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What you see is not: The form is more important than the substance

HUBRIS, UNMITIGATED ARROGANCE, THIS belief in its skewed confidence that it is lord of all its surveys, has brought the National Front (BN) and its president and prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to their knees. The BN splits from within, far more effectively than the Opposition could, as the huge parliamentary majority weakens it. No one talks about it, but the BN is now irrevocably split. Pak Lah is caught between two stools, unable neither to take advantage of his unprecedented mandate nor keep his troops in line. The BN has had powerful pressure groups from within, but they are, by and large, kept in their corner. Add to this, two groups none would talk of: the small band of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah loyalists, and the more widespread but seemingly powerless backers of the jailed Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim. But these two groups kept their own counsel, did not attempt to be more than a pressure group, and as equally forcibly distanced from the source of power and patronage. This time, however, the wide split from within comes from an uncertain and weak party president and the state warlords, who exert their authority in ways they would not dare under previous prime ministers.

What adds the pressure is the BN's runaway victory in last month's general election. It decimated the Opposition. The Election Commission finetuned the electoral rules to ensure it, indeed deliberately bent the rules, unconstitutionally and even with the laws drastically changed to make its rulings difficult to challenge. It now faces the larger question of electoral fairness. When the EC should conduct elections upon a bedrock of electoral solidity, it acted, well within the law it might be, in a manner which hinted of foul play. The electoral register, for instance, was to be the one handed to candidates on nomination day but in its desire to bend the law and the rules, it used the ones gazetted two days after nomination day, and even two days after polling day. It was mayhem on polling day. So bad it was in Selangor and elsewhere that many found their names absent from the register in the morning but not in the afternoon. In Sungei Lembing, in Pahang, polling was suspended for five hours when voters pointed out that the party affiliation of the opposition candidate was of the wrong party.

What is more curious is that the EC was unaware of it until it was pointed out to it. Then it promptly looks for scape goats to pin the blame on. In the end, polling in Sungei Lembing was postponed to another day, without warning. The elections are held to a firm set of rules, gazetted, from which no variation is allowed. But in Selangor, the polling was extended for two hours, without warning and for the most spurious of reasons: that there was a rush of voters as the polls were about to close. That could have been easily resolved if the gates were shut and only those inside allowed to vote. Extending it for two hours throughout the state was illegal. But there was a reason for it. The opposition was neck to neck, the mentri besar had lost his seat. During the extension, enough voters were bused in for a massive BN victory.

It reflects one ignored problem: the Malay civil servant and UMNO politician has a vested interested in ensuring their joint survival. This is more serious than it appears in the surface. For the New Economic Policy, which brought the rural Malay into the frontline of Malaysian life, is now turned on its head. Jointly, these two groups have shortchanged the Malays in the heartland, and suffers the non-Malay only when they need him for their survival. What the EC did in this poll is not unexpected. Nor is it the first time it had. But in the past, the essential professionalism of the civil service and a shared belief in the country's destiny while making sure the government remained in office was done so seamlessly that no one could be blamed for allegations of poll rigging. Not this time. It was done so hamfistedly that even the Malay is angry at being denied his right to vote. The EC chairman, Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, tried to explain what went wrong, gave up the ghost, and called for a royal commission no less. Fresh from his unbelievable victory, Pak Lah was in no mood to consider it. He had won fairly and squarely, and if the EC had made a mess, how is he to be blamed for it. So he holds his ground.

But his overwhelming majority forced him to retain the outgoing cabinet, most of whom should have been put to pasture years, if not decades, ago. They are all retained, and more are added, if only to prevent them from posing a political threat to Pak Lah before the UMNO elections later this year. But the cabinet ministers continue to show how stupid and irrelevant they can be. They go for briefings on taking office, where they are given a briefing by senior civil servants in which the aim to impress and dazzle their new minister, not to tell the horrifying truth. With audio visual aids and presentation, the minister is told that he is on to a good thing, impressive figures are given, and the need for hundreds of millions to make the minister an even more dynamic force. It is remarkable how many ministries need no less than RM300 million in funds as a first step to the minister's hold on his office. This is dangerous. No minister should make statements from presentations. He must make his decision from the considered reports of the civil servants, test it with his instincts, and political savvy. But that requires work, a terribly difficult thing to do after years and decades of a sinecure existence.

All it shows is the inexorable breakdown of ministerial and civil service professionalism, in which minister and civil servant are at loggerheads, and policies and campaigns done on the fly. Let us take National Service. It is done not for its stated reason, but so some one could make easy money out of providing the services, the uniform and the paraphernalia. The deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak, is in charge. But persistent reports insist that his wife has a lucrative contract to provide much of the uniforms. You would recall that when he was education minister, he started on the idea of smart schools. His wife would provide the computers and other audiovisual aids. It collapsed spectacularly. Today no one talks of it. But hundreds of millions of ringgit went down the drain. RM500 million is earmarked for it. It is now said at least double that is needed. But the whole programme is in shambles. One girl is raped. The trainees live in make shift conditions, often moving into camps that have yet to be built. Security is non existent. Now comes the uncomfortable admission that the trainers were chosen not because they were good but because it was assumed they would be.

Meanwhile, the minister threatens hellfire and brimstone at those who did not turn up at camp. At least 10,000 did not. As an immediate reaction, they are threatened with jail sentences of six months and a fine of several thousand dollars. But is that workable? In the 1970s, the government arrested and charged several thousand Malaysian stuidents and undergraduates for illegal rioting. Nearly 20 years later, these boys and girls were appearing in court for that offence; many of them were by then high ranking members of the civil service. This tendency to threaten when it is disobeyed, or when they are second guessed, spreads to its whole conduct. The oppositionn cannot challenge the results, not after it has decided that all is well. The young Malaysian ordered to National Service camp for three months is threatened with jail and fine if he did not turn up. But underlying it is not a desire to improve those attending it, but that it is seen as a quick fix to the problem of Malay youthful exuberance that leads on to worse.

But can anything be done in three months? It would take that long to get them into a disciplined body. At first, they were to get weapons training. That was hastily dropped because the 41 camps housing 85,000 young men and women did not have the armoury to house them. When the underlying basis for it is ill-thought, how could it work, as it does not. Still all is not lost: many would make a fine commission providing the uniforms and the food and the equipment. It allows the officials to ogle at the girls when they bathe, and occasionally rape them. The government does not care, nor does it heed the dangers. The National Service training corps chairman, Drf Ahmad Fauzi Basri, is upset at the rape, not that it happened but that it mars the image of the National Service programme. It sums up the attitude of those in charge. Could anything change in these conditions and mindset? Your guess is as good as mine.

[This is my column in the latest issue of Seruan Keadilan, the organ of the National Justice Party (KeADILan), out today, 26 April 2004]

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 27 April 2004

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