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MGG: Ketari XIII: Is the BN irrelevant?
By M.G.G. Pillai

4/4/2002 2:31 pm Thu

The Ketari byelections throws up yet another intriguing question: Is the National Front (BN) irrelevant? The BN cannot now enter a byelections skirmish without what it needs to fight a war; its electoral victories only possible with a metaphorical hammer against a defenceless fly. The fly is squashed, in the several byelections since the 1999 general elections, but the hand that holds the hammer can barely lift it now. With each byelection, the BN's claim it delivers is barely believed. Ketari, thus, is a watershed: even BN does not crow at its fantastic victory. Welcome as it is, each victory, paradoxically, destroys a little of its diminishing self-confidence. What saves it is the Opposition's unrealistic expectation, its naive belief that it can win on its unalloyed good intentions even with the cards are stacked against it.

The BN cannot win byelections anymore unless (a) UMNO Puteri moves into every Malay household to prevent the opposition from approaching it; (b) UMNO youth as its storm troopers; (c) Cabinet ministers and party leaders and an assortment of government staff camping out in the constituency to ensure the community they represent is safe for BN; (d) the federal treasury picks up the bills for what, strictly, should be BN's; (e) the government announcing projects for the area its elected representatives have long ignored and which it has no intention of honouring; (f) force the opposition not by outdoing what it proposes but to accuse its leaders, especially not the candidate, or wrongdoing or misstep, preferably a decade or so earlier; (g) the police threat of worsening security if, by implication, the voter decides to back the non-BN candidate.

The deputy prime minister is ex-officio commanding general. His chief-of-staff is the state mentri besar or chief minister, if from UMNO; or the leading UMNO bigwig there if it is Penang, Kelantan or Trengganu. The constituency is swamped with UMNO workers from around the country with no idea of local conditions, driving in in their latest model Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, for no reason than to spread the BN message of what would happen if their candidate is not elected. There are usually more UMNO workers in the constituency than there are voters.

The preparations for each cost several tens of millions of ringgit. An army, after all, cannot survive long on nasi lemak alone. All this, strictly, offend the Elections laws; but the Elections Commission is, happily, in these circumstances, a creature of the BN government and with no right to complain of electoral toothaches unless it is allowed to. So, the elections are well run when, to tell the truth, it is not. I have met BN voters who embrace wholeheartedly Mayor Richard Daley's advice to his Chicago constituencts: Vote early, and often. And follow it to the letter. Now that is legitimised with the latest chance in the elections laws.

When the Elections Commission hides under the time-honoured principle of See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil when the Evil is BN's, the Opposition naively convinced raising issues makes a difference, the elections stolen from under them, every possible voice against is silenced, in the sudden wall of silence that descends amidst this makebelief of an active election campaign, the battle is all but lost. The Opposition is so disparate and diffused it could not arrange a tea party for children because it cannot agree on what cakes to provide. The BN took advantage of this confusion but few in the Opposition -- Parti Rakyat Malaysia's Dr Syed Husin Ali and, latterly, PAS, are two which saw through this -- took notice.

Politics in Malaysia is as BN and UMNO dictates. So well is this entrenched, that political debate restricted to challenging the BN and UMNO worldview at any given time. The Opposition could have forced the pace but decided it would rather not. Until PAS forced it. That that is Islamic is thus inevitable. This forced BN into rigor mortis shock that it must now outdo PAS's unequivocal Islamic agenda. In other words, BN's Malaysia of the future is not multiracial but Islamic, as it struggles to catch up the Barisan Alternatif's (BA) Islamic worldview. The gladiators in that epic struggle is UMNO for BN and PAS for BA. The DAP ignored this. Dipping through its website, Bungaraya, one sees its coming irrelevance in the dramatic political changes occurring in its midst. It does not even realise what it espouses is, as Mr Justice Augustine Paul so elegantly put it, irrelevant.

The BN Malaysians are accustomed to is a multiracial coalition in which UMNO as the lead party is concerned about keeping Malaysia as a multiracial and multicultural haven. That all but ended with the utter confusion within the Malay community after the UMNO president and BN prime minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, rocked Malaysia's feudal foundations to its roots by humiliating his principal chieftain, the jailed former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The BN today, like the Elections Commission, rejects what it once stood for.

So it gears for war when it hears of a skirmish. Why? Because it is vulnerable on all fronts, its defences weak, its spies unwilling, for reasons of their own, to provide the intelligence, that it needs an army of elephants to confront a company of mice. This unequal battle is not lost on Malaysians, who, with each passing day, shift support, in dribs and drabs, to the mice. The mice is squashed time and time again, but it returns, in the next skirmish, burnished and revitalised. The laws are amended periodically to halt the slow but sure march of the mice. But not for long. And BN wakes up to an unpalatable reality: the battle is lost if only the mice had an able general to lead them. It knows it wins now. But for how long?

M.G.G. Pillai