The Cesspit of Malay Politics

The crisis that is wracking Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation, the country’s biggest ethnic party, is not the crisis of a sex and murder scandal. Not the crisis of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s heart attack. Not the crisis of infighting between the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – Pak Lah -- camp and his predecessor’s interests.

This is a deeper crisis of a party that has been in power for 50 years, more than long enough to be totally corrupted by power. This is the crisis of 30 years of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which has brought some gains to most Malays but above all lots of gains to the same narrow group who control the political levers.

In Malaysia, the NEP – or at least the manner in which it is implemented – creates a double moral jeopardy for those in power.

Look at the sorry state of the leadership. No one can seriously suggest that Mahathir, old, angry and sick, is fit to return to office to resurrect his combination of authoritarianism, dynamism and money politics, his brand of making Malays into billionaire capitalists through special favors. Nor can one seriously suggest that Pak Lah is up to the job, though given the alternatives currently available his brand of honest inaction may be the best the country can hope for.

The collection of individuals who might replace Pak Lah should his political enemies or ill health catch up with him is disturbing to put it mildly. There is scant sign of leadership of any sort but plenty of evidence of UMNO money politics. As for the most obvious successor, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, it may prove difficult for him to shake off his association with the man at the centre for now of the current scandal, Abdul Razak Baginda, who is helping the police in the investigation of the gruesome death of a Mongolian part-time model on whom he reportedly lavished money and who her relatives accuse of having fathered his child before she was killed.

Anwar Ibrahim? Perhaps his years in jail have humbled him, made him realize the value of freedom and tolerance, appreciate that power can come from moral leadership as well as money. Perhaps too he is willing to put his heart and soul into the creation of a Malaysian Malaysia where politics is more about economic and social issues not race and religion. But who knows?

Some yearn for earlier times. Names such as Musa Hitam and Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah come to mind. But Musa, 72, was a nice guy from the grass roots who never quite had the stomach for a big fight. And the aristocratic Razaleigh, though still only 69, may be remembered not merely for his achievements running Pernas and Petronas and as a youthful Finance Minister (“father of the Malaysian economy” as he was dubbed by sycophants) but for pioneering money politics and rumors of his deep entrenchment in the Bank Bumiputra scandal of the early 1980s, which cost the Malaysian treasury more than US$1 billion. But these all seems giants compared with the men in Pak Lah’s cabinet.

Whoever was actually responsible for the murder and dynamiting of the body of the Mongolian model, this is only the latest of a long string of scandals involving senior establishment figures, whether it is sex with under-age girls or travel with suitcases full of money.

Baginda himself is not a politician in the formal sense of the word. But his so-called think tank, the Malaysian Strategic Research Institute, was more of an international propaganda arm of both UMNO and the Malaysian armed forces. Baginda has only medium intellectual weight (a master’s degree in War Studies from the University of London and a fascination with Winston Churchill) academic credentials when, in his early 30s, he became head of the institute when it was set up in 1993.

But Baginda does have connections, most notably to Najib. He is also endowed with a quiet charm, a command of language and has been at ease not just in UMNO circles but with the foreign journalists who came knocking on his door in Jalan Ampang seeking intelligent-sounding comments on the political issues of the day.

He has steered a diplomatic course through UMNO factionalism and presented the government/Najib view in moderate and quotable terms. A quick Internet search attests to how often he has been quoted in the foreign media, most recently in Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune on October 29, and by Bloomberg on October 21, on the subject of the Mahathir-Pak Lah war of words. He is also a prolific writer and editor. He penned a book in praise of the Malaysian Armed Forces, published by them, and numerous other works published including “Malaysia and the Islamic World,” a collection of essays he edited and with a forward by Najib.

The unassuming political analyst has been in reality very close to the centers of power, which may explain why members of an elite branch of the police became involved, in some as yet uncertain way, in the affair of the murdered alleged ex-mistress.

But the much bigger issue for Malaysia than this tragedy is the general behavior of UMNO elitists. Power and wealth have dulled their moral sensibilities. Thus ministers who in their personal lives take scant notice of the teachings of Islam make a political song and dance about religion to try to retain credibility with the Malay masses and fight off the challenge of Pas.

Thus supposedly urbane, educated, cosmopolitan younger leaders like kris-waving Hishamuddin Hussein (son of former PM Hussein Onn) and NEP-forever Khairy Jamaluddin (son-in-law of Pak Lah) resort to the crudest racial issues to maintain their credibility with Malays who may wonder why these upcoming leaders mostly seem to be related to past or present ones. The rope that Pak Lah has given to the bright but arrogant and immature Khairy also surpasses belief. He may yet be hanged by it.

Meanwhile other leaders see nothing wrong in money politics within UMNO. Buying votes is an internal matter, part of the game and nothing to do with the public! So the public are expected to be happy that their representatives’ opinions are for sale! And don’t bother to ask from which particular corrupt deal member X made Y millions in order the buy the vote of Z.

Nor should non-Malays in particular question the behavior of leaders of the race. The fact that most of Malaysia’s leaders have been only partially of Malay stock – Indian, Thai, Turkish, etc origins come to mind – is quietly forgotten as UMNO chiefs play the race card at every opportunity with phrases of racial supremacy that sound borrowed from South Africa of the apartheid era.

The notion of Malaysian identity, of mingling of the races to create a Bangsa Malaysia (Mahathir’s 2020 vision of a Malaysian nation) is publicly ridiculed by UMNO politicians desperate to remain aboard the gravy train of Malay privilege, collecting jobs and shares and fees without having to work for them.

The UMNO elite lack an adequate sense of shame or of the morality, public and private, and non-racialism of Islam. The fruits of 50 years in power and 35 years of the NEP are sweet for them and bitter for the unprivileged 90% of all races. That is the crisis of UMNO.