Laman KM2: 6957 KM2 Index File Size: 5.8 Kb

MGG: Ketari XII: Is UMNO still relevant?
By M.G.G. Pillai

3/4/2002 1:48 pm Wed

The National Front (BN) candidate, the Gerakan's Mr Yum Ah Sha, defeated his DAP opponent, Mr Choong Siew Onn on Sunday, 31 March 02, proof in the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed's considered view "UMNO is still relevant to the people". Those who accused UMNO of irrelevance were themselves so, and taken for a ride by Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), to boot. So, Malaysian elections, especially in a straight fight between two non-Malay candidates, neither from UMNO nor PAS, is, in his view, a larger proxy fight for the Malay soul. In other words, he infers the non-UMNO parties in BN amount for nothing, only there to do UMNO's bidding.

That may be in practice, but for him to say it, as BN and UMNO president, reflects more BN's and UMNO's uncertainties than their strenghths now toted to justify the BN victory at Ketari. It also sends a subtle warning to the non-Malays who would rather vote for the Opposition. Since he made these remarks to reporters after an UMNO supreme council meeting, there is, in his remarks, a bravado that has not often put him in good stead. His presidency soured after one monumental moment in 1998, one from which he struggles to keep him and UMNO stay afloat

Despite the huge margin of victory, the usual euphoria is missing. The BN leaders did not pat their backs for a job well done: caught in their personal, especially leadership, problems, they left it to the UMNO president to speak on their behalf. Like the UMNO president, BN leaders, when faced with a challenge to his leadership, the community he represents is ignored. The subdued newspaper commentaries accepted, directly or indirectly, the problems within BN. It is UMNO's role they talked of, not of Gerakan, who supplied the candidate, and, while it did not spell it out so crassly, the folly of the present practice of placing non-Malay candidates in Malay majority constituencies.

The BN and UMNO is in shock with every byelection, as shown in every byelection since 1999: Sanggang, in April 2000; Teluk Kemang, in June 2000; Lunas, in November 2000; Indera Kayangan, in January 2002; Ketari, in March. When discussing UMNO's role, I exclude its role in Sabah, where UMNO spread its wings in a fit and found it bit more than it could chew. UMNO Sabah is run by remote control from Kuala Lumpur, with all the problems that entail. So I exclude the Likas byelection last year from this discussion. Different rules apply there, and a total defeat for UMNO there would not cause the hurricane a handful of constituencies here.

The initial shock, and the need to win it at any cost, throws BN and UMNO out of gear. Instead of as a rite of passage, it looks upon each byelection as a challenge to its masculinity, and prepares for it as to war. UMNO, more than BN, needs to, to prove, for its own relevance, it could never lose a byelection. Even if UMNO and BN have internal problems so severe that they face a crisis further down the line.

What every byelections show is the BN's and UMNO's total unpreparedness. The BN lets UMNO handle it; and UMNO, 56 years old, does not have an elections machinery ready to jump into action when an elections is due. So, an ad hoc machinery is in place every time. One that could not be held together without the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister or both on hand to paste the cracks on the fly. It reveals neither confidence nor strength, with the leaders unwilling to let the party machinery to take over.

It is not hard to fathom why. Money fuels elections, more so in BN and UMNO. Few notice it, but BN parties are organised as warlords, paying nominal fealty to the Leader, but with every call for help possible only if dollops of money accompany it. Not at the leadership level, but lower down, where help is most crucial.

UMNO cannot, in other words, let party machinery run the show, without either the president or deputy president on hand to make sure it works, and not sidetracked by piratical exactions in return for help. Malaysian elections, especially when the law allows only a maximum of a fortnight between nomination and polling, is devoid of issues, centres around the irrelevant and the non-consequential, with mainstream newspapers focussing on them and reporting it to tedium. It diverts attention from what elections stand for: a spectrum of issues on which the candidates sink or swim. Curiously, campaigning is reduced from three months to a fortnight allegedly to cut down the cost of running an election; but UMNO and, to a lesser degree BN, are forced to spend more on an election than for the government to conduct it.

So, the Ketari byelections shows not BN's, or UMNO's. confidence, but its fear of being sidelined. It needs small victories to show it is in control, which ipso facto means the Malay has returned to UMNO, and is quick off the hoop to proclaim that the events of 1998 is erased by Dr Mahathir's fervent war on Islamic militants in Malaysia, and his right to tea and scones with President Bush in Washington in May. That we are told is proof of UMNO's greatness. Let the Malay, and by extension the Malaysian, not ever forget it. And every byelection confirms it. Does it? When the deputy prime minister ignores his official functions to go to ground every time to ensure the BN candidate wins?

M.G.G. Pillai