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Why UMNO Lost - MGG Pillai
By web aNtu

20/12/1999 10:16 pm Mon

Dr M: UMNO Lost Popularity Because of PAS and Loyalty to Individuals

The Prime Minister, after his stupendous electoral victory, still cannot come to terms with it. But his early euphoria could not be sustained; the Opposition gains is the most dramatic ever, not in the seats it gained, but in what it caused within UMNO and, by extension, to the National Front. For the first time since the late 1950s and early 1960s, the governing coalition (then the Alliance, now the National Front) faces a respectable coalition; then it was the Socialist Front, now the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front). The National Front could not unseat the PAS government in Kelantan it lost in 1990, and it lost Trengganu, both decisively. The Prime Minister's claim yesterday that UMNO' unpopularity was enhanced by internal bickering and the normal political activity of leaders surrounding themselves with loyal acolytes. He would not admit that his disgraced deputy, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, had as much to do with UMNO's electoral setbacks: that He Who Must Be Destroyed At All Cost could mount a challenge against an obstreperous party leadership gave the others cause for hope. Neither would he admit the biggest single cause of UMNO's popularity is He Who Thinks He Is Lord Of All He Surveys himself. To remain in power, one must renew oneself constantly. This the Prime Minister and the National Front ignored.

When a party is dominant as UMNO has been since 1946, the party leader is immensely powerful, especially when he is also prime minsiter. Any opposition to him is muted, but when, like in 1987, it breaks out into the open, the results are cataclysmic. The High Court declared UMNO an illegal organisation. In other words, the UMNO of 1946 did not exist after that date. The Prime Minister formed UMNO Baru (New UMNO) to which he excluded any he did not like, including his principal rival, then as now, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. UMNO first three presidents did not join the new UMNO, the second having died 11 years earlier. Even if Tengku Razaleigh's Semangat '46 gave up the ghost and joined UMNO, it was not to the UMNO of 1946. The UMNO of today is a successor of the UMNO of 1946. The ideals of 1946 did not translate into the new UMNO, even if the split is healed and to all intents and purposes has the form of the UMNO of 1946. The political movement became, as a result of the court order, a political party. The links UMNO had with its members at its formation was broken. UMNO, of course, insists there is no difference. There is. The subtle internal changes made it easier for members to take issue with their leaders even if they are seen to be disloyal. This combined with the increasing educational standards the members, the New Economic Policy's role in widening the worldview of the burgeoning Malay middle cla#s, meant that individual powerbrokers would not hold back their opposition for feudal considerations. That several opposed to the Prime Minister were allowed to contest the recent elections does suggest that political treachery does have its benefits.

The only matter outstanding was who would challenge him. Tengku Razaleigh, as a representative of the feudal cla#s (he is grandson of a Sultan of Kelantan and nephew to both the present Sultan and Sultanah), did not count when he took Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed on for the UMNO presidency in 1987. The Prime Minister's governance however was put to test in that a feudal leader found matters so distasteful that he raised the banner of revolt. Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim's challenge was more serious. It threw open the carefully-nurtured feudal heirarchy in UMNO, and allowed others to challenge the centre. The Negri Sembilan crisis is more serious for UMNO than the political crisis in Penang over whether Gerakan or MCA should provide the chief minister. That someone as loyal to the Prime Minister as Datin Napsiah Omar challenged the appointment of Dato' Waad Mansor as executive councillor, which he had approved, is more serious than his claim of "loyalty to individuals" ensuring UMNO's unpopulrity. To break out of this loyalty to not the UMNO President or the Malaysian Prime Minister but to Dr Mahathir, his strong supporters would have to attack his nominees if they hope to get the support of UMNO delegates in the coming elections. That Datin Napsiah is, at the moment, an official candidate for Wanita chief. highlights this trend. Besides, Tengku Razaleigh hovers in the background as a potential successor as prime minister accentuates this view.

PAS and the Barisan Alternatif did what political parties should do: to punch holes in the opponent's plank. The National Front's political insistence that the opposition are a bunch of rabble rousers do not hold much water now. The National Front's campaign of villifying the opposition with rabble-rousing advertisements and personal attacks backfired. The widespread accusations of cheating at the polls coupled with the partiality of the Elections Commission throws much doubt about how clean the National Front victory was. That UMNO itself claims the Elections Commission has been unfair is indicative of this frustration. But when the Prime Minister had to sack his own political secretary for filling in his nomination papers wrongly, it points to a more serious problem within UMNO than the emergence of political warlords. UMNO must reorganise itself like the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, with its powerful factions and groups and its intense infighting within before it comes up with a leader. Otherwise, like the Congress Party of India (which like UMNO turned a national movement to a political party), it must face the daunting prospect of a period in the opposition in the coming general elections.

M.G.G. Pillai