Umno must pull the plug on its bad ways

The public should not be blamed, however, for assuming the MACC is only going for the ikan bilis — it's an open secret that some elected representatives holding posts in the government had bought their party positions.

Zubaidah Abu Bakar, New Straits Times

WILL an Umno politician contesting a senior post face charges of money politics before the party's elections in March?

This is the question on the minds of many following the recent crackdown on alleged offenders by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and Umno's disciplinary board.

Those openly challenging Umno to get rid of corrupt leaders, fearing they will be appointed ministers and deputy ministers and thereby gain a say in ruling the country, are hoping for a new chapter for the party now leading a weakened Barisan Nasional.

It's still early days; the biggest fish netted so far, an appointed supreme council member hoping to contest one of the 25 supreme council seats for the first time, has not been charged.

But the future still looks promising, with many party members crying for the blood of the big fish. If not, the presumption will persist that the MACC, like the disciplinary board, only goes after the small fry.

The MACC swung into action in the past week, though DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang still insists that the action was "all-out war" mode against Umno "ikan bilis".

He wants MACC to convince Malaysians that it is becoming another Independent Commission Against Corruption of Hong Kong, after which it was modelled, which brooks no nonsense in its fight against corruption.

The MACC has launched 82 probes into vote-buying among Umno members since Umno requested its help in July last year, as it was known that money changed hands among candidates, their lobbyists and voting members, while the party's disciplinary board headed by Tan Sri Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen Tengku Ismail did not have powers of arrest, interrogation and seizure.

The latest MACC case was that of a Datuk contesting a supreme council post, whose 12 agents were detained by the MACC in Temerloh.

The commission is also investigating vote-buying in Umno divisional elections in Kelantan and Negri Sembilan, and probing allegations of bribery among aspirants for posts in Umno Youth and Puteri Umno.

The trial of the first party member hauled into court in Negri Sembilan for money politics — former Seremban Umno vice-chief Mohd Nor Awang — began at the Sessions Court in Seremban on Wednesday.

The public should not be blamed, however, for assuming the MACC is only going for the ikan bilis — it's an open secret that some elected representatives holding posts in the government had bought their party positions.

Big names have been mentioned, not only in these party elections but many previous ones, as having bought votes to secure party positions. Some of them, ironically, publicly condemn vote-buying.

Even Umno politicians concede that vote-buying is rampant in the run-up to every party election. Millions of ringgit was said to have been spent in the Umno elections in 2004.

It was widely speculated that a candidate for one of the three vice-president's posts in 2004 had paid RM1,000 to each delegate.

The acute problem of money politics is evident from the large number of reports received by the Umno disciplinary board and arrests made by the former Anti-Corruption Agency.

Just days ago, Tengku Rithauddeen revealed that the board received 974 complaints from 2007 to last year, most of which were accusations of vote-buying. He also made the startling suggestion that Umno abolish its Wanita, Youth, Putera and Puteri wings if it wanted to do away with money politics; a call outgoing Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said was unacceptable and impractical to implement.

Party deputy president Datuk Seri Najib Razak, on his part, said he would prefer enforcement to dissolving the party wings.

But the offenders, being masters in the art of the possible, usually escape the long arm of the law, except for a handful of unlucky ones.

Just what message would prime minister-in-waiting Najib send Malaysians if he loads his cabinet with politicians who purchased their positions in Umno?

As Umno supreme council member and Kota Tinggi MP Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar put it, Umno needs to institute change before the people pass a "death sentence" on it.

Syed Hamid, a vice-presidential hopeful, said Umno's image had been badly tarnished by cases involving party members detained for alleged corruption by the MACC.

The signs are that Umno will take steps to reform and remain relevant to the people by getting out of its comfort zone. But this effort will only begin in earnest after March, when Najib takes over as party president. Can Umno wait until then?

Umno needs to look at how money and benefits in kind are distributed, the criteria of selecting candidates for a general election and, no less important, its own election system, all of which contribute to money politics.

For political observers, if Umno is late in instituting changes, Umno will not change. And if Umno has no political will to change, the BN it leads will continue to be detached from the masses.

The signs are there — during the Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu by-elections, both of which rejected Umno candidates, and in the hotly debated defection of Bota assemblyman Datuk Nasarudin Hashim to Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

The grapevine has it that several more of the party's elected representatives who have no party posts at the divisional level are considering following Nasarudin's footsteps.

Any changes Umno plans must meet one vital criterion — they must reflect the desire of Malaysian voters, not just Umno members.