Friday, September 12, 2008

The lonely world of Umno

The lonely world of Umno

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 13 - The crisis that Malaysia"s United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is now in has two correlated sources. First, its hold on power has always depended on it being at the head of a coalition. Second, it has always been a party given to internal strife.

The party was after all formed defensively in 1946 by a broad spectrum of Malay leaders bent on quashing British post-war plans to simplify the governance of its peninsular colonies. The Malays feared that the British were playing them out and that they were in danger of being permanently disadvantaged vis-a-vis non-Malay colonial subjects.

It was only after its second president, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, took over in 1951 that Umno became a party that was on the offensive. It adopted a positive goal full independence for Malaya.

However, it was not a strong party in itself. Although the Tunku worked the ground very thoroughly in the beginning and read the situation correctly, it would take him a while to whip up support for the new direction along which he would take the party.

What proved a decisive moment and one in which he was not involved was when an electoral coalition was worked out in February 1952 between the Selangor branch of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and Umno"s Kuala Lumpur Division. This experiment proved highly successful in ensuing local elections, catching many, including the Tunku, by surprise.

One whole year would pass before a national network of Umno-MCA liaison committees was finally set up. This took place on March 16, 1953, and with that, the Alliance was established. The Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) would join in April 1954 to make the picture perfect.

What this short history reveals is that it is coalitions that rule Malaysia, not parties. And for that to be possible, each race-based party in the coalition must enjoy the trust of its community.

Umno"s strength has always been directly tied to the support and strength of its non-Malay allies. Conversely, its crises are also tied to their crises. Umno could never, and can never, rule alone, or even act as if it did or does.

When the MCA lost Chinese support in 1969, the Alliance went into crisis. Now, when the MIC is abandoned by Indian voters and the Parti Gerakan Rakyat by Chinese voters, the Barisan Nasional (BN) suffers the same fate.

So, how could so hegemonic a system as the BN end up in such a predicament? To get the answer, one needs to understand the balance that Umno, the dominant party, has to maintain between the support it can enjoy from its allies and the strength that these allies must retain in order to survive.

The two are symbiotically connected. Since the strength of a race-based party depends on it being seen by its community to be standing up for its collective interests, a coalition of race-based parties must play an intricate game where the strong limits itself so that the weak are not neutered.

Everyone must be seen to be strong.

This seemed too tall an order for a party as strong as Umno to keep. It saw itself grow from strength to strength over the years, and saw how its allies grew more and more compliant.

It was easy for Umno"s leaders and members to forget how necessary the aforementioned tactical balance was to the well being of the BN.

The leader of its Youth wing began waving an unsheathed keris at the party"s general assemblies, and even the president of the party, and Prime Minister of the country at that, received the gift of the National Flag taken up into space by the first Malaysian sent there, as head of the party, and not as head of the country.

Double standards favouring Umno members became a common occurrence, and a blind eye was turned only when it suited party members.

What such acts by Umno and its members accomplished was to show the general public that the mutual aid principle that the BN relied upon was dead.

Once this became clear to voters, the rational choice open to them was to abandon the coalition. This was made easier by the fact that the opposition parties managed to provide what appeared a viable alternative.

Umno"s hubris grew from it forgetting that it stood on the shoulders of the BN, and that it had never been, and can never be, powerful enough to rule by itself.

Through prolonged lack of training, it lost the strategic skills that the system depended upon. The negotiating attitude that race-based parties need, not as a matter of good manners but as a matter of good tactic, in order to function as a coalition was forgotten.

But as so many porcelain shops teach us, -once broken, considered sold-.

Once hubris has set in, there is no turning back. - TODAY

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