Malaysia's Sclerotic Political Reality

Former Malaysia Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam shrewdly diagnosed the multiple diseases afflicting the ailing United Malays National Organisation, the country’s biggest political party and the leader of the ruling national coalition, when he talked to the press after launching a forum on Oct 22.

Musa said the party is "too introverted", its leaders preoccupied with self-interest and oblivious to the interests of the masses, and incapable of rectifying fundamental flaws such as corruption, poor accountability and abuse of power. As a result, the party has lost popular support.

Musa politely described this phenomenon as penyakit tua (old age sickness), but I think it will be more appropriate to call it Alzheimer's disease, as the state of corruption of the party has already reached a stage of no return.

Just flip the daily papers, and one reads stories of money politics in the run up to the party election galore. One senior UMNO minister was so exasperated by this rampant practice that he sarcastically suggested that party might as well auction its leadership positions by tenders. And the chairman of the party’s disciplinary committee Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen, who often admonishes party leaders against money politics, recently expressed shame over the hopeless state of corruption in party elections, as even informers on such corruption could reap bumper rewards from the corruptors, thus depriving the committee’s access to incriminating evidence.

In fact, election corruption in UMNO has been so ingrained – it has been practiced for more than two decades according to Rithaudeen – that a search in Google would show that “money politics” has become synonymous with UMNO.

When money and politics become so negatively intertwined, party leadership inevitably falls into the clutches of wealth-seekers and wealth-dispensers. This explains why UMNO lacks political idealism, and its leaders mired in mediocrity.

Abhorrent as such money politics may appear, it is however only the tip of the iceberg and symptomatic of a larger scourge that is destined to put UMNO to eventual oblivion.

Started as a nationalist party in the 1940s to unite Malays in their political struggles for independence, UMNO has seen prouder days as true nationalists when it worked shoulder to shoulder with other race-based parties to build the young nation. However, the watershed event of the May 13 racial riot in 1969 changed the course of history. Thenceforth, UMNO assumed absolute political dominance. As the famous saying goes "absolute power corrupts absolutely," corruption began to spread rapidly in the UMNO-dominated government in the 1970s. However, it was during Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's two-decade rule that the art of corruption was perfected and institutionalized and lifted to the high level that we are all familiar with today.

Mahathir was able to do all this, unscathed by law, because he had amassed vast dictatorial powers through numerous amendments to the Constitution and legislation of repressive laws. With such power, and with electoral victory guaranteed by playing racial politics, he subdued political dissent and subjugated institutions of state to serve party and personal interests.

Through sweeping privatization of state assets and through a policy of public procurement by private negotiation, party leaders and cronies were enriched beyond their dreams through political favoritism under the all-embracing façade of the affirmative New Economic Policy, giving rise to overnight millionaires and even billionaires in the process, aggravating income disparity within Malay society.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire hierarchy of UMNO was financially sustained through this largesse system. Remove the system, UMNO would have crumbled overnight. In short, Mahathir’s iron grip and race-backed rule was sustained through repression and corruption.

Then what about Abdullah Badawi's reign? He won an unprecedented electoral victory by promising to undo the evils of the Mahathir era, but he also suffered the greatest electoral set back four years later for failing to fulfill any of that promise. Now he is on the verge of handing over power to his deputy Najib Tun Razak, while promising to carry out a few reforms before he leaves the scene as his legacy to the nation. These reforms are aimed at improving the independence of the judiciary and the effectiveness of the anti-corruption and other law enforcing bodies.


But will UMNO allow him to do that? Highly unlikely. Pak Lah, as Badawi is called, himself knew as much, as revealed in his uncharacteristic outburst against clamours for him to make another shift forward of his retirement date, this time from March 2009 to December this year (the earlier shifts were from June 2010 to June 2009, and again from June to March 2000). Speaking to reporters in Kota Kinabalu on Oct 19, he angrily rebuked Minister of International Trade and Industry Muhyiddin Yassin, who had been at the forefront agitating for Badawi’s premature retirement and had just suggested the party poll be brought forward from Mar 2009 to December 2008, and asked:

"Is he (Muhyiddin) afraid of reforms? He doesn’t want to see reforms? Why must he frustrate reforms which have been yearned for by the people? The people have been angry with me for not honouring my reform pledges in 2004 when they gave me strong electoral support. ...Why must he make the suggestion now (to shift the party poll forward)? This means my reform efforts will be thwarted. But I will not step down until the reforms are carried out."

It looks like Pak Lah is fighting a lonely battle, as there is no political will among UMNO leaders to change the status quo.

One must realize that from UMNO's perspective, it is perfect logic for the leaders to resist any reform that would make the judiciary more independent and law enforcement bodies more effective. For who would protect the corrupt and the abuser of authorities, when judges and policemen become no-nonsense enforcers of the Constitution and the law? And without the complicity of these institutions, how could UMNO maintain its repressive and corrupt rule? The plain truth is that UMNO cannot possibly survive politically on a level playing field against its opponent in a democratic environment where rule of law is upheld.

Musa Hitam is of course right when he said that UMNO is trapped in the mindset of 20 or 40 years ago, when religious and racial issues reigned supreme in an UMNO politician's agenda. But time has changed, so have the people, including the Malays who had been the bedrock of UMNO's electoral support. The younger generation of Malays does not view UMNO with the same perspective as their parents. UMNO must prove it is capable of leading the country decidedly forward in this global environment before they would give their electoral support.

Exploitation of racial and religious issues is no longer a safe political trump card. With this trump card in question, and with no capacity to reform and evolve with the march of time, where can UMNO head to except political oblivion?

At this time of global financial meltdown not seen since the Great Depression of 1929, the nation is of course anxious how Malaysia can get through this storm without getting too badly battered. Is our political leadership up to the task of leading the nation safely through this rough sea? Are our institutions sufficiently competent to meet the anticipated challenge? Do our people have the skills and resilience to rise to the occasion?

Looking at how the Barisan Nasional coalition has been completely embroiled in intra-party and inter-party struggles for power and political survival of its own with scant attention to the external world, and its reluctance to cast off the race-inspired protectionism which is the main impediment to economic re-invigoration, the prospect ahead is bleak.