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Pak Lah drifts into a political vaccuum

THE GENERAL ELECTIONS IS over. The new cabinet is installed. The man of the hour is he who led the National Front (BN) to victory, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He is praised sky high now as only Malaysians know how. He, and he alone, is responsible for the BN's decimation, literally, of the Opposition. The BN, if you recall, is in the new parliament, with 90 per cent of the 219 seats. The honeymoon is still on. What he says, rates banner headlines in the Malaysian mainstream media. But he states trite homilies so often and has yet to show what he is capable of that if he does not curb it would turn to hit him. He promised a break with the past, at least that is how Malaysians saw his appointment as prime minister. But all he has so shown so far is to not upset the status quo. If the Tun Mahathir cabinet he inherited was unwieldy, the Pak Lah cabinet is more so: all he did was to add a few men and women known to be loyal to him to the Mahathir list, create more ministries to accommodate them. His new cabinet has 33 cabinet ministers, 38 deputy ministers and 22 parliamentary secretaries, a total of 93. In other words, every other BN MP is a member of the government. They would get into each other's way that nothing could be done.

He was buying loyalty with his cabinet and government appointments. He knows this loyalty cannot last. But the huge electoral majority allows him the right to do as he wants. It has, in one sense, blinded him to the dangers awaiting him around the corner. The sycophantic coverage in the mainstream media - the New Straits Times today reports, matter of factly, that he and the deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak, would be returned unopposed in the UMNO elections. It could well be, but there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. The BN leaders, so blinded by this electoral success, throws caution to the winds, believes no one dare challenge them. But as UMNO leaders find out, this huge majority makes them arrogant and dismissive of the ground. They believe in their omnipotence, not listen to reason, but in the end would find their own ground dismissive of them.

For cracks begin to show amongst coalition partners. The MCA president, Dato' Ong Ka Ting, is under attack from state leaders over the division of spoils, affirming that the underlying split in the party remains as intractible as ever. It is a mistake to assume the split is over personalities; it is over how the MCA should evolve in the new and changed political circumstances: whether it should be handmaiden to UMNO to the detriment of the community or it should reform into the voice of the Chinese community with leaders willing to put it above self to lead them. The MIC cannot believe its luck in the general elections, and its superannuated president, Dato' Seri S. Samy Vellu, believes it can act as the MCA president does, and retain the respect of the community he represents. In Sarawak and Sabah, all is not well with the BN parties in power, for the same reasons as in the peninsular. This is the dilemma in all the non-UMNO coalition partners.

This is why, on balance, it would have been better to have had an Opposition that could keep the BN in check. That check and balance is not in this parliament. The unchecked arrogance of 50 years in power can only be the more insufferable, but this important proviso that those left out would challenge the leadership with more vigour than the Opposition could. In the states, the new mentri besar of Trengannu, Dato' Seri Idris Jusoh, has promised heaven on earth, after packing the PAS state government into exile. But it forgets that it had frittered away its advantages in the state, which it ruled for 38 of the 43 years, and PAS for five. The BN's record in Trengganu is abysmal. Can it change in five years? Let us wait and see.

Pak Lah should have wielded the blunderbuss to prune his unwieldy cabinet into a lean workable one. He could not, for his political survival, do the pruning in UMNO before the party elections, which was to have been in June but it could now be in August, but he should have begun with the non-UMNO parties. He did not. He allowed his friends in the other parties - Dato' S. Subramaniam of the MIC, Dato' Chua Jui Meng of the MCA - to be sacrificed. He gives the impression that he cannot withstand pressure, and if sufficient pressure is put on him, he would give way. That is a dangerous frame of mind to be in now. On the surface, the BN victory gives him a strong hand. It does not. All it did was to strengthen the hands of the warlords, who are nominally loyal to him but who would not hesitate to move away if they are ignored. They would keep their counsel in the euphoria over the new prime minister and his election victory but would show their fangs should Pak Lah slip or lose control.

To state the obvious in these times is treachery - as I am reminded time and time again by his men and others hoping to benefit from knowing him - but he ought to know the Malay ground still looks askance at him. The homilies are not enough. He has said nothing new. He repeats the obvious. He wants MPs to have report cards to show they serve the people, those in the government to list their assets every two years, but how he says it suggests, and not true, this was not in the past under different prime ministers. A recycled cabinet, grossly expanded, is in charge of recycled policies and plans, but with the prime minister ever looking over his shoulders for incipient revolt. He already has one looking over his shoulders, but he is not the only one. It has made Pak Lah, at least for now, unwilling to take chances or annoy his own side. If he can get over this, he is home and dry. But the danger is he could not if only to deflect the opposition to him that must come. Nature abhors a vaccuum. A political vaccuum is what the BN is about to face. Pak Lah understands this only too well. But can he deflect it by letting nature take its course?

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 5 April 2004

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