Old formula no longer works


The by-election in Kuala Terengganu further emphasises that voters don’t want politics-as-usual. They want respect and service.

STANDING on the terrace of Pulau Duyung’s gleaming white Marina Exhibition centre, I can see Kuala Terengganu’s main landmarks ranged across the open water: the Sultan Mahmud bridge, the distant Bukit Besar emblazoned with the words “Allah Peliharakan Terengganu”, the police barracks, Chinatown’s shophouses, the centuries-old Masjid Puteh alongside the Istana Maziah, and the Grand Continental Hotel.

I must confess that I’ve never liked this town – give me Kota Baru any day.

Furthermore, I loathe the brand of puritanical politics preached by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and his faction in PAS. For better or worse, this had come to dominate the Terengganu political landscape.

Nonetheless, the view before me is panoramic – almost heroic, made all the more so by the hulking presence of the white, sarcophagus-like exhibition centre behind me.

Moreover, at this time of the year the strong South China Sea monsoon winds buffet you aggressively as you walk back to the equally dramatic, if darker-hued, Riy-az Heritage Resort and Spa with its spectacular 10m-high verandah.

The two buildings are silent sentinels at the Terengganu rivermouth. Exquisitely built, but rarely visited and ghost-like, they remind you of the countless bizarre projects across the country – projects that may have seemed like a good idea at the time, only to languish and fade over the years as the initial enthusiasm for their construction and usage dimmed and then, in certain cases, just disappeared.

Someone should someday make a record of all these ill-conceived, under-utilised ventures; and with a recession fast approaching we certainly need to be reminded of all that’s been frittered away over the past decades.

But consider for a moment just how tactlessly placed the two buildings at the heart of the infamous Monsoon Cup truly are for Kuala Terengganu’s residents, reminding the townspeople time and again of the lavishness with which others – principally outsiders – have spent Terengganu’s highly prized Uang Ehsan or oil revenues.

All politics is local and last weekend’s by-election in Kuala Terengganu (or KT as its better known) was principally about KT, its inhabitants and their politics and politicians.

Indeed, it was a very personal contest between two well-known local figures. And in this small, tightly-knit community nothing escapes notice.

The scrutiny was (and is) intense and unforgiving, leaving the Barisan Nasional flag-bearer, Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid of Umno, very much the weaker candidate which meant that his defeat was not unexpected.

However, the story does not end there. While the Umno candidate had his problems, the strategy employed to win over KT’s voters was vintage Barisan, and therefore hopelessly flawed and outdated. It was, as always, “money, money, money, veiled threats and more money”.

Once again, Barisan has failed to read the mood of the Malaysian people. Its inability to do so is deeply worrying especially given the superior resources at its disposal. You have to ask yourself, how can a bunch of activists, former lecturers and Umno refuseniks out-strategise and out-manoeuvre Malaysia’s grand old party?

Well, I’m not a pollster but it’s clear enough to me that the people of Malaysia want more than contracts and money. In essence they want respect and service. Since March 2008, politics-as-usual is no longer acceptable. The old formula is dead.

The rakyat will no longer stand there patiently, receiving the benefits of development (which as citizens is theirs by right anyway) and trading their meek submissiveness for goodies.

Still, they’re not stupid. Of course, they’ll accept the cash and pocket the rewards, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote accordingly.

The people want their representatives in Parliament (or any state assembly) to be humble, prompt to act, committed to good governance and straight-dealing.

In short, they are after a total reversal of the traditional Malaysian political equation – and something that Umno reps in Johor, for example, are more than used to doing. They want politicians to be their servants and not their masters. Barisan and Umno have yet to realise this fundamental change.

Added to this is the growing fearlessness among the people of all races – many of whom are confident enough to challenge elected representatives and ministers head on.

Unfortunately, Umno is in a forlorn state. The noble party of Merdeka is full of carpet-baggers and ne’er-do-wells. This is accentuated by the long drawn out party campaign period.

At the same time the impending accession of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak as party president has dazzled the members.

They feel that he – and he alone – can, and will, rescue the party from its present “funk”. They feel that he has the secret ingredient which will allow them to continue as before – lobbying for contracts and hanging out in hotel lobbies smoking expensive cigars.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true. Firstly, no one man can single-handedly transform a party of over two million members.

The party president will need a team alongside him to lead, and then bring about root and branch reform; and I’m still waiting to see the emergence of this ground-breaking “team” that will restore the semangat and passion to the political machine.

Umno needs an overhaul, not a cosmetic leadership change.

Secondly, and at the risk of repeating myself, there needs to be a wholesale change in the way politics – and especially the politics of development – is conducted.

These changes will in turn force the carpet-baggers out of the hotel lobbies and ministerial ante-rooms into the kampungs and urban slums to do real community work.

Finally, I must conclude by saying Pakatan Rakyat did not win the Kuala Terengganu by-election. It was savvy, but in essence Barisan lost it.

With the possibility of a by-election in Sabah (Pensiangan) fast approaching and the Sarawak state polls looming, the momentum has switched back to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan despite their many missteps.

Given this fact, it is no longer just a question of asking whether Umno is relevant to modern Malaysia because it so clearly isn’t.

The more crucial issue now is will the party ever regain its relevance?