Cracking the whip at Umno
Malaysians cannot wait for the Umno leadership battle to be resolved and the Prime Minister cannot disappoint them again. Malaysians will forgive neither him nor his party. He must act and push the conservatives within the Cabinet to move forward.By Karim Raslan, The Straits Times
Most Malaysians have been appalled by the succession of press conferences, statutory declarations, accusations and counter-accusations that have hogged headlines for the past two weeks.
The mud-slinging has made Malaysia the laughing stock of Asia. But Malaysians can’t just turn their backs on what’s happened because there are important lessons to be learnt from the experience.
First and foremost is the need to proceed with the stalled reform agenda. In 2004, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi promised change. He failed to deliver and suffered the consequences on March 8, after which he reiterated the same promises.
Now, more than ever, amid the debris of numerous scandals, the entire nation can see the extent to which crucial institutions — the police, the judiciary and the prosecution in particular — have been weakened and politicised.
Malaysians cannot wait for the Umno leadership battle to be resolved and the Prime Minister cannot disappoint them again. Malaysians will forgive neither him nor his party. He must act and push the conservatives within the Cabinet to move forward.
Second, the government’s credibility must be safeguarded. As Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek, one of the more open-minded Cabinet ministers, says: “Credibility is something you build up. But once it’s lost, it’s very difficult to regain.”
Given the current pathetic levels of trust, the government has a lot of work to do.
Third, Umno needs to be brought to heel and disciplined. Many of the current problems faced by the nation are due to Umno’s overwhelming influence within the administration and the inability of its leadership to control prominent party members, especially the all-powerful division chiefs.
There is a web of relationships linking the party, the civil service, business and the security apparatus. This network needs to be opened up and subjected to scrutiny. Backroom deals have to be exposed to the light of day.
For decades, Umno has presented itself as the saviour of the Malays and arbiter of the national consensus. Past party leaders such as Tun Dr Ismail and Tun Abdul Razak were wise and pragmatic.
But Umno has since become middle-aged and lazy. Its cikgu or teacher ethos of the past has been usurped by the wheeler-dealer businessman in his black SUV. Now, as the Malay proverb says, pagar makan padi — the fence devours the rice — the guardian has turned on its charges.
Umno chiefs, warlords and their financial backers — rumours suggest the party’s upcoming leadership contest will involve hundreds of millions of ringgit — must be accountable to the Constitution and the institutions of state. If they break the law, they should suffer the consequences.
This is where the reform agenda — the calls for a more open, fair and law-abiding Malaysia — is important. Malaysians need Abdullah to remain focused on this agenda. Get it right and the reform agenda will be his legacy. Get it wrong and nothing else will save him.
But many in Umno don’t consider this to be a priority. For them, it’s secondary — the kind of issue only liberals, spoilt middle-class journalists and noisy lawyers are interested in.
Whenever I discuss such matters with Umno types, they’ll reply: “Karim, the voters in my kawasan don’t care about these things.” I have to disagree: Umno’s poor showing in the March 8 election was due to its refusal to acknowledge and address core issues of justice, fairness and equality — issues that Malaysians directly experience when “enterprising” Umno leaders suddenly acquire large houses and countless expensive cars and go on lavish foreign holidays.
Still, there are those in the Cabinet like Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Datuk Shahrir Samad who do recognise these weaknesses and have tried to convince their colleagues that restoring trust in institutions is a top priority.
Shabery, for one, says refreshingly: “We need to realise that we do have a track record and culture of service. We needn’t be afraid of openness.”
The ugly face-off between opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak can be directly attributed to the current imbalance of authority — on the one hand, a severely compromised security and legal apparatus and, on the other, a pumped-up executive beholden to no one but the party and its warlords.
This has created an environment riddled with corruption, slovenliness, self-importance and racism.
The credibility crisis is eating away at the Malaysian consensus. It is undermining its capacity to move forward at a critical juncture economically when leadership and focus are required to guide the nation through a period of inflationary turbulence.
Malaysians do not trust the security apparatus to act fairly and impartially. And this lack of trust has emboldened opposition leader Anwar to play to the gallery. He knows that in the absence of a credible legal forum, the court of the public becomes the ultimate arbiter of his innocence or guilt.
Umno, the party of Merdeka, must come to terms with modernity. The party has lost all sense of propriety and service. It is focused on serving its own needs. The mass of Malays and Malaysians has been forgotten.