By Stanley Koh, Free Malaysia Today
COMMENT When one Malaysian dreams alone, it remains a dream. But when all Malaysians dream together, it can become a reality.
For decades after independence, most Malaysians dreamt alone. But in 2008, more than four million of them woke up from a nightmare and voted for an opposition coalition.
But the nightmare is now recurring. Some of the sleaze that makes Barisan Nasional so contemptible has somehow seeped into the opposition parties. Their effectiveness – and even credibility – has come under question.
Should ordinary Malaysians and civil society unite to remove the muck and slime that is tainting our dream? Of course. But how? Perhaps we can learn something from an examination of the rot that gives BN its disgusting character.
Indeed, it does not take much effort to convince the ordinary Malaysian in the street that the BN rot has gone to its core. It has been unable to take any lesson from its 2008 setback.
BN is still dishonest and obfuscating. It is intent on preserving itself, but it does this not by trying to cure itself of its disease.
Instead, it demonises its opponents and covers up its own monstrosities through stereotyping, cheap publicity and denial of facts. It raises emotive issues, plays to the gallery and turns half-truths into absolutes. It tries to keep itself opaque and it shuns accountability. Its leaders are intellectually bankrupt; they do not even care how ridiculous they look every time they run to the police station to lodge reports against critics.
The castration of BN in 2008
Barisan Nasional’s popular votes fell from 4.47 million votes in 2004 to 4.08 million in 2008.
Analysts say this setback was due to a wide range of factors, many of them related. They have cited, among other things, massive corruption, rampant abuse of power, arrogance of leaders, unevenness of the electoral playing field, lack of credibility of the Election Commission, cronyism, nepotism, failure to control inflation, blatant abuses of natural resources and denial of human rights.
Even at the best of times, Barisan Nasional (BN) never garnered more than 65% of popular votes despite its two-thirds majority in Parliament between 1974 and the 2008 fall day.
BN suffered a serious electoral setback in 1969, and this led to the May 13 riots. It was then a coalition of three parties called the Alliance. After the setback, it worked to widen its support base, and on June 1, 1974, BN was officially registered under the chairmanship of Tun Abdul Razak.
It appears that the 2008 setback is also prompting BN to institute changes. However, the current chairman, Razak’s son Najib, does not seem to have the imagination of his father. We hear that BN will change the design of its logo. Is Najib trying to fix his badly damaged engine of his car by changing the tyres?
That engine went through 22 years of abuse with Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the steering wheel.
The authoritarian Mahathir concentrated power in his hands, instilled a herd mentality among his lieutenants and nurtured a patron-client relationship between Umno and the other members of the BN coalition.
With his belief in a distorted version of democracy – he called it “guided democracy” – he gave the nation a political physiognomy.
In a blog article last year, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah recalled the constitutional crisis of 1993 and asked:
“Is today’s Umno, with its inconsistent adherence to the rule of law, its inconstant respect for the key institutions of our country, a credible or effective defender of the Rulers and of the laws upholding this institution? Or do we actually harm what we claim to protect?”
By 2008, when it was under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s leadership, BN’s image had sunk to its lowest ebb and the beautiful words contained in the election manifesto released in that year – “We respect the separation of powers provided under the Constitution” – remain today as a sick joke.
No wonder the Najib administration keeps referring only to one feature of Abdullah’s legacy – the so-called feel-good factor.
Propaganda has it that this “non-consumer” product is rapidly regaining public confidence for BN. Of course, when the 3Ms – Money, Machinery and Manpower—are within reach of those who want to whip up the much-needed euphoria to win back support for this product, the effort can be seen to be as easy as flipping a coin.
Will the cosmetic changes intended for this unique non-commercial product be effective in pulling back electoral confidence and support?
A few political pundits actually accept the leadership’s denial that Umno’s decision to postpone its party elections has nothing to do with the next general election. Perhaps they think BN is smart enough to know that it needs plenty of time to format its survival plan.
Certainly, the BN government and administration remains unimpressive in performance. It has yet to address a long list of public grouses, including traffic congestion and spiralling food prices, to name only two of the most obvious.
BN’s component parties seem focused on quietly conducting electioneering training courses and equipping themselves with up-to-date computer software as part of the upgrading of campaigning logistics.
Are these unmistakable signs of an imminent early general election or part of a long-term plan?
The gospel truth is that the unity gathering of the BN’s top leaders at MCA’s home ground next weekend will not even remotely remember the stoking of racial fires at Umno’s annual general assembly in 2007.
Malaysian politics has its own brand of hypocrisy. Even shared hatred can bring forth unity.
In the eyes of certain BN leaders, only the opposition coalition members have ideological differences, power struggles and chair-throwing incidents, while BN history is full of noble sacrifices because no one in the coalition is power hungry.
Will Najib, in his BN chairman’s costume, unveil some details of Umno’s “new political model” for other coalition members to emulate?
One thing is certain: thinking Malaysians are unlikely to miss any heartbeat or bat an eyelid over any proposed changes in BN.
Many Malaysians also agree that the BN political culture has some imperishable characteristics. With Umno calling the shots, they say, the BN government is nothing more than a three-ring circus controlled by the executive, with the legislature, judiciary and even the enforcement agencies – and, of course, the mainstream media – dancing to every tune it plays.
The great legacies of the early Alliance leaders – people like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tan Siew Sin, VT Sambanthan, Tun Ismail Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn – are lost forever.
Stanley Koh is a political observer who had in the past headed MCA's research unit.