Waiting for Umno to walk the talk against corruption

The country’s criminal and anti-corruption laws punish both the giver and the receiver of bribes. So why should it be any different for Umno members? Why should members who seek bribes not be punished along with those who give them?

The Straits Times

After 20 years of being plagued by allegations of widespread vote-buying in party elections, Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) finally said last month that it would no longer treat money politics as a mere internal party matter. It is outright corruption, after all, liable to criminal prosecution.

The signal came when Tengku Tan Sri Ahmad Rithauddeen Tengku Ismail, who chairs Umno’s disciplinary committee (LD), said the party needed to plug a big gap in its code of ethics: that is, the lack of censure for members who demand money or favours to vote for or against a candidate in party elections.

As Umno Supreme Council member Shahrir Abdul Samad told The Straits Times: “This is the shift that has happened in Umno. Money politics is now seen as simple, straightforward corruption … Once this shift occurred, it was conceded that (money politics) was no longer an internal party matter.”

After all, as one party insider pointed out, the country’s criminal and anti-corruption laws punish both the giver and the receiver of bribes. So why should it be any different for Umno members? Why should members who seek bribes not be punished along with those who give them?

Bribery is now practised blatantly even at the lowest rungs of Umno politics. Seekers of bribes sometimes use code words like “Agong ada?” – meaning “Do you have the King?”, with “Agong” here being a reference to the image of the Malaysian King, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, that appears on the country’s currency.

The going rate these days for Umno Supreme Council elections is said to be as much as RM200,000 for an influential delegate’s support.

Umno secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said last year that during the October/November divisional meetings to nominate candidates for the party polls in March this year, the LD got up to 1,000 complaints about money politics.

Even former party president Mahathir Mohamad threatened to post the culprits’ names on his blog http://www.chedet.com.

Adnan added, however, that 75 per cent of the complaints were false and were meant to destroy political rivals. Meanwhile, Umno members themselves say that the LD acts slowly on complaints and does not reveal the results of investigations.

Currently, the party’s code calls for the censure of only candidates, their agents and lobbyists who garner support by inducing, enticing or feathering the nests of members or their families in any way to win their votes.

At first sight, Tengku Rithauddeen’s call for change may seem politically counterintuitive. Umno’s rank-and-file is already riled by the party’s ineffectual leadership, after the party lost 43 seats to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition in the general election last March.

So, why incur their wrath further by shifting the blame for bribery from Umno leaders to Umno members? After all, as everyone knows, Umno leaders amass big war chests to gain or maintain their posts.

What is the use of stifling demand for baksheesh when there appears to be an over-supply of it?

Some observers wonder whether this shift is just another attempt to plaster over cracks in Umno’s foundation. These cracks were exposed by Umno Selangor veteran Mazlan Harun in August last year when he lodged police and Anti-Corruption Agency reports against Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, for allegedly angling for delegates’ votes by giving them big dinners and pricey souvenirs.

At least two Umno division leaders balked at Rithauddeen’s suggestion because they felt it implied that the party was overly corrupt.

Insiders say the rot of money politics set in the party from the late 1980s, when long-entrenched Umno incumbents were suddenly challenged by upstarts with deep pockets. Shahrir said corruption was so systematic that some division leaders got fixed sums of money in their bank accounts regularly and delegates were given pink forms to apply for initial public offerings.

The trouble now is that Umno’s patronage, if not money, politics may have become the raison d’etre for many to join, and stay on, in the party.

As one netizen observed on the Malaysia Today website: “If new ethics like ‘cannot ask for money’ are really implemented and culprits are punished, who the hell would still want to join Umno? You think it’s really about protecting Malay rights?”

It is an open secret that many urban Malay professionals and businessmen join Umno in the hope of getting big breaks in their careers or trades.

That said, observers wonder who within Umno would offer himself as the sacrificial lamb to help it regain moral legitimacy. They recall how late party president Hussein Onn hauled up then popular Selangor chief minister Harun Idris – ironically, the father of Mazlan – for corruption in 1976. Harun served two years in jail.

Shahrir thinks the shift in the party’s stance on money politics will lend legitimacy to its leaders: “If nobody asks, there is no reason for the candidate to give. And even candidates who give without being asked will be embarrassed into not giving."

But to many the logic of this argument would appear odd: It is almost as though Umno’s guardians are conceding that the practices of its leaders cannot be changed; but if their followers changed, perhaps the leaders might, too. – MI