May 15, 2018
UMNO’s Implosion has begun
by Dr. M Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California
Can this politician save UMNO?
In the 1999 Tenth General Election, UMNO lost many seats and its Barisan Nasional coalition reduced to a simple majority. Najib Razak, then widely touted to succeed Mahathir, squeaked through with the slimmest majority, thanks to the late arrival of “postal votes.”
Contrary to the belief of many, the mysterious and late arrival of ballot boxes is not a recent phenomenon. It started long ago during Mahathir’s time when he led Barisan. In the current euphoria over Mahathir’s victory in defeating Barisan, it is good to be reminded of that fact.
I wrote then in my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics In Modern Malaysia that only Mahathir had the skills, courage, and personality to undertake the much-needed radical changes in UMNO. The party required revitalization even then.
‘Brigadier-General’ Khairy Jamaluddin
I see no one in the current UMNO leadership who comes anywhere near Mahathir in ability. There are plenty of pretenders – Mahathir wannabes – the most showy being that ‘Brigadier-General’ Khairy. A genuine general would have committed hara-kiri after letting his troops down. Apologies alone would not do it.
Reading again now what I wrote then about Mahathir, I ponder the irony that by being out of UMNO he forced the most profound changes in his old party.
I suggested then that UMNO’s top priority was to remove the “no-contest” directive for the party’s top two slots. That regressive move was put in by – who else? – Mahathir to reduce undue politicking, he claimed. Human nature being what it is, that rule merely moved those maneuverings underground and generated even more dangerous rifts.
As Mahathir was then anticipated to retire soon, that would have been a good time to implement the change. Alas that was not to be. As a consequence, UMNO and Malaysia were blighted by the inept leaderships of Abdullah and Najib. Being weak, they found that provision a convenient crutch.
I also suggested revamping UMNO’s Supreme Council. The party President could not control who gets voted into that body. However the President could appoint up to 15 members to complement the 25 elected. That is substantial. Mahathir could use that route to recruit new talents into the party’s upper echelons, a technique Tun Razak had used to great effectiveness. Instead, Mahathir selected the flunkiesAs for a successor, I had suggested that Mahathir buck tradition and pick someone other than his three vice-presidents. All three were duds. He had already fired his capable Deputy President, Anwar Ibrahim. Had Mahathir not picked Abdullah and Najib, the party would have been spared the current humiliation. The past precious decade and a half would also not have been wasted, and Malaysia would not be saddled by a trillion ringgit debt.
Mahathir also failed to address money politics. As UMNO was the ruling party, corruption in UMNO meant corruption in government. It is corruption, specifically of 1MDB, that brought Najib and UMNO down.
One initiative I proposed was decoupling party positions from governmental appointments. That is, once you are appointed to a government position, whether Prime Minister or local dog catcher, then you have to give up your party posts. That meant the Prime Minister would no longer be party President. During his time, however, Mahathir held both positions and made the government subservient to the party.
It is tough enough being a cabinet minister without also being UMNO Treasurer. Such a policy would also dilute and diffuse power, creating some semblance of checks and balances, both sorely lacking in UMNO (as well as in the government). Najib was Party President as well as Prime Minister and Finance Minister. Bad things could happen with the concentration of power, quite apart from the fact that you could not commit 100 percent to any one position.
A perennial divisive issue in UMNO (as well as other parties) is with the selection of candidates for the general elections. The current process is opaque and opens up avenues for local “war-lordism.” Worse, the process does not attract fresh capable faces.
I suggested that local divisions nominate four or five viable candidates, listing them in order of preference, and then have the central committee select one together with an alternate from that list, and only from that list. That mechanism accommodates both local input and a central quality-control mechanism. Those five could be selected by the local committee or be nominated through a mini election of its local members. That would also discourage “money politics.”
UMNO no longer attracts talented Malays, especially young professionals. Those who join do so to spearhead their otherwise lackluster careers. The not-so-terribly smart lawyers on becoming UMNO members get a crack at some high-profile cases and contracts. Accountants who could not attract private clients become chairman of PNB or Pernas. Likewise academics; they have nothing original published but upon joining UMNO they catapult to the Dean’s or Vice Chancellor’s office. Few physicians join UMNO because if you are a lousy doctor, joining UMNO would not bring you many new patients.
Talented individuals would not waste their precious time working their way up the party hierarchy. They are busy with their careers. So why not have a central admission pathway for them to bypass parochial and ever-jealous local divisional chieftains?
The responses of UMNO leaders to the recent debacle have not been impressive. Najib rightly resigned immediately. He should do that but stay on until the party has its new leadership. Instead he tried to abscond after resigning. Acting President Zahid, with the backing of his Supreme Council (what’s changed?), was scheming to join the ruling coalition, however improbable or laughable that was. Vice-President Hishammuddin was silent, nodding to whatever Zahid (and Najib earlier) said. Women’s leader Shahrizat A. Jalil mumbled about a post-mortem. Youth leader Khairy emphasized stabilizing the membership (thus inadvertently revealing that many are contemplating bolting) and being a good opposition party. He also talked about “collective responsibility.” Had he really believed in that and acted on it, he too would have joined Najib in resigning. As for Puteri head, she remained demure, like an ornamental princess.
I see nothing that would lead me to believe that UMNO leaders are ready, willing, or able to change. UMNO’s implosion has begun.