Can Umno change or cows fly?

By Kee Thuan Chye

Can it stop dishing out favours and projects to party leaders and their cronies?

Umno is beyond redemption. At its general assembly in December, the message it sent out was suspicion of others and hatred for them, and a desperate desire to win the next general election.

Its president, Najib Tun Razak, once again proved what many of us have long suspected – that he is a dissembler. He exposed the ultimate lie behind his 1Malaysia slogan by saying things that would divide the races rather than bring them together. He set the trend for delegates at the assembly to harp on the threats to Umno from other races. It was disgraceful coming from the prime minister of the country. It was supremely irresponsible.

Worse, two days after the assembly ended, he appealed to the right-wing NGO Pertubuhan Kebajikan dan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (Pekida) for support. This has to be the final nail in the 1Malaysia coffin.

To cap it all, Umno showed its partiality to cronyism by defending Wanita leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil over the scandal surrounding her family’s business, the National Feedlot Corporation. One or two colleagues called for her to step down, but the overwhelming majority stood by her and castigated the opposition for exposing the scandal.

This begs the question: Can Umno change? As the major party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, can it truly stand up for other races as well, and work for their well-being? Can it stay clear of corrupt practices? Can it stop dishing out favours and projects to party leaders and their cronies? Can it save Malaysia from financial meltdown or will it rather bleed our coffers dry?

An online news website sums it up eloquently: “Umno looks set to win the polls in the next general election but yet looks woefully ill-equipped to lead a multi-racial country. … One expects delegates to articulate a vision to continue its previous success but that did not happen. Instead, delegates harped on age-old themes of having their culture and faith eroded by political foes taking over the country. That they are the only guarantee of faith and culture. What about the economy? What about the reforms? What about Malaysia ? … Everything is centred around Umno. … But they didn’t articulate the vision for continued success. … Instead, everyone is at fault except those in Umno.”

And yet Najib could tell Pekida: “If we miscalculate and choose the wrong side, our country could very much end up like Greece .” Surely, he must mean that the wrong side would be BN. The way it has been going – awarding projects to cronies who have no track record; continuing to allow overpriced purchases by government departments, despite what the Auditor-General uncovers year after year; giving out money like there’s no tomorrow in order to win votes, such as the substantial pay rise for civil servants – BN is more likely to lead us down that way.

The civil service is bloated, with 1.4 million employees, but Najib criticised Pakatan Rakyat (PR) for suggesting it should be trimmed. According to his top public service official, 1.4 million is “the right size”. How this is so puzzles me. Japan has a population of 127 million and its civil servants number just over a million. We have a population of 28 million and our civil service is as large as Japan ’s. It seems to me that trimming down the civil service is more likely to save us from going Greek.

And so I think we should not take any more risks with Umno. Especially now that we have an alternative. Pakatan has shown itself capable of running the four states under it and earned positive ratings from the Auditor-General and a few others. It’s time to see whether they can bring reform to the country.

Najib of course insists that PR will lead us to our doom, but what are his words worth anyhow?

Unfair attacks on DAP

At the Umno general assembly, he presented a grossly untruthful picture of the DAP to strike fear into the hearts of the Malays. He accused the party of being anti-Malay, anti-Islam and anti-royalty.

But after PAS won Terengganu in the 1999 general election, who stopped the state that is 90 per cent populated by Malays from getting its oil royalties and substituted it with the lesser Wang Ehsan? Was it the DAP?

Who created a constitutional crisis in 1983 and curtailed the powers of the Malay royalty? Was it the DAP?

In 2008, who protested against the Terengganu sultan for not accepting Idris Jusoh as the menteri besar, and insulted His Highness with the word “natang” (animal)? Was it the DAP?

Who gave away citizenships overnight to immigrants, legal and illegal, in Sabah to ensure they kept Umno there in power? Was it the DAP?

So where is the truth in Najib’s warning that if BN did not continue to be the government, the Malays would be under threat? Who has proven to be the real threat?

But still, he called on Pekida “to defend the current government” – to guarantee the special position of the Malays, the dignity of Islam, the preservation of the Malay royalty. He thumped his chest and yelled, “We are warriors!” and “We will not surrender even an inch!” He led the crowd in cries of “Hidup Melayu!”

Someone was moved to comment on Facebook, “Listening to what Najib said, it feels like we’re at war.”

A knowing friend warns me: “Do you know what Pekida is about? They are like gangsters. They have secret codes, like particular handshakes or the way they hold their cigarettes. They have 2 million members. These are the people we should worry about.”

Indeed, when the film KL Gangster came out last year [2011], Pekida objected to its portrayal of secret codes and use of words like “abang long” and “ayahanda” that apparently cut too close to reality.

This prompted blogger Ibnu Hasyim to ask, “Apakah benar kononnya filem itu membuka ‘kod rahsia pertubuhan’ Pekida? … Terkejut kita, apakah pertubuhan dakwah itu pun mempunyai ciri-ciri pertubuhan bawah tanah atau gangster? Pekida adalah Gangster Melayu? Perlukah pertubuhan itu disiasat polis? Mana ada dakwah dan kebajikan pakai ‘kod rahsia’ pertubuhan?” (Is it true that the film apparently exposed ‘secret organisational codes’ of Pekida? … We are shocked, does this missionary organisation have the characteristics of an underworld or gangster organisation? Pekida are Malay Gangsters? Should the police investigate this organisation? Why would missionary and welfare organisations use ‘secret codes’?)

Worms out of the can

Najib’s appeal to Pekida and his words at the Umno assembly spell desperation. That’s clear to see because Umno has no case left to make for its continued rule. News of its corruption is bursting out. Soon after the general assembly ended, the Singapore Straits Times reported that ex-menteri besar Abdul Hamid Pawanteh was involved in the Alstom bribery case. He has, however, denied it.

Earlier, questions had been raised about Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi allegedly flying to Saudi Arabia for his haj in a private jet, and about “ridiculously overpriced” rural development projects in Sabah allegedly linked to senior BN politicians. The worms are crawling out of the can.

Umno cannot defend itself. So it lashes out at enemies. It fabricates untruths about its enemies. Sadly – and sickeningly – Umno resorts to rousing tribal emotions and harping on the issues of race and religion. After 54 years in power, it still plays those explosive cards.

As the blogger Sakmongkol AK47 puts it: “Umno gets on by making Malays believe that they are being besieged, attacked, assaulted and victimised. That’s how Umno can survive. How does it do that? By fabricating lies and manufacturing stories. The Chinese are going to eat you up. The Chinese are going to Christianise you. They are going to wipe out the sultans, ban the use of Bahasa Malaysia , and abolish Jawi and so forth. You feed on people’s irrational fear. You want to maintain stupid and mute people. Can you sustain whole people like that, turning people into xenophobes? I say this is a recipe for destroying Malays, not cultivating them to become self-confident people.”

Umno has been doing that for decades. It has not evolved. So how can it change? How can such a party still be allowed to rule multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural Malaysia ?

If we continue to vote for it at the next general election, what would that make us? Dumb and dumber?

Kee Thuan Chye is the director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives. This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Penang Economic Monthly.

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