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The BN crackles and crinkles amidst more mutinies than it can handle

THE INITIAL BRAVADO NOW is now replaced with a gnawing fear that all is not well. The National Front (BN) empire crackles and crinkles at the centre, in the outposts, and at its outer edges, with open warfare elsewhere. It is not helped by conflicting and contradicting statements and policies from its leaders. The leaders, especially the cabinet ministers and the mentris besar have disappeared into their bunkers, making pronouncements that makes no sense, but one Malaysians would not know for they are reported in the mainstream media with no critical questions or answers. The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Abullah Ahmad Badawi, means well, but he is hampered by his better than expected showing at the polls last month (March). He could not make dramatic changes to his cabinet, which he inherited from his predecessor and one in which if they were consumer products they would have been condemned years ago. He is new to the job, he needs to be elected UMNO president in the party elections in four months, he cannot alienate much needed support by pruning his cabinet, and, after all, a statesman must first be a politician who can be returned to office. It is this same caution that led him to accommodate others by adding some of the newly elected, but haphazardly that an UMNO ground reaction was inevitable.

This is not only in UMNO. MCA sources say its president, Dato' Seri Ong Ka Ting, wants to push his luck, after the MCA's good showing at the polls, by throwing hints that there should be a second deputy prime minister, and that he is the ideal man for it. But it the MCA's red rag to the UMNO bull. He should not press his luck. He ought to find out why the then MCA president, Tun Tan Siew Sin, failed in 1974, and why the party was marginalised since. He should have tested the waters at the BN supreme council. But he could, indeed would dare not. He should know by know - at least he should - that he could get what he wants only by persuasion and patience, not as an underling (pardon the pun!), of the UMNO president. Perhaps he thought that since Pak Lah dropped his friend, Dato' Chua Jui Meng and an MCA vice president, from the cabinet because the MCA president did not want him, that was proof his views would be heard on other issues. Nothing infuriates a divided UMNO than when an outsider demands more than his share: they would postpone their differences, unite and throw out the outsider. What we see in this is a metaphoric equivalent of the most powerful nation of earth held to ransom by ill-equipped Iraqis of all political and religious persuasions, with or without foreign help. The MCA does not understand the Malay ground, and the Malay only too well. Besides, MCA did well in the geneal election, so did UMNO.

The UMNO president knows his weakness, and that the BN parties are now like foxes outside an unguarded chicken coop, ready to swoop when attention is diverted. It is not that easy. The UMNO's brilliant showing comes with a party that threatens to break asunder if this unspoken and unmentioned rebellion takes root. The near total victory can only be managed if there is firm leadership at the top. There seems to be none now. The former prime minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, brooked no rebellion - and he made that dramatically, but with such disastrous results, when he sacked, arrested, humiliated his chosen heir, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim - and, by and large, he succeeded. But he stayed too long, did not allow Pak Lah enough time to succed him in his own right. The warlords flexed their muscles. Even before the general elections. After it, important UMNO leaders joined them. More did after the UMNO supreme council decided that the prime minister and deputy prime minister would be challenged as UMNO president and deputy president. This was unwise. There is no UMNO president and deputy president now. How could the supreme council take it upon themselves to decide the two posts would not be challenged?

There is now serious talk among dissatisfied UMNO leaders, with plans to challenge both posts, and with a promise to make both fight their way to victory. The BN and UMNO went along, often, without question to what the UMNO president wanted. Those who disagreed lost their jobs or sidelined. It was dangerous for an UMNO leader to have his own thoughts that challenged the president's omniscience. UMNO leaders did not have their own supporters, only those who migrated to them when they succeeded. Today, the most outstanding leaders in UMNO, in and out of office, are those who despite all these restrictions have their own support. Some of that have become casualties of the political war: the banks have, for instance, an uncanny ability to demand what is owed them, exactly when the UMNO politician is at loggerheads with his president. This time, it would not be easy.

For one, Pak Lah's own succession is now mired in allegations of massive poll rigging. He may well not be party to it, but UMNO did take an unusual interest in it. He refused to prune even if so lightly some of the more blatant deadwood in his cabinet, would not replace mentris besar unpopular in the party or the palace or both, waffled his way to policies and programmes that could not stick. His anti-corruption plans, for instance. Add to this there is another problem: the PAS religious leader, Dato' Nik Aziz Nik Mat, has called for communal prayers by Muslims to punish those responsible for derailing the polls. It has begun - in Kelantan, Trengganu, at its headquarters in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, in the northern Malay states, in Jengka, in Pahang, and elsewhere. Called 'sembayang hajat', it was used to frightening effect after Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed: several of those involved died terrible deaths, others incapacitated, one prominent official in the thick of that is now so slow in thought that he begged Dato' Seri Anwar, during one of his forays in court, for forgiveness. Another, a judge, wants to apologise, but he is told to do so personally. These prayers now attract 5,000 and more worshippers, proof yet again of the deep divide within the Malay community.

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 24 April 2004

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