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A 5-day orgy of sound and fury

 | December 6, 2012

Nothing substantive came out of the recent Umno assembly.

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Many followers of the news must be relieved now that the silliest season of the year is over.

Umno delegates spent five days at their annual meeting straining their throats with meaningless rhetoric, noisy battle cries and hilarious claims about their party’s importance in the life of the nation.

They even risked blasphemy. An unwritten resolution of the meeting is that the morally challenged party is God’s own. Umno’s founding fathers must have turned in their graves.

Some of us might have excused the criminal waste of time, newsprint and airwave if only a fraction of the delegates had made some intelligent observations about the current state of Malaysian democracy or questioned how far Umno had gone in president Najib Tun Razak’s transformation programme.

But this is what we have come to expect from Umno since it became Umno Baru in 1988. And it has only gotten worse with time.

Can Umno continue to survive in the rapidly changing Malaysian political landscape, where even schoolchildren can see through the hollowness of its rhetoric? Can this self-proclaimed protector of the Malay race and religion withstand the demands of a generation awakening to the call for justice, human rights and the rule of law?

“No,” says Malaysian scholar Maznah Mohamad, who now serves the National University of Singapore as a senior research fellow at its Asian Research Institute.

According to her, Umno might change only if it were to lose a general election.

Some of the more sentimental among Umno’s critics would have us believe that the pre-Mahathirian Umno was a vastly different party, that it was a great champion of democratic values. This is not entirely true. The party’s attempt to redefine democracy to suit its interest can be traced back at least to Tun Abdul Razak.

“So long as the form [of democracy] is preserved, the substance can be changed to suit the conditions of a particular country,” the Tun once said.

That “substance” has been changing ever since. Today, as some cynics would put it, it consists of nothing more than “Umno supremacy”.

Umno used the May 13 tragedy to strengthen its position within the system. “This government,” Tun Razak said then, “is based on Umno and I surrender its responsibility to Umno in order that Umno shall determine its form, and it must implement policies which are determined by Umno.”

Fast losing its appeal

This remains true today in spite of the fact that Barisan Nasional, which theoretically holds political power, is made up of 13 different parties.

Nevertheless, it was during Mahathir’s years at the helm that it became starkly obvious that Malaysia was sliding rapidly away from universally accepted democratic values. An overwhelming number of pundits blame him for Umno’s accumulation of legislative, executive and judiciary powers in its hands.

Without such powers, it could not have become the springboard for wealth that has so attracted the greedy to its midst.

“The attraction in joining Umno is still that it’s a sure ticket to a plum appointment or business contract because there isn’t anything idealistic in Umno today,” Maznah Mohamad told the Singapore Straits Times.

“Sixty years ago, it was about wanting to help the Malays, but that is not so today because Malay rights and privileges are already guaranteed in the constitution.

“If Umno pays you RM300 a month to deliver letters to its branches, that’s enough to pay, say, the loan on your motorcycle. So Umno is more like a job than a party at the end of the day.”

Unfortunately for Umno, RM300 is not enough anymore, now that the letter deliverers are beginning to learn how much the members of the elite are making. In this age of the social media, it has become difficult, if not impossible, for those at the top to hide their tastes for luxury homes, cars, jewellery and handbags.

It should therefore not surprise anyone that Umno is fast losing its appeal even among the Malays, particularly the urban poor and youths.

There is indeed a transformation taking place, but not the kind Najib expounded at the recent Umno assembly.

Stanley Koh is a FMT columnist. He is the former head of MCA’s research unit.


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