Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why An UMNO Riven by Strife is Good for Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 4:35:29 am Apr 25, 2008.

In the wake of the March elections, where the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition got a bloody nose, UMNO's internal politicking has fascinated the nation. Some think it is akin to watching people fight over who gets to captain a sinking ship, while water pours at an ever-faster rate into the hold; others believe this might be UMNO's last chance to save itself and the country. In spite of this, not a lot of thought goes into how we should describe UMNO and its factionalised politics. We should not refer to UMNO as a homogeneous entity, nor should we paint a simplistic dichotomy of good versus evil within UMNO.

That UMNO is not homogeneous is something which should be simple enough to prove. Party leaders have been airing their dirty laundry on the conduct of the elections system within UMNO, and the whole process of passing on the baton from one UMNO leader to another. This dissent is very clearly along factional lines, with Prime Minister and UMNO President Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on one side, and his opponents on the other.

Both sides stand up on a soapbox and air their views to the mass media, which duly publish (or avoid publishing) them in accordance with their respective biases. Yet, inevitably, when the mass media does publish these views, it harps on them as hailing from this UMNO leader or that UMNO leader. In spite of this, nobody would say that the statement of one UMNO leader represents the stand UMNO as a whole takes. It seems then that we generally accept that UMNO is not homogeneous, and that there is significant dissent within the party.

Yet, there are cases where one person or another has, in the course of presenting his or her views, had them interpreted as representing the stand of UMNO. When Tourism Minister Azalina Othman announces that the government is cutting off ties with the tourism boards of Pakatan Rakyat-governed states, we say, "Oh, look at UMNO, refusing to cooperate with Pakatan Rakyat." When Abdullah Badawi announces a half-hearted acknowledgement of the emasculation of our judiciary, or potentially far-reaching reforms of how we handle graft and corruption, we might say, "Hurrah for Pak Lah and the UMNO government." But why is it not clear that these various statements, though issuing from government mouthpieces and thus representing the stand of the government, are themselves part of UMNO politicians' toolboxes in making political manoeuvres?

One might assume that in appointing his Cabinet the Prime Minister would choose to reward his political allies while neutering his enemies. However, that is that adage to contend with: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Abdullah's position in UMNO is by no means secure, as present events make clear; he must reward his enemies to at least some extent if he wants to hold on to power. It thus makes sense to say that the Cabinet and the government are by no means unified or homogeneous; they reflect UMNO's divisions, and their statements, though indicative of government policy, also say something about where UMNO politics might be going. It is not enough to equate ministers with the government with UMNO; it is far more accurate, if still not completely desirable, to state that ministers act within the constraints of the government's overarching vision to further their own individual political interests in UMNO.

All this sounds rather fuzzy and possibly suspicious, so it might be easier to grasp if we first get a rough idea of where the factions in UMNO lie, and from there try to place how various political actors have been behaving. There is, after all, much more to UMNO factionalism than just Abdullah's supporters and detractors.

Let us deal with the naysayers first, since they have become louder and more strident in the days since the election. There are two broad factions, from what I can see: that led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, and that led by Mahathir Mohamad. Although both are calling for reform within UMNO, such as ending the quota system for internal elections, they have different ends in mind; both Razaleigh and Mahathir have their own individual interests to pursue.

Amongst Abdullah's supporters, the most obvious ones are those who seem loud, brash, and probably corrupt to the core. People tend to lump in those such as Khairy Jamaluddin, Hishammuddin Hussein, Nazri Aziz, et al with this group, but it's hard to say much about who beyond these men are backing Abdullah. There seems to me to also be a quieter faction pushing for reform — in my view the primary players here are Zaid Ibrahim and Shahrir Abdul Samad, who have proposed far-reaching governmental reforms that actually reflect significant portions of the Pakatan Rakyat parties' manifestos. This latter faction, however, is so small that it is usually lumped in with the other; for our purposes, it might be better to treat them separately.

It is important to bear in mind that although the anti-Abdullah and pro-Abdullah factions are all united by their support or antipathy towards one man, they have very different ends in mind. The anti-Abdullah factions have their own ideas about who should succeed him; the pro-Abdullah factions either want to maintain the status quo, or reform the government.

You might call this analysis unduly charitable towards Abdullah, and unduly cynical towards his opponents. However, I think all of UMNO's various factions are capitalising on the election results to further their own individual agendas; it just so happens that the most apparently sincere politicians happen to fall on Abdullah's side.

Let us not be fooled by anyone's rhetoric, Abdullah's, Mahathir's or Razaleigh's. All three men have one goal in mind: power to ensure their interests and agendas are protected and advanced. Abdullah naturally wants to be Prime Minister; Mahathir wants his legacy protected; Razaleigh sees an opportunity to become Prime Minister.

You can argue that any or all of them sincerely mean to reform UMNO and the government for the better. However, I don't think anyone but God can know what they truly believe. The reason I am inclined to give political ambition more weight in any analysis of why these men are behaving the way they are is simply because if they have had any moral epiphany at all, it has coincidentally come at the time when it is most politically advantageous to do so.

After all, Mahathir had over 20 years to fix the mistakes Abdullah is now making. Abdullah's errors have fundamentally stemmed from continuing Mahathir's policies. Mahathir continues to deny his fundamental policies are at fault, preferring to blame Abdullah's incompetence. He cites Abdullah's corruption, but wilfully ignores how he laid the foundations for money politics and corruption in public service during his administration.

Razaleigh is a more ambiguous figure. He has always been a bit of the odd man out; as most of us recall, he actually led Semangat 46, a breakaway party from UMNO during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was the Anwar Ibrahim of those times, if you will, only obviously not anywhere as succesful; he wound up having to rejoin UMNO after his party did badly at the polls. It is probably telling, though, that when Razaleigh held significant political clout in the 1970s and '80s — he was the key figure in implementing the New Economic Policy — he did not do anything about the many loopholes and other problems in the government's racial and economic policies which we lament today. Indeed, he is running more than ever on a campaign of "Malay unity" and Malay racialism, which at the very least means that though he might have UMNO's interests at heart, he likely does not have Malaysia's interests in mind.

Abdullah, of course, we all know. His reform drive stalled completely after a few false starts in 2004. That he is now pushing for reform smacks more of political convenience than anything else; it is likely the case that he now realises he cannot afford to run away from the key plank in his 2004 platform. He has to at least seem like he is making good on his promises to the electorate. It does not hurt either that by preempting the opposition parties and other factions in UMNO, he buys himself time to fight for his political survival.

This leads me to the tiny, enigmatic fourth faction I mentioned earlier — those who apparently sincerely want change and reform. I can only think of Shahrir Abdul Samad and Zaid Ibrahim as the two leaders of this faction. Rais Yatim could conceivably be a member, but I am not hopeful. Rather than seeking the UMNO presidency or power for the sake of power, this faction at the very least seems to want to put its agenda of good governance in place, and has allied itself with Abdullah out of political convenience. It remains to be seen how far they can push this, but what they have already accomplished is much more than could have been hoped for prior to the elections.

All these factions, of course, are taking their fight to the streets. In the press, they lambast each other and make their own announcements on their own initiatives. It may not always be clear which faction an UMNO member of the Cabinet belongs to, but provided you view their actions through this lens of UMNO politicking, the reasons for their behaviour are almost always clearer. Zaid Ibrahim and Shahrir Abdul Samad both made very public statements about pursuing economic and judicial reforms which had been at the heart of Pakatan Rakyat's campaigns; meanwhile, those aligned with the anti-Abdullah factions have been talking up their own brand of "reforms" in the press. It is much easier to understand all this talk of "reform" when you think about why a particular politician or the faction he aligns with would want to promote "reform".

In essence, we cannot really rely on any one UMNO leader or any one UMNO faction to push through the changes we voted for on 8 March. Give Abdullah unfettered power to push his agenda through, and we will have another four years of the same old crap. Give Mahathir that same unfettered power, and it will be tacking four more years onto the 22 we already gave him. Give Razaleigh that unfettered get the idea. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the trite Acton quotation goes.

Regardless of who ends up president of UMNO, that is the lesson we must take away: we cannot rely on any one individual, or even any grouping of fallible men, to save us. Regardless of how sincere any one may be, if there is one thing history has taught us, it is that there are far more men who use absolute power for their own nefarious ends than for their people.

UMNO is riven by divisions at the moment, and these divisions make political gossiping all the more fun. But more importantly, these divisions are actually beneficial, because they force us to hold all our leaders accountable. We would more easily forget Abdullah's or Mahathir's pitfalls if one or the other had an absolute grip on power. Rather than taking the simplistic route, let us not give any one faction or individual carte blanche to govern; let us turn our minds instead to finding the best way to hold our leaders, in UMNO and in the government, accountable to the people they claim to serve.

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