Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

UMNO Reform: Does the New Straits Times Herald Change?

Written by johnleemk on 10:49:36 am Apr 17, 2008.
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Yesterday, the New Straits Times accomplished a most unlikely feat: publishing an editorial worth reading. Malaysian newspapers have never managed to produce very readable editorials; the typical Malaysian editorial is made up of one part bland inanities, one part specious rhetoric, combined with a pinch of pointlessness. Even The Sun, one of the better newspapers, has never in my memory carried an editorial worth the time it took me to read it. The New Straits Times bucked the trend, however, and maybe — just maybe — it is a sign of better things to come.

First, a brief background. The New Straits Times is published by the New Straits Times Press (NSTP); the NSTP itself is owned by Media Prima, which has a virtual monopoly on much of the Malaysian media (you name a medium, they've swamped the market — perhaps the internet excepted). Media Prima, of course, is owned by UMNO.

There is more to this than that, of course. UMNO is not a homogeneous entity; from time to time, it has been wracked by factional crises. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has not-so subtly been pushing for a faction in opposition to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and this movement has gained traction ever since the 8 March elections, which were disastrous for the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition.

Abdullah's faction is clearly in control of the New Straits Times. Intra-UMNO opposition has always met with muted coverage, if it has ever gotten any. Malaysia Today supremo Raja Petra Kamarudin has revelled in providing exposes of how Abdullah — or to be precise, he and his son-in-law's cronies — have dominated the management of the NSTP and the New Straits Times. It is without a doubt that Abdullah, or at least those loyal to him, have a strong role in the NST's editorial slant.

Bland editorials comprising platitudes are par for the course when it comes to the Malaysian press — that's probably why, the writing of the editorial aside, publishing this editorial on the front page of the New Straits Times yesterday might have been one of the best decisions made by the New Straits Times editorial board in years. Rarely have issues of such timely importance met with such a head-on treatment from the editorial desk of any Malaysian newspaper. I cannot recommend it more to you; if you only read one item from the New Straits Times this year, make it this one.

There is not much doubt that this editorial has a slant towards the Barisan Nasional government, and the Abdullah faction within UMNO. It tells those causing a ruckus within UMNO politics to settle down and get back to the business of running the country; it is hardly surprising that those making the most noise also happen to be those most opposed to Abdullah continuing in office as Prime Minister.

Yet in spite of this clear slant, the editorial's analysis is one of the most honest and spot-on I have yet read about the election and UMNO politics. Relative to many other pieces, it is short and to the point, yet it is crisp and clear in its honest admonition of all UMNO leaders for their failure to tackle the issues of the day. Even Abdullah, of all people, is not spared:

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is now paying for these and other acts of omission, including the undeliverable promises of change that he made when he first became prime minister in 2003.
Of course, to protect its political master, the paper is quick to rescue Abdullah, blaming the anti-Abdullah factions within UMNO for hampering his reform agenda, which he has promised to finally implement. It's highly probable that political motivations, rather than intellectual honesty, have prompted this analysis, but it nevertheless seems to hit the nail on the head:
Abdullah is not solely to be blamed and everything will not suddenly be all well again if he goes. Umno from the roots to the high branches all have to share the blame for their silence, their greed, arrogance and shenanigans that have turned off voters.
A friend I was talking with about Abdullah's succession observed that even if he quits, whoever his replacement will be will not be any more successful. I don't think anyone except the darkest of dark horses, like Shahrir Abdul Samad, can save UMNO; to say it is highly unlikely that Najib Tun Razak or Muhyiddin Yassin can reform UMNO is to make one of the year's hugest understatements. There is no real difference whether Abdullah, Najib or Muhyiddin lead the party; none of them so far seem to have had the balls to change UMNO and BN for the better. At least Abdullah says he will try; the NST's message that we might as well let him try again, as politically-motivated as it is, is on target.

What struck me the most about the editorial as I first read it, though, is how in some ways it actually detracts from Abdullah's efforts to stay in power. That the New Straits Times would explicitly single out former Selangor Menteri Besar Mohd Khir Toyo is hardly surprising; Khir Toyo has been vocal in his support for certain measures that the anti-Abdullah UMNO faction have been pushing for. What caught me off-guard was how strongly the New Straits Times criticised Hishammuddin Hussein, and the UMNO leaders who blindly supported his keris-waving "ketuanan Melayu" antics.

After all, Hishammuddin has been one of Abdullah's strongest allies in the days since the election surprise of 8 March. He has stoutly rejected calls for Abdullah to quit, and insisted on loyalty to the party president. Wherefore the cause for spurning Hisham?

In trying to read the tea leaves, it seems to me that, given all we know now, the likeliest explanation is that Abdullah's faction is trying to foist the blame for the election results on UMNO's racism. The editorial takes pains to criticise the party leadership for how they have handled the ketuanan Melayu problem; it explicitly raises three of the signature racial issues that have dominated the public consciousness for the past two years: Hishammuddin's brandishing the keris, the disastrous live telecast of the 2006 UMNO AGM, and the demolition of Hindu temples.

Saying this is harder than it seems. Racism is ingrained in UMNO; to reject racism is to practically reject UMNO. It is hard to honestly assess racial issues and their relation to the UMNO-dominated government without bringing up the problem of UMNO's whole attitude towards race, which is what made this editorial particularly poignant for me: it had no choice but to criticise the very political masters it serves:
The truth is that the people have long been disgusted with the kind of boorish, loutish behaviour that Umno leaders had exemplified because of their grip on power since independence in 1957.
This is actually an even more honest analysis than something you might find in the alternative media. Many people cling to this utopic vision of the Mahathir years, tracing UMNO's woes to when Abdullah succeeded him. Many others uphold Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn as exemplary, almost perfect leaders. Few are willing to acknowledge that in every generation of UMNO's leadership, we have seen "boorish, loutish" racists rarely fit to govern our country. Our first three Prime Ministers tried to but did not always manage to stay above the racial fray, and their policies themselves are what paved the way for Mahathir, and now maybe Abdullah, to take authoritarianism and racialism to their logical extremes.

I have spoken to various friends about what this editorial and other tentative steps Abdullah is taking towards reform might mean. Responses have ranged from "I'll believe it when I see it" to measured optimism. I highly suspect, though, that our own biases have more to do with how we perceive the situation than the facts themselves.

In my analysis, the editorial potentially represents a major step towards toning down racialism in UMNO — it paves the way for virtually eradicating it by setting racism up as the prime reason for UMNO's defeat. I think there might be credence to this if only because it is all but impossible for the NST to frontpage such a strongly-worded editorial that practically bodyslams UMNO without some sort of approval from Abdullah or someone close to him.

In spite of this, I don't think we have anywhere near enough data to gauge where any specific faction in UMNO, let alone the party itself, want to go. We have, as the editorial says, a lot of sandiwara, a lot of namedropping, a lot of gossip, and nothing real to go on. Abdullah's recent announcements concerning judicial reform constitute one data point; other than that and this editorial, the case that his faction will set UMNO on the path to reform has literally no ground to stand on. Yet at the same time, the case that they will not try to turn things around is not by any means proven; it is highly unlikely, of course, but at the same time I would not presume that UMNO is incapable of reforming in some way just to keep its grip on power.

In the absence of data, we as humans are bound to speculate, often based on our hopes and fears. I, and I suspect many other non-Malays with a more optimistic bent, would like to think that UMNO is going to do away with racism, if not completely, then at least disown its most blatant aspects like those associated with Hishammuddin Hussein's infamous brandishing of the keris. Malays on the other hand seem to grow increasingly tired of Abdullah's apparent inability to resolve the crisis in UMNO, and simply want someone — anyone — to take over, regardless of how bad he might be. Those with a more skeptical bent, and those in the Pakatan Rakyat, are inclined to believe that nobody can save UMNO, and that nobody in UMNO wants to save it; they have too many "skeletons in the closet", to quote one friend, to ever make that possible.

I think any scenario is possible; some are more probable than others, but we simply do not have enough evidence pointing in one firm direction at the moment. However, I hope you will indulge my overoptimistic daydreaming: maybe UMNO really will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the more relevant politics of ideology rather than race. I can't say I expect this to be true, of course. It does, however, make for fun speculation — and on the off chance that I am right, it will make me look like some sort of political genius.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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