Sunday, April 13, 2008

Umno in paralysis, faces daunting task to regain broad support

The Malaysian Insider

KUALA LUMPUR, April 13 — Can Abdullah Ahmad Badawi or Najib Tun Razak or Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah reform Umno and help it recapture the support it once had with Malaysians?

Going by what has been said and done since March 8 by party leaders and the rank-and-file, the answer seems to be no. For that matter, there is little to suggest that any leader wearing Umno colours today will make much headway in changing how Umno members behave, how they view other Malaysians or the patronage culture that courses through the veins of most members.

The rot took root years ago and it could be years before humility unseats arrogance, and persuades them that there is a growing disconnect between themselves and the country they governed and developed for the past 50 years.

During the post-election session in Kedah and Penang this week, there was little evidence of remorse or reflection on the part of Umno division leaders on why Chinese and Indians or even urban Malays deserted Barisan Nasional.

Most of the blame was shovelled on Abdullah and his family. Because he did not deliver on his promises, the coalition was punished. Therefore, he has to do the right thing and step aside for Najib. A neat solution by party members unwilling to examine themselves more thoroughly, warts and all.

Abdullah has to shoulder the lion’s share by virtue of being the head of Umno and BN. But his inability to make the hard decisions on race and religion over the past few years can be traced back to his preoccupation with finding a solution that was acceptable to the Umno ground.

More often than not, the party’s position was an ocean away from what the rest of the country wanted. This was the case whether it involved appointment of judges or a policy decision to invite Volkswagen to take a stake in Proton.

For example, when he came to power in October 2003, he announced that he would encourage the open tender system. Within six months, he realised that it would have been political suicide to introduce widespread use the open tender system.

The Umno ground – fed on a steady diet of contracts for the past two decades – was revolting.

They also grew restless when non-Muslims questioned why their religious rights were being eroded and places of worship were being demolished.

In Penang this week, this intolerance towards other Malaysians was on display. One division said that the Federal government should stop all the mega projects in the state to teach those who did not vote for BN. He did not mention about re-inventing the party or how Umno needs to shed its arrogant skin and start working for the small man again.

Only heard throughout the post-election sessions were the concern that Indians and Chinese were flexing their political muscles and the challenge that presented to the Malay agenda.

Said a party official from Penang: “There is a growing sense in Umno that Chinese and Indian voters have been ungrateful. They have shared in the economic development of the country and then they supported the Opposition."

And yet, there is growing evidence that Election 2008 is not a one-off, an aberration. It is evidence of a gap between what Umno wants and what many Malaysians want. Surveys and focus group studies in the past week have shown that the New Economic Policy does not have much traction with younger, urban Malays.

They believe in the special rights of the Malays as enshrined in Article 153 of the Constitution but clearly not the NEP, which is viewed as a bank for only a small group. Another survey by the Merdeka Centre showed that an increasing number of Malays were quite prepared to vote across religious lines. Meaning they did not believe that they were traitors simply because they marked a cross next to the DAP rocket.

But in coffee shops and more formal post-election sessions, there is little acceptance that the new political landscape calls for the party to undergo a paradigm shift and become more attractive to all Malaysians. Not just its party members.

The Insider understands that even in Cabinet, the older Umno ministers are still clinging to the old ways, complaining about the leeway being given to the mainstream media after March 8, and griping about being given less time on television. Others are trying to block efforts to reform the judiciary.

In this climate of denial, can Umno reform? Even if Abdullah is forced to step down and Najib takes over, he will face a tough task of getting his party men to change. Why? Because many of them do not think that Malaysia has changed after March 8.

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