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Democracy is a must for Malaysia, not for UMNO

UMNO IS UNCHALLENGED. IT is in total control. Malaysia, and the National Front (BN), must play second fiddle to it. It is, to use the hackneyed phrase, lord of all it surveys. Yet it comes at an unacceptably high cost. Riding rough shod over the Opposition is routine, though not over UMNO leaders out of the loop. The strident accusations of foul play in the recent general elections, which allowed it to be returned to office with a nine-tenths majority in Parliament, and the continual unearthing of the evidence, can be swept aside, but not when the target is these UMNO leaders. On the face of it, nothing can stop the UMNO-led BN to dominate politics, government and Malaysia for the next five years. But that cannot be more wrong. For it is UMNO, more than the BN, that rushes to prevent itself from breaking apart. Its huge electoral majority has opened wounds that would not have if the majority was not as dramatic. If it is not handled with care, all hell could break loose. That it could is now accepted by the top UMNO leaders. They move to remove it by promising undemocratic methods to annoint the pretenders to the office.

That is the import of the call now for the two top UMNO positions - the president and the deputy president - to be unchallenged. The three vice presidents, we are told, do not want a challenge for that could split UMNO asunder. This was the rule the former president, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, imposed on UMNO, when he was challenged as UMNO president. That led to UMNO declared illegal by the courts in 1988, the formation of the new UMNO, into which those who challenged him and his men were not allowed to join, and remained in office for the next decade and a half by having no contests for the top two positions. But this latest call does not make sense. UMNO does not have a president and deputy president. Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak act in the two positions. In other words, the two posts are vacant. If they are vacant, the question of challenge does not arise. Anyone who wants to stand for the posts should be allowed to.

But Pak Lah and Dato' Seri Najib, acting the vacant posts, do not want to be challenged. What happened in the 1978 UMNO elections is worrying enough. The then president, Dato' (later Tun) Hussein Onn, was challenged by Dato' Sulaiman Palestine (ironically, in the light of subsequent events, the maternal uncle of the ousted and battered former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim). About 30 per cent of the delegates backed the challenger. This threw Tun Hussein out of gear, the remaining three years spent in how to retreat gracefully after this unacceptable feudal challenge. Dato' Sulaiman himself was to claim he did not get what he was promised, and would reveal in clinical detail to any who would listen. Rumours that it was Dr Mahathir who put him up to it was current at the UMNO general assembly.

When I suggested to Tun Hussein, after he announced his retirement as prime minister in 1981, that he was in effect forced out by his deputy prime minister, he was so offended, and ordered me out of his office. I did not see him for a few years. In between, Dato' Sulaiman confirmed all I had heard, to a group of us at the Hotel Equatorial coffee shop. One there was a class mate, Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat, in the midst of a mid-career crisis after being dropped from the cabinet and appointed ambassador to Indonesia. A few years later, at the request of Tun Hussein, then advisor to Petronas, I arranged a meeting with Dato' Sulaiman. They met in Penang. I was present at the meeting because both insisted. I left after dinner, and they talked into the night. By the morning, Tun Hussein could not contain his anger, not at being eased out but for the betrayal of feudal rules. There was no question then that when UMNO was declared illegal, and a new UMNO rose in its place under Dr Mahathir, that he would not be a party to it. It was the UMNO elections in 1987, in which by all accounts, it was Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, not Dr Mahathir, who won, with the results doctored in the same way as the election results were doctored to enable victory for the "right" side.

Likewise, it is not the fear of an UMNO split that worries Pak Lah and Dato' Seri Najib so much as being routed out of office, or at best elected to office with about two-thirds of the votes. If this happens, and possible if elections are held, it could cause yet another convulsion in UMNO that could destroy not UMNO but the status quo. The leaders know this, but not the rest, especially if they relied solely on the BN-controlled Malaysian mainstream media for their information. This time, there is an added problem. Even before the elections, the party warlords, always there but quiescent under strong UMNO presidents, flexed their muscles with the coming to power of Pak Lah. When one, Tan Sri Muhammad Taib, a vice president, was not chosen a candidate, he disappeared from Selangor to campaign for his UMNO position. The BN's showing in the polls should have diminished his status, as his fellow warlords. It did not.

When Pak Lah showed his uncertainty in office, by not taking the limited harsh decisions he could without upsetting the UMNO ground, and looked the other way when hard and harsh decisions had to be taken, his own grip on power became uncertain. All this is glossed over. He now hopes that without a contest, he could establish his hold on UMNO. Perhaps. But he would from now have to fear the warlords more than the Opposition. It would not be pleasant. He has to recycle what every new prime minister promises, only to forget about them within months, and demand stricter expectations of the elected, with report cards to match. He has in the meanwhile forgotten about his stirring words about controlling corruption. The one minister who dared to suggest that 18 "big fish" await to be charged for corruption is moved to a minor portfolio. Meanwhile, all over Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, a rash of stencilled signs marked "18?" are painted on walls. City council workers are busy painting them out, only for it to reappear a few days later. But the message is clear: only 18 "big fish"? One must wonder if the UMNO elections is of a battle won but a war lost.

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 6 April 2004

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