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MGG: Could UMNO survive without Anwar Ibrahim?
By M.G.G. Pillai

27/12/2001 3:22 am Thu


01-15 Jan 2002

Could UMNO survive without Anwar Ibrahim?

M.G.G. Pillai

The reality sinks in reluctantly but surely: UMNO is no more what it was, is, or could be. The Prime Minister, and its president, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, in his feudal domain, cannot make the Malay dance to his tune because a defeated baron could not be killed, and who forces him to retreat inch by inch from his prison cell. This, as in any feudal society, is not mentioned when rule is strengthened by makebelief: the economy is strong, there is enough money for all of us and to spare the hundreds of billions of ringgit we need to bail out the cronies, Malaysia is the centre of the Muslim world and even President Bush invites its leader to tea and scones in the Rose Garden of the White House.

But all is not right. Nothing works or moves. The civil service is at odds with the Cabinet, itself of men and women more concerned of their survival than the country's. The country shatters into myriads of factions and scrambled into racial, religious, economic, political, social, cultural groups, and at odds with each other. The country's constitution is in shreds, cheerfully ignored, with Parliament, by the government to do as it pleases, sans debate or consent. This it could once. The Malay ground was firmly with it, and the Malay, then as now, provide the political and cultural legitimacy which placed UMNO where it was.

That disappeared in 1998 when Dr Mahathir, nervous at his deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, straining at the leash, had him sacked and eventually jailed for corruption and sodomy in a series of trials where it was not the truth of the allegations that mattered so much if a feudal leader could be overturned by a rebellious baron. It could not. The gross injustice of it all roused the solid Malay cultural ground to shift away from UMNO. Not that it supported UMNO but because Dr Mahathir and UMNO broke an inviolable rule: that he could kill a rebellious baron, but not humiliate him.

That saga has dragged on for three years, with each public confrontation between the two men diminishing UMNO and its president. The cussedness and the official hatred towards him and his illness which confines him to a wheelchair increased with each appearance in court. The 1999 general elections, the first since Dato' Seri Anwar's jailing, showed its effect: the UMNO-led National Front's massive victory belied a sharp erosion of Malay support towards Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) and the party formed to fight for his release, Parti Keadilan Malaysia or National Justice Party.

UMNO ignored the signs, though not its members. They snored into hibernation, refusing or sidestepping party matters except when it is unavoidably demanded of them, like when the prime minister or deputy prime ministers visit their bailliwick, or in the run up to UMNO party elections. The ministers do not want to be involved, and stay out of the headlines, that restricted to the small coterie who could survive when the regime changed. But they, distant and out of touch, in turn ordered, hectored, demanded, insisted, assuming it enough to rally the masses.

But the masses stayed away. It seeks a new cultural leader. PAS did not get it as its leaders hoped. Keadilan could have been, for it is, on paper, what UMNO was before its president lost his head: secular, moderate, multiracial, multicultural with Islam as the driving force and eschewing extremes. UMNO, its base crumbling, moved swiftly to challenge PAS to see who could be more fundamentalist. So much so the political debate today is between PAS and UMNO for the Islamic society the Muslim wants, but not the non-Muslim.

The cultural Malay is unhappy at this, and sit even more firmly on the sidelines. Both PAS and UMNO now flounder, aided by the spurious war on terrorism the US engages, in a street fight neither could win without damaging the core of Malaysia's raison d'etre. For each sticks to its fundamental stand, and defend it to exclude every other. UMNO realises, though late, it but can neither change nor rally the troops. There is none in UMNO willing to take on the likes of PAS's Ustadz Dato' Nik Aziz Nik Mat or Ustadz Dato' Hadi Awang or even its rabble rousers, Mohamed Sabu or Mahfuz Omar.

It then is the end of the road for UMNO. With Keadilan succeeding in returning it to its moderation and PAS strengthening its Islamic credentials, UMNO will not have an easy ride at the next polls. Which is why UMNO must hold general elections soon, perhaps as end of the year, to firm itself in power, as it can, one more time. But it can only with strong non-Malay support. If the next parliament has more Malay MPs than in UMNO, all is lost.

Which is why even the most anti of Dato' Seri Anwar now say UMNO is "finished" without him. That way, they reason, it scuttles the Keadilan and Parti Rakyat Malaysia merger, a more frightening combination to UMNO than Keadilan alone, and UMNO has the one man with the Islamic credentials to challenge PAS. So, we see Anwar cronies coming back to office. Several have been rehabilitated, usually by getting the banks not to press for bankruptcy for loans taken in good times they are now ordered to repay immediately. One is to get a failed privatisation project, several brought back into UMNO's heirarchy.

The Star recently reported on the returning of the Anwar disapora to centre field. His aides, lawyers and family denies it vigorously, but something does take place. His visitors to his cell outside visiting hours once were police, prison and Special branch officers; today, they include Tan Sris, Dato' Seris, Dato's and others who would not hesitate to spit at him if ordered to. I have been told fanciful versions of these meetings, but all it reveals is not that Dato' Seri Anwar would be released, but that Dr Mahathir needs him more than ever.

Ways suggested are, on the surface, fanciful, impossible or improbable. That the Federal Court would find his conviction unsustainable. That would set him free with the other convictions set aside. That UMNO would readmit him without penalty since the charges against him are now disproven, and make him deputy prime minister when elections, if as expected (and the more so now that Dr Mahathir has denied it!) is at year's end. The flaw in this, of course, is where the deputy prime minister and heir apparent, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi fits in. These versions do not say.

These rumours reveal that UMNO's quagmire over the Anwar affair threatens to drown it. If he is brought back into the mainstream, UMNO has a credible politician who could challenge PAS, sideline the threat the Keadilan-PRM merger poses, let Dr Mahathir off the feudal hook by bringing him back into where he was before he fell. This act of forgiveness would also wipe out his feudal misteps, and could give him the cultural leadership he was stripped off on the night of 2 September 1998. However you look at UMNO since then, Dato' Seri Anwar holds it to ransom. And the ransom must be paid.

M.G.G. Pillai