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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?
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.