In campaign to defend democracy, U.S. should start with Malaysia


Najib and ObamaThis Big Talker engages in Empty Rhetoric, and in Barack Obama he finds a willing Partner to hoodwink the Malaysian People

Najib wants to have his cake and eat it too. He serenades President Barack Obama and promises to be all sorts of moderation. Najib is manifestly dishonest in the press conference standing next to Obama when asked about the Anwar case. He talks about making Malaysia competitive in the 21st century in speeches to the Council on Foreign Relations and to business leaders around the world. But at home he’s doing the same old same old thing – persecuting political opponents, stifling debate on campus and suffocating academic freedom. He cannot have it both ways.He must stop the bull and get down serious business of governance.

While President Obama is unlikely and incapable of doing anything publicly, this type of negative press undermines countless man hours of Najib’s PR machine that has been at work since 2009. They will have to start working on another scope of work at the cost of 20 or 30 MM to repair the damage. Send the bill the the Rakyat! – Rusman

 From the Washington Post

AT THE United Nations in September, President Obama, citing “relentless crackdowns” around the world against dissent and civil society, promised“an even stronger campaign to defend democracy.”Even when it was “uncomfortable” or “causes friction,” he pledged, his administration would step up to defend persecuted activists and “oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.” So far we haven’t seen much follow-up on that promise, but the opportunities to do so are abundant.

One of the most urgent lies in Malaysia, a U.S. ally (can we say a poodle!) that has launched an extraordinary crackdown on opposition leaders, academics and journalists. In the past two months, the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak has charged nearly two dozen activists under an outdated colonial-era sedition law, that mandates three years in prison for acts that “excite dissatisfaction” with the government. Mr. Najib promised as recently as 2012 to repeal the law; instead, the government is prosecuting critics merely for speaking out, publishing articles or uploading videos.

At the same time, the government has revived an odious criminal case against Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Opposition and one of the Muslim world’s foremost liberal democrats. Mr. Anwar was charged in 2008 with homosexual sodomy, which Malaysia shamefully still treats as a crime. Though he denied the charge and was acquitted in a 2012 trial, an appeals court this year reversed the verdict and handed him a five-year prison sentence. This week his final appeal is being heard by Malaysia’s highest court. If he loses, the 67-year-old Mr. Anwar will be imprisoned and banned from politics. Even if he wins, he, too, faces prosecution under the sedition law.

It’s not hard to guess why Mr. Najib might have broken his pledge to repeal the statute and reversed what was previously a cautious march toward greater freedom in his majority Muslim country. Last year, his ruling party for the first time lost the popular vote in a general election, to a coalition led by Mr. Anwar.

Gerrymandering preserved the government’s parliamentary majority, but the ruling establishment Mr. Najib leads appears to have set out to crush the opposition before the next election, due in 2017. The campaign is particularly destructive because Malaysia, unlike many other majority Muslim countries, does not currently face an internal terrorist challenge, though some Malaysians are known to have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. By eliminating peaceful means of opposition, Mr. Najib risks making extremist options more attractive.

Mr. Obama has made a point of cultivating Mr. Najib and his government as part of his policy of “rebalancing” toward Asia, and so far the administration has had little to say about the political crackdown. Perhaps, Obama wants to ensure that Malaysia sign the one sided and much criticised TPPA In March, it cautiously expressed concern about Mr. Anwar’s prosecution. But as Mr. Anwar has argued his appeal this week there’s been no sign of the “stronger campaign” Mr. Obama promised. The verdict is expected next week; if Mr. Obama is genuinely willing to incur “friction” with allies in defense of human rights, now is the time to do it in Malaysia.

Obama in Malaysia: A Strategic Partnership?


by Joshua Kurlantzick via Council on Foreign Relations
April 8, 2014

During his upcoming late April trip to Asia, President Obama will visit two nations in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and the Philippines, in addition to stops in Northeast Asia. The White House already has been briefing reporters on the overall messaging of the trip, and the specific themes the president plans to hit in Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia, it appears from several news reports and from speaking with several administration officials, President Obama will add to the Malaysian government’s self-promotion that Kuala Lumpur is a successful and democratic nation, an example of other Muslim-majority countries, and a force for moderation in the world. The president apparently plans to hit these themes despite the regional anger at Malaysia’s handling of the Malaysia Airlines vanished plane, which exposed to the world many of the problems with Malaysia’s governance.

No matter, say some Southeast Asia experts. Some of Obama’s advisors, and many Southeast Asia experts, are urging the president to use the trip to cement a strategic partnership with Malaysia and establishing a roadmap for the kind of higher-level strategic cooperation that the United States already enjoys with Singapore and Thailand, among other countries in the region.

This approach to the Malaysia visit would mean downplaying – or simply not even discussing – serious regression in Malaysia’s domestic politics, including the recent sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in jail for sodomy, the highly flawed 2013 national elections that barely kept Prime Minister Najib tun Razak in office, and the increasingly shrill, anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rhetoric and legislation of the Najib government, hardly the kind of sentiments a supposed leader of political moderation should be espousing. According to this logic, if President Obama were to bring up such unpleasant issues as the Malaysian government’s crackdown on opponents over the past year or its unwillingness to reform pro-Malay policies that have entrenched a culture of graft and self-dealing at many Malaysian companies, that would sink the visit.

Under Najib, Malaysia and the United States have, on a strategic level, moved beyond some of the acrimony of the Mahathir and Abdullah years, and have made progress on a wide range of military-military and diplomatic cooperation. Najib definitely deserves some credit for this rapprochement, though growing Malaysian fear about China’s South China Sea policies are probably the main driver behind closer strategic ties with Washington.

But simply ignoring the disastrous Najib policies on human rights, political freedoms, and economic liberalization would not be a wise move by Obama. For one, it would play into the narrative that Obama cares little about rights and democracy promotion, a narrative that has gained significant force not only in Washington but also among many Southeast Asian activists and young people in general. And ignoring Malaysia’s opposition politicians, who won the popular vote in the 2013 national elections and enjoy their strongest support among young Malaysians, would be alienating the biggest growing pool of Malaysian voters. As in other countries in the region, like Cambodia and Indonesia, these young voters are increasingly favoring opposition parties or new figures like Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, breaking from long-ruling, autocratic parties. The United States should be cultivating these young voters who will prove critical to the region’s democratization. This new generation will eventually power the Malaysian opposition, in some form, to the prime minister’s office. It would be a shame if the United States president had ignored them, and their party leaders, before then.

Rosmah’s Gifts and Ethics


April 28, 2013

Rosmah’s Gifts and Ethics

FLOM

Recently Caretaker FLOM, Rosmah Mansor, said that she accepted all the gifts offered to her by foreign dignitaries because it would be rude not to accept them and what was a poor FLOM supposed to do?

“When people give you something, of course it’s not nice to reject it,” Rosmah wrote in a self-titled biography launched yesterday by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“And when I’m given the gifts, I wear them. Why would you want to just keep them in a safe when the items were given sincerely, are beautiful and can be used? It’s a waste if they’re just kept in a safety deposit box,” the wife of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak added. (from Malaysian Insider here)

Well clearly there is another way to handle these situations. The Daily Beast is reporting that the Sarkozy’s used to lavish their friends with expensive gifts. The Obama’s received from the Sarkozy’s over $41,000 worth of bags, towels, etc. Hillary Clinton received three Hermes scarves.

How does the United States handle this? It’s simple. Sitting elected officials are not permitted to accept gifts from anyone. There are Ethics Committees in all branches of the US government that regulate what employees of the US government are allowed to receive and not receive. For example here is a snippet form the Senate Ethics Committee website:

No Member, officer, or employee shall knowingly accept a gift except as provided by the Gifts Rule.

A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, other than cash or cash equivalent, having a value of less than $50, provided that the source of the gift is not a registered lobbyist, foreign agent, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals.  The cumulative value of gifts that may be accepted from any one source in a calendar year must be less than $100.  Generally, gifts having a value of less than $10 do not count toward the annual limit.  See Senate Rule 35.1(a)

The White House/Executive branch has similar rules outlined in detail here. It’s clear why such rules need to be in place. When you are in the seat of power, small (or large) gifts from foreign and domestic agents can be used as leverage in any sort of negotiation that comprise the integrity of the relationship. The onus should be on the public servant to want to defend his integrity to the fullest degree.

Which takes us back to Rosmah’s absurd statement. It speaks for itself when you’re talking about a party which is propped up by patronage and corruption. Accepting a few Hermes scarves, Rolex watches etc. is practically a non-issue when you think about the billion of dollars squandered away in no-bid contracts, flawed procurements and under the table deals.

The need for greater transparency in these dealings is essential. But fundamentally, people must elect leaders who they believe have a strong ethical compass that would make them think twice about these types of transgressions.

Parliament Dissolved Finally !


April 3, 2013

Parliament Dissolved Finally!

Yeah, This is the Way, Man

  I want a Responsible and Honest Government

http://www.malaysiakini.com

After months of playing a guessing game with voters, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has announced the dissolution of Parliament today, paving the way for the 13th General Election.

NONEHe said this in a 15-minute ‘live’ telecast on all television stations at 11.30am, following an audience with the Agong early this morning.

“This morning I had met the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and sought his permission to dissolve the Parliament. And he had given his consent for the same,” Najib announced.

However, Najib made a mistake during the live broadcast on the date of dissolution, reading the year 2013 as 2012. “This morning, I have sought an audience with the Agong and delivered the instrument of dissolution to His Majesty for the consent to dissolve the 12th Parliament today, April 3, 2012.”

Najib called on all state assemblies to be dissolved today as well, to enable state and parliamentary polls to be held simultaneously.

The Election Commission (EC), according to law, will have to fix the date for the election, which must be held within 60 days.

NONE“I advise all state leaders to face their respective heads of state to seek permission for dissolution of state assemblies as well so that we can have simultaneous elections across the country,” he said.

Najib, who was wearing a red tie, was flanked by his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and made the announcement in the presence of all of his cabinet ministers.

The announcement falls on the fourth anniversary of Najib’s tenure as Prime Minister, and he asked the rakyat to remember the “transformation” that the government had been under way in the past four years under his leadership.

“In these four years you have witnessed the national transformation has taken place,” he said, stressing that his is a “responsible” government.

Only official media were allowed to broadcast the announcement from within Najib’s office in Putrajaya. Previous Prime Ministers who were known to take questions from reporters after declaring the dissolution of Parliament.

Reporters from other media waited in the rain outside the office, as they were not permitted to enter or take shelter in the security station’s waiting area.

However, the reporters – some of whom arrived as early as 8am – were told at around noon that there would be no press conference.

“We initially thought there was going to be a press conference. That is why we all came and camped outside, but then we were told at the last minute that we can only watch via ‘live’ streaming,” said a disappointed reporter who did not want to be named.

“It would have been okay if we were allowed to watch inside (instead of waiting in the rain).”

Over to EC

Contacted later, Election Commission (EC) chairperson Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said the commission will call a meeting to decide the date for nominations and polling.

abdul aziz yusof spr chiefThis can only be done after the EC receives a letter of notification from the speaker of Parliament, he said.

Asked when he expects to receive the letter, Abdul Aziz (left) said: “Maybe today or tomorrow or Friday or Saturday.But once we receive the notification letter, we will meet to fix a date for the polls.”

Soon after Najib’s announcement, Selangor Menteri Besar Abdul Khalid Ibrahim revealed on his Twitter account that he will seek an audience with the Selangor Sultan in the shortest possible time.

“Thank God, finally the Parliament is dissolved. I will seek an audience with Sultan as soon as possible to discuss the status of Selangor state assembly,” reads his Twitter posting.

According to law, the general election must be held within 60 days of dissolution of Parliament.

Nevertheless, it is speculated that EC is likely to pick a date in early May.The minimum campaign period is 10 days, a new requirement imposed by the EC in line with a recommendation by the parliamentary select committee on electoral reform.

Najib will be seeking his first mandate since assuming the post of Prime Minister on April 3, 2009, after taking over from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Today marks the fourth year of Najib’s premiership.

In 2008, Abdullah had led BN to its worst ever electoral outing, losing five states as well as its long-time hold on a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

There are 222 parliamentary seats currently up for grabs, with the BN holding 135 seats, Pakatan Rakyat 75, and 12 in the hands of Independents and three other parties.

Pakatan controls four states – Selangor, Penang, Kelantan and Kedah – while BN has nine under its belt.

This time around, Najib is seen as facing an increasingly cohesive federal opposition, which aims to unseat the BN and install Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister.

This election will see a huge number of new voters – an increase of 3 million, or 25 percent, since 2008, making it the biggest spike in Malaysia’s electoral history.

Goodbye to 12th Cabinet

To 12th Cabinet,Thank You For Your Service

Other Paid Malaysia Bloggers Never Registered With U.S. Authorities


The best line in this article, other than the noose slowing tightening on APCO is this:

“Have you ever had a head of state make you breakfast? I found myself in that unusual position on Sunday morning, when Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made me his unique Malay porridge.”

Other Paid Malaysia Bloggers Never Registered With U.S. Authorities

Conservative blogger Joshua Trevino’s registration as a foreign agent raises questions about his colleagues.

Rosie Gray

BuzzFeed Staff

Two of the main players in the campaign funded by the Malaysian governmentthat placed undisclosed propaganda in the American press did not file with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an omission that lawyers say could place them in legal jeopardy.

David All, a Republican online operative whose David All Group originally contacted conservative writer Joshua Trevino, Trevino said, to conduct a PR operation on behalf of the Malaysian government, is not listed in the records. Nor is Jerome Armstrong, a pioneering liberal blogger whose MyDD was for a time a key site, and who took a leading role alongside Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas in Matt Bai’s 2007 book on how bloggers and billionares were remaking the Democratic Party, who Trevino says was engaged by All at the same time as him to run the website MalaysiaMatters.com as part of a paid media push that backed the country’s ruling party and attacked its critics.

A defunct “about” page for Malaysia Matters listed Armstrong among the founders: “Those working on this project include David All, Jerome Armstrong and Joshua Treviño,” the page said.

Trevino, who last week belatedly filed his own foreign agent registration, told BuzzFeed on Sunday that Armstrong was hired to be his liberal counterpart on MalysiaMatters.

“David All also brought in Jerome,” Trevino said. “I stopped working with him when I stopped working with APCO. He did not transition over to FBC [Media].” APCO Worldwide was in charge of the contract with Malaysia and ultimately David All and the writers, and continued working on Malaysia projects after Trevino’s editorial pursuits transitioned under the aegis of FBC Media.

Armstrong did not reply to repeated requests for comment. In 2011, he told BuzzFeed editor (then at Politico) Ben Smith in an email:

I worked on it and blogged about it back then, iirc [if I recall correctly], it was mid 2008, and it was with the former PM, not Najib. Mine was just a temp contract, did a trip over there as a precursor for having other bloggers there; and then they had a shakeup, it never materialized, and I moved on. I didn’t work for Trevino on it (he was there before and much longer after my brief stint), but through David All and …. (I can’t remember the DC PR group, but there was a big press dust-up about it in 09 iirc).

Malaysia has a really strong blogosphere, and I subsequently got involved on my own with continued conversations with some of the activists and political groups there, but is not a country with a free press. That all changed with the internet by the middle of the decade, and there as a brief moment when it was feared that things would go the way of Singapore. In 2008, bloggers were being thrown into jail, and Badawi was hearing from many that he should outlaw blogs/online political speech. So, when I was there talking with him, it was about praising his initiative, and telling him that would be a very good legacy for him to have initiated…. and showed him how Malaysia Matters worked, and tried to get across to him that it could be used by any political party; that he should be meeting with antagonistic bloggers and try to win them over. Badawi seemed to get it, but his communications director listened in, and by the ‘online outreach’ results of the next special election, and his subsequent blogger outreach, it definitely turned out that way.

Asked to comment further, Armstrong said ” I don’t recall the contract, and ours usually have a non-disclosure type of clause in there.”

The David All Group was partly owned by APCO before he closed it in October 2012, he told BuzzFeed.

All’s status as someone working on behalf of the client would normally have been registered with FARA either as a short form registrant or listed on APCO’s filings regarding the Malaysian contract.

“It’s so long ago,” All said when reached by phone on Monday. “The David All Group was owned in part by APCO Worldwide and [Malaysia] was their client, so I just worked with APCO.”

“I’m sort of gathering more information and looking into this a little bit more,” All said. “My goal is not to hide anything. It was not a covert operation.”

All corroborated Trevino’s account of being engaged on the project at the same time as Armstrong, though Armstrong’s involvement ended earlier than Trevino’s.

Armstrong and Trevino were in Malaysia at the same time, according to Flickr photos. They met with the Prime Minister.

The photos above picture Armstrong and Trevino in Malaysia and were posted to Armstrong’s Flickr feed, picturing a trip to Malaysia in June 2008. The Prime Minister at that time, Abdullah Badawi, made his guests porridge, according to an email from Trevino passed along to BuzzFeed by a source that describes the incident and links to a now-broken MalaysiaMatters post: “Have you ever had a head of state make you breakfast? I found myself in that unusual position on Sunday morning, when Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made me his unique Malay porridge.”

Cached versions of posts Armstrong wrote about Malaysia are still available online (see herehere, and here).

According to the FARA website, federal law requires that agents “register within ten days of agreeing to become an agent and before performing any activities for the foreign principal.”

The act specifies that “failure to register, keep accounts, mark informational materials, provide a congressional committee with a copy of the agent’s most recent registration, and agreeing to a contingent fee based on the success of political activity are violations of the Act.”

“If he’s employed by his own company he should have filed as an agent,” Joseph E. Sandler, a lawyer and FARA expert, said of All. “If he’s not an employee, if he’s a consultant, he should do his own FARA filing.”

APCO, he said, “should have shown their payments to him on their FARA filings.”

“And secondly he should have registered himself as an agent for him because he’s indirectly working for a foreign principal,” Sandler said. As for Armstrong, “if he knew they were acting indirectly on behalf of the Malaysian government, and knew that’s where the money’s coming from, he should have registered.”

Another lawyer who specializes in FARA law and who wished to speak on background said “It sounds like they’re at least close to the line.”

“Generally, you have a registration for the agent itself and for the persons who are directly providing a service for the foreign principal,” the lawyer said. “If you are writing informational materials at the direction or control of a foreign principal,” he said, registration is required.

Adam Williams, spokesman for APCO Worldwide, said the firm, which appears to have orchestrated the propaganda campaign, could not immediately commment.

“We’re looking into it so we make sure that we have all the facts straight. We want to make sure that we’re 100% honest and accurate.”

 

UMNO in survival mode


January 1, 2013

UMNO in survival mode

by Dr Johan Saravanamuttu

johan-saravanamuttuRacial sentiments ran high, tears flowed, the rhetoric became warlike, the May 13 ghost was resurrected and even Allah (God) was invoked during the 66th UMNO convention which wound to its close on the first day of December 2012.

Gearing up for the “mother of all elections” due to be held within months, UMNO leaders were striking out a posture of solidarity and rallying the troops. However, belying the pomp, decibels and camaraderie was an undertone of the dominant political party of Malaysia losing much of its “mojo” and somewhat in a survival mode.

Milling around the convention premises and listening to the emotionally charged speeches of delegates, one could not but palpably sense that UMNO was a party under siege. UMNO, as the political engineer of the unbroken 50-plus-year rule of the Barisan Nasional (BN), may indeed have been responsible for the loss of the ruling coalition’s customary two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament and five state governments in the 2008 general election, its worst electoral outing to date.

The fact that the UMNO’s President Najib Razak, who is also the Prime Minister, has held Najibback from calling a general election up until today suggests that UMNO and its coalition partners continue to have doubts that their performance in the forthcoming election would be up to par. The window to call the election closes completely on April 28, 2013 by which time the government would have served out its maximum term of five years. The Election Commission would then have the option to hold the election within two months.

Thinkable Opposition win?

On the final day of the assembly, Najib vowed to win back the two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament but all indications are that the BN will fall short in the upcoming election. Serious political analysts see the BN winning only a simple majority of the 222 parliamentary seats up for contest and unlikely to wrest back all the state governments of Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and Selangor lost in 2008. Moreover, it may stand the chance of losing Perak, which was turned over when three Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lawmakers hopped out of the opposition coalition in February 2009.

UMNO’s 79 seats constitute about 36 per cent of the total number won by the BN and if its peninsula coalition partners MCA, MIC and Gerakan fail to retain their current hold on 20 seats, this could spell real trouble. Further haemorrhaging could occur in Sabah and Sarawak, where non-UMNO coalition parties hold 41 seats for the BN. Indeed, if things turn out much worse than before, the scenario of an opposition win is not unthinkable.

The argument advanced here is that UMNO and its partners in BN have lost its “first-mover-advantage” as the ruling coalition in Malaysia for the last five decades or more and now faces decreasing returns on institutional arrangements and processes that it has pioneered, particularly when a new successful player, in this case, the PR, enters the scene.

This scenario has been given credence because PR has been gaining ground in Sarawak and Sabah since 2008, the two solid stronghold states of the BN. In the April 2011 state election in Sarawak, PR won a total of 15 seats which could well translate into six to eight parliamentary seats in the coming GE 13. In Sabah, two BN MPs, Lajim Ukin of UMNO and Wilfred Bumburing of UPKO, left their respective parties in July 2012 and have set up a PR-friendly entity. Earlier in 2009, the SAPP, led by former Chief Minister Yong Teck Lee, also weaned itself out of the BN. The BN’s total of 140 seats could well decrease significantly given these developments.

But what about UMNO itself, would it able to retain its current share of seats or increase them? Why does the party convention of 2012 evince an unmistakable tinge of defensiveness and insecurity?

UMNO’s predicament

To understand UMNO’s current predicament, it will be necessary to backtrack to 2008. UMNO held a little over half the Malay ground in terms of popular votes and seats in 2008. One estimate put Malay support for the BN at some 58 per cent. The BN itself won just over 50 per cent of the popular vote. It is hard to actually accurately measure the percentage of Malay support for UMNO throughout the country but on the basis of UMNO’s performance contra that of the Islamist party, PAS, in the Muslim heartland of the east coast and the northern Malay states of the peninsula, one could venture some more fine-grain interpretations of the Malay vote.

UMNO’s slippage in retaining Malay support has been evident over the years with the concomitant rising presence of PAS. An additional element is the PKR presence in the more urban Malay areas.

Perlis has remained an UMNO stronghold but even so there has been a slippage of 3.6 per cent of votes. The slippage in Kedah was particularly evident and this saw the government change for the first time to the PR. In terms of popular votes in Terengganu, the margin of change in the last election was low after a surge in 1999. The chances are that in the 13th GE, Kelantan will remain firmly in PAS’s grip and unless there is a reverse swing of votes in Kedah, it will remain under PAS leadership as well. There would be a distinct possibility for Terengganu to be back in the embrace of PAS.

After an unprecedented 16 by-elections held after the 2008 GE, it has been “even stevens” between BN and PR. This suggests that BN-PR strengths have largely remained unchanged and that the two-coalition system has continued to track.

Nizar JamaluddinOne particular by-election illustrating the weakness of UMNO vis-à-vis PAS was the contest for Bukit Gantang, a parliamentary constituency with an electorate of 55,471 voters lying on the outskirts of Taiping town. A former stronghold of UMNO, it passed into PAS’s hands at the 2008 election, the Islamist party capturing a credible majority of 1,566 votes. The death of the PAS MP forced the April 7, 2009 by-election which saw the charismatic Nizar Jamaluddin take on UMNO’s Ismail Safian.

In the event Nizar, the deposed Mentri Besar of Perak, won the seat with an increased majority of 2,789 votes. An analysis by PAS showed that Nizar may have won only 43 per cent of the Malay votes. The results showed that the more rural areas of Trong gave UMNO a majority of votes while the more urban regions around Sepang, Bukit Gantang proper and Kuala Sepetang gave Nizar sizeable majorities. Nizar won the seat by capturing a sizable portion of the Malay votes, but in Malaysian politics today, this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. Nizar had to win the non-Malay votes by a good margin and he did.

Thus, in particular constituencies, non-Malay voters have become kingmakers whenever the Malay vote is split down the middle. It was clear that Nizar swept the non-Malay, mostly Chinese, votes, sometimes to the tune of 80 per cent. A field trip to Kuala Sepatang (formerly Port Weld), provided the author with the distinct impression that the Chinese fishing community seemed totally supportive of Nizar, who in his short tenure as MB had legalised temporary operating licence (TOL) land to Chinese farmers and other tenants.

For a comparison, let us now turn to the Tenang by-election in Johor held on January 30, 2011. This 14th by-election witnessed a resurgence of voter support for UMNO, but fell short of the 5,000-vote majority that it had expected. UMNO took the seat by a majority of 3,707 votes, some 1,200 more than what it gained in 2008 with a voter turnout of 9,833, which is only 67 per cent of the electorate. Widespread flooding in the constituency on voting day accounted for the low voter turnout.

Tenang practically exhibits the Peninsula template of Malay-Chinese-Indian distribution (49-38-12, and 1 per cent “others”) and its result was seen by some as a barometer of the state of play in Malaysian electoral politics. The UMNO candidate Azahar Ibrahim may have swept more than 80 per cent of the Malay vote. The PAS challenger, Normala Sudirman, evidently won the Chinese vote, but the numbers may have shrunk somewhat since 2008. This was thought to be because of the low voter turnout among the Chinese. She was able only to win a majority in the 95 per cent Chinese polling area of Labis Tengah but lost in Labis Timor and in Labis Station, which had lower Chinese percentages.

The DAP claim is that she still picked up the majority of Chinese votes. DAP publicity chieftony-pua Tony Pua suggested that UMNO’s Azahar received 83.3 per cent of Malay votes, up four percentage points from 2008. This was helped by an 81 per cent turn out by Malay voters. The Indian vote also went to BN, but the community had a low 40 per cent turnout. The by-election was marred by massive flooding and many voters had to be ferried to polling stations in police boats.

The Tenang by-election result was already predictable before voting day and only the margin of victory was at issue. As such, the interesting points to be made concern the different styles, tactics and approach to by-elections of Malaysia’s twin coalition system: UMNO clearly optimised on a strategy of using its copious resources and electoral machinery with great effect, while PAS floundered under the weight of Umno’s monopoly of state resources.

The by-election outcomes beg the question of what is animating politics on the ground today and here is where we could turn to the recent Umno assembly for some pointers. (BN went on to win the final two by-elections on March 6, 2011 in Malacca, namely, in the state seats of Merlimau and Kerdau, previously held by UMNO. The Electoral Commission ruled in April 2011 that they would be no further by-elections as three years had elapsed since the last election.)

A considerable amount of time and energy was devoted by delegates to pillorying and mocking PAS for its inability of fulfilling its promise of an Islamic state and watering down its agenda to that of a negara berkebajikan (welfare state) because of the objection of its alliance partner DAP. Thus UMNO continues to target PAS as its main opponent. The delegate from Perlis, a religious scholar, Fathul Bari, played two video clips of the recent PAS convention, showing PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz leading a prayer calling for UMNO’s destruction and allegedly dubbing UMNO members as murtad (apostates). The UMNO delegates jeered loudly, evidently scandalised by Tok Guru’s venom for the party.

But herein also lies UMNO’s Achilles heel; constituted originally as basically a secularist political party, it has increasingly been forced to meet the challenge of PAS’s Islamist politics and so far it has fared rather poorly. The more religious Muslims who support PAS consider UMNO’s attempts to be ersatz.

The contestation of UMNO with PAS on the Islamic terrain has to be understood in the context of PAS’s relentless critique of UMNO as a corrupt, unethical party and one incapable of implementing Islamic values and policies. UMNO’s riposte has been merely to up the ante on its own Islamic credentials. All UMNO Prime Ministers since Mahathir have attempted to implement a host of Islamisation policies, recruited religious scholars and proponents into the party, and have termed Malaysia an “Islamic state”.

Under Najib, the government has introduced the notion of wasatiyyah (moderation) which inter alia accepts the presence of other faiths but without putting them on par with Islam. Najib in speeches before and during this assembly openly rejected the notions of “liberalism” and “religious pluralism”. Delegates during the assembly attacked PAS for supporting LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) rights and pointed to PAS’s support of Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan as evidence of this. (Ambiga, also a former Bar Council President, was slotted to chair a session to discuss LGTB rights in the Seksualiti Merdeka Festival in November 2011. The festival was stopped by the government.)

It is of supreme irony that UMNO, the erstwhile Malay secularist party, now postures itself as an Islamist party while PAS, the putative Islamist party, has begun to take on more progressive agendas and stances on contemporary issues.

A defensive UMNO

A defensive UMNO has evidently moved beyond its familiar attack of non-Malays — symbolised by the “keris rattling” of UMNO Youth — to a more frontal confrontation with its religious foe PAS. Put differently, UMNO’s polemical terrain appears to have shifted one remove beyond its preoccupation with the notion of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy).

This said, Malay supremacy still reared its head and remained as an important trope of the Shahrizat A Jalillatest UMNO assembly. It was clearly invoked in the speeches of the women’s chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil (right) and Deputy Youth leader Reezal Merican Naina Merican. One spun out the familiar threat to non-Malays of the possible recurrence of a May 13 event should UMNO lose the Malay vote while the other famously announced that UMNO was a party anointed by God.

On a more defensive plane, a young delegate representing the UMNO clubs abroad struck a resonance with all and sundry when he started to sing a Biro Tata Negara (BTN) propaganda song lamenting the surrender of indigenous lands and possessions to foreign occupiers. (BTN or the National Civics Bureau organises orientation programmes for Malay students and civil servants.)

But the tear-jerking episode conveyed a subliminal message that UMNO Malays have lost sight of the multiracial politics advocated by its traditional leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak. Without doubt, Reezal Merican took racial politics to a new high when he implied that the Malays were God’s chosen people.

Predictably, the UMNO’s President opening address emphasised the crucial character of the 13th GE for the party’s future and its survival and he alluded to the significance of the 2.9 million new voters. Again, this suggests that UMNO is not at all confident that it has captured the youth vote. Indeed, young people were conspicuous by their low attendance at the UMNO General Assembly. Some 10 or so UMNO overseas club members were visible and the Puteri UMNO (young women’s wing) was clearly outnumbered by the UMNO makciks and pakciks (older folks).Speeches by Puteri representatives were underwhelming and drew little fire.

The President’s speech was devoid of new policies as he trotted out the successes of his policies of economic, political and governmental transformation. There was no mention of how the government has addressed the egregious problems of corruption and crime. He clearly avoided any reference to the cyber rumblings that linked the first family to a land deal involving the Ministry of Defence alleged by one Deepak Jaikishan.

Zahid HamidDefence Minister Ahmad Zahid (left) also demurred responding to the Deepak allegations. At the point of writing, Deepak, a businessman and carpet dealer, has sued Selangor UMNO women’s leader Raja Ropiaah Abdullah’s company Awan Megah for breach of contract and for allegedly cheating him of millions of ringgit. Awan Megah was awarded a RM100 million privatisation project to set up an intelligence centre by the defence minister, it was alleged. Deepak had also intimated that he was responsible for the recanting of a statutory declaration by private investigator P. Balasubramanian, which had stated that Najib had a relationship with the murdered Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Najib’s 45-minute concluding speech provided hints of the problems afflicting the party. He spoke of finding “winnable candidates”, the problem of “saboteurs” and chose to praise in the same breath both ex-premiers Mahathir and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, known to be in different UMNO camps. Further cyber noise from former Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan that the Home Minister had interfered in his handling of arrests of persons of standing over criminal activities also failed to draw any strong response from Hishammuddin Hussein, the minister in question. With the goings-on inside and outside the party, there were more than enough suggestions that the party was faction-ridden.

More tellingly, certain personalities appeared likely to be dropped as candidates in the KJcoming GE. It has been common knowledge for a long time that the UMNO Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin (left), Abdullah’s son-in-law, may not be selected to defend his Rembau seat because of alleged blocking by Mahathir, who would like to see his own son Mukhriz rise in the party hierarchy. There have also been incessant rumours circulating that Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin was “plotting” for the president himself to under-perform in the GE, while Najib’s cousin, vice-president Hishammuddin, awaits a leg-up to the next level should Muhyiddin falter.

Conclusion

As the 66th UMNO General assembly concluded and the impending 13th general election looms large, Malaysia’s de facto ruling party may not be able to find the means to check its path-dependent decline. After more than five decades of unparalleled success in helming Malaysia save for a hiccup in 1969, it now faces the prospect of a possible loss of control of the federal government following the disastrous electoral outcome of 2008.

Path-dependent decline has even been more evident in its coalition partners, the MCA and Gerakan, two Chinese-based parties which have lost their historical advantage to the DAP. Leadership problems and haemorrhaging in the MIC has meant a splintering of the Indian vote mostly mopped up by the Opposition front. Other coalition partners in Sabah and Sarawak have fared much better up till now but some decline is evident in last year’s state election in Sarawak and in recent party defections in Sabah.

UMNO itself faces the rise of an unprecedented number of young and more urbanised voters who have little appetite for neither its old-style racial politics nor its ersatz Islamism. Furthermore, factionalism within the party leadership despite an outward show of solidarity is bound to affect its effectiveness in securing desired electoral outcomes. — aliran.com

* Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran contributor and former Aliran trustee, is currently Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. –www.themalaysianinsider.com