on how best to re-balance the relationship between the component parties by overhauling the coalition.

"BN should not operate during election campaigns only. BN should have a system [in place] from central to state and local levels. The coalition members should hold regular meetings so that they can enhance understanding, and avoid making decisions and statements that conflict with one another," says Wee.

Wee, who is the deputy education minister, also has high hopes that regular BN supreme council meetings can be held to rectify whatever imbalances of power that exist within the coalition.

"It would change the perception that Umno has a dominant role. Umno should let people see that BN represents a multi-ethnic and multilateral approach [to decision-making], and not be seen as a homogenous party," he adds.

United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) president Tan Sri Bernard Dompok also believes that regular meetings can help to give more voice to the component parties.

He says that there's no need to hide that Umno speaks louder in the BN as the party has the most seats in parliament (79 out of a total of 222 seats).

"We have to fight every step of the way in every issue that we bring up at the BN meetings. We try to get BN to improve [in getting consensus for decisions]. [It's] not easy, we are not denying it," explains Dompok in an interview.

No need for change

But the idea that the BN needs to reform or that there needs to be change in the political balance does not meet with Umno Youth exco Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir's approval.

Mukhriz, for instance, is firm in his belief that there is no real need for changes in the BN format, as called for by the outgoing MCA Youth chief Datuk Liow Tiong Lai during the wing's annual general assembly on 18 Oct.

As for bringing about a better balance of power between the parties, Mukhriz says it all depends on how the component parties present their views and whether it is brought up at the right forum — for instance the BN supreme council meeting.

But Mukhriz also tells The Nut Graph that it is also not fair for the other component parties to divert the responsibility for their problems, including the poor showing during the 8 March elections, to Umno.

"[The allegation that Umno is arrogant] is not the only issue, so how could it be possible to dump everything on Umno?" asks Mukhriz, who is vying to become Umno Youth chief at the party polls in March 2009.

Equal footing?

Though the BN supreme council now meets more regularly, it is not yet apparent how successful it can be in ensuring that all the component parties have an equal footing in fashioning government policy.

Who dares to challenge Umno's dominance within the BN?

The MCA and Gerakan have been the most vocal in lamenting the lack of consultation in decisions made by the government, especially over the ISA detentions that took place on 12 Sept 2008.

Yet, despite both parties passing resolutions at their respective general assemblies, neither party was willing to risk government displeasure by signing an opposition-initiated petition against the ISA in Parliament.

The choice of whether or not to make a stand against a government policy or statement by a senior Umno leader actually lies with the individual leader, says Dompok.

As an example, he points to the memorandum submitted by nine non-Muslim cabinet ministers in January 2006 calling for a review of laws to resolve religious disputes that affect the non-Muslims. After Umno leaders objected, eight of the ministers subsequently withdrew their endorsement of the memo. Only Dompok (left), who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, had the guts to refuse.

A year later, Dompok once again broke ranks with his cabinet colleagues by speaking out against Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak's remark about Malaysia being an Islamic state. The fact that he still remains in the cabinet is proof that some amount of criticism at least is tolerated within the BN.

Both Wee and Dompok note that the coalition is slowly responding to criticism about being overly dominated by Umno, and that some changes, such as regular surpreme council meetings, are under way. But Umno must do more to accommodate its smaller partners.

"US now has the first black president, but our country is still talking about ketuanan Melayu. In Sabah we don't have 'tuan'. The last 'tuan' left in 1963," Dompok says.

Gaining leverage

There has been some change within the BN power structure after the coalition lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. With the opposition Pakatan Rakyat needing only 30 MPs to cross over to topple the government, the smaller component parties, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, have been able to speak out more forcefully.

This has especially been the case for Upko, which has four representatives in Parliament.

For example, Upko took a strong stand against the proposed Petronas gas pipeline project from Kimanis, Sabah to Bintulu, Sarawak, which the party said would not benefit Sabah. Angered by the prime minister's decision to go ahead with the project, Dompok hinted at a possible review of the party's position in the BN.

Amazingly, the threat worked. The cabinet agreed for Sabah to have its own petrochemical industry using the bulk of the state's oil and gas resources, while excess oil and gas can be piped to Bintulu.

The incident showed that it is possible to gain leverage over Umno within the BN, at least in the present political climate.

"I don't think that it is [a] question of using the leverage, but [finding a way of] working within the family of BN," Dompok says.

But whether the other component parties, such as the MCA and Gerakan, can find a way to get their views accepted without doing something similar remains to be tested.

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