Umno, the Malay heartland and the Winds of Change

The class struggle is no longer racial but between the haves and the have-nots but Umno still distorts it as a Malay versus non-Malay struggle. Fanning ethnic insecurity is the key to Umno ethnic divide and rule strategy and this can reach bizarre heights.

By Kenny Gan, Suara Keadilan

Bright sunshine pours out of a glorious blue sky and bathes the rustic scene of wooden stilted houses set among coconut palms and banana trees close to the winding ribbon of bitumen road.

Padi fields stretch into the distance on both sides like a sea of fresh, vibrant green stalks waving in the gentle breeze.

The deep grunt of a water buffalo penetrates the still air as it waddles in a muddy pool and contented cows rest under shady trees as all around flows the shimmering heat, encompassing everything in its benign embrace, keeping people indoors.

In this lush green pastoral setting, quiet and peaceful like a soothing mantle so different from the hustle and bustle of the city, the predominantly Malay village folks have lived a simple life for ages, secure in their political convictions that they believe protect their rights and guarantee their way of life.

But change is slowly fermenting beneath the lush land and a visitor may encounter some signs as he drives along the narrow country roads past grazing cows and foraging chicken. As the countryside glides by, one can sometimes spot among the coconut palms and banana trees, strung on bamboo poles and tall trees, the white and green flag of PAS or the light blue flag of PKR.

It is here in the rural Malay heartland that the dominant ruling party Umno finds their traditional stronghold. The Election Commission has created many rural constituencies with light population densities that accord the rural population a disproportionate voting power compared to their urban cousins.

Election after election, UMNO expects the rural Malays to vote them back into power and they have fulfilled that expectation. Beneath the peace and the tranquility, the sleepiness and the simplicity, the rustic countryside holds the key to the real political power in the land.

The political tsunami that swept the nation in the general election of 2008 and left BN nursing its loss of 5 states and their precious two-thirds majority in Parliament hardly touched the Malay heartlands. There was a small swing to the opposition but a bare few percent compared to the previous election. Umno still controls the loyalty of the majority of the rural Malays which is enough to cement its hold on power.

The Palace and the Port

Far away in Selangor, in the bustling urban centre of Klang stands the splendid mansion of Zakaria Md Deros in the quiet housing estate called Pandamaran, built on land alienated to his wife for a song.

A minor Umno warlord whom fate unexpectedly snatched away just after the conclusion of the 2008 polls, he represented the face of Umno arrogance and corruption. His 16 bedrooms mansion is surrounded by tiny single storey low cost houses and dilapidated looking shacks looking totally incongruous to his opulent home.

Many of them belong to the Malay working class who toll at port and the factories nearby. No, these people living in the shadow of this Umno strongman do not share his luxurious lifestyle. Forty years of the NEP has seen to it that even among the bumiputras there is no equality, only a yawning chasm of disparity.

Malaysia is rich country with abundant natural resources so where has the money gone? Just 10km down the busy highway from stana Zakaria stands the ghostly PKFZ development, its desolate offices and warehouses begging for tenants; a RM12.5 billion fiasco which will see nobody punished.

This is just one example of where the money has gone. Umno has perfected the art of combining power and money into an unholy nexus of government and business that suck from the public purse to enrich a greedy elite.

Rise of the Malay Middle Class

To Umno’s credit, it has managed to build up a sizable Malay middle class where there was practically none at Independence. No more are Malays identified with economic function or with economic level but the distribution of wealth has been wholly unbalanced.

A small group of favoured bumiputras emerge as mnoputras with special access to power and privileges that catapult their wealth far beyond the average middle class while large pockets of Malays remain poor.

The objective of the NEP to distribute 30% of the nation wealth into the hands of the bumiputras has probably been achieved and exceeded but despite this many rural Malays can only look longingly from their wooden kampong houses while the banquet of life passes them by.

The same lop-sided economic progress afflicts all races with the super-rich and the hard core poor drawn from all ethnic groups. Malaysia-measured wealth disparity is the highest in South East Asia, exceeding even Indonesia newly-emerged from the excesses of the Suharto regime.

What has caused this disparity? In a word, corruption – endemic and massive – which leeches every Malaysian. Corruption is after all, a forced re-distribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich so that the rich becomes richer and the poor becomes poorer while the middle class almost disappears as in Suharto Indonesia.

The class struggle is no longer racial but between the haves and the have-nots but Umno still distorts it as a Malay versus non-Malay struggle. Fanning ethnic insecurity is the key to Umno ethnic divide and rule strategy and this can reach bizarre heights.

In a country where the Malays constitute 65% of the population and hold all the political power, where the civil service and security services are overwhelmingly Malay, where their rights are enshrined in the Constitution and protected by the Malay rulers, Umno continually warn the Malays that other minority races are threatening to take away their rights.

Of course the awful strategy of divide and rule takes its toll on the nation. Fifty two years after Independence the races are more polarized than ever. Ethnic suspicion and tension remains in a racial tinderbox and a colour-blind national identity never emerged while slogans like 1Malaysia are mere window dressings to put a thin veneer over the real situation.

Racial Policies

It would be unfair to say that Umno has neglected the Malays, in fact, Umno has done far beyond the intentions of the Constitution and the NEP to pamper and assist them with special rights and privileges.

A slew of racial quotas emerge in education, employment, commerce, finance, government contracts and economic opportunities to favour the Malays such that bumiputraism is woven into the very fabric of Malaysian society. This was how the Malay middle class was fast tracked.

But the distribution of resources using racial policies is seriously flawed. It allows the powerful and well-connected Malays to grab more than their fair share and encourages a dependent and rent-seeking mentality which weakened the Malays as it shielded them from normal competitive stress.

Affirmative action by race is also almost impossible to remove. The Chinese middle class survive with their industriousness and uncanny ability to find niches of cooperation with the Malays but the Indians have become an underclass.

The response of the best and brightest non-Malays is to flee to distant shores to escape the racial discrimination, exchanging equality under the law for loneliness and alien cultures. The brain drain on the country has entrepreneurs and social activists wringing their hands with concern while the BN government seems strangely unworried.

A Feast of Ironies

As the urban Malays become more educated, more confident and more politically matured, Umno is losing them. Much to Umno chagrin, they have also become more demanding of good governance and social justice, two of the things which Umno cannot correct as to do so would threaten its hold on power.

So Umno does the next best thing, it oppresses them with tear gas and water cannons which pushes them further away to the welcoming arms of PKR.

So here lies a feast of ironies. As Umno educated and uplifted the Malays, they become more socially aware and less tolerant of Umno corruption, bad governance, racism and the unequal distribution of wealth.

While Umno aims to build up the Malays to be competitive, confident and self-assured, it also tries to keep them insecure and dependent on Umno for crutches.

The objectives of the NEP (Never Ending Policy) must never be met or Umno will lose its relevance to the Malays. Upgrading the rural Malays will also sow the seeds of their own destruction in their strongholds.

But Umno cannot perpetually depend on the rural Malays as their core support to maintain power. They can hardly stand still in time as the rest of the country moves forward.

Creeping urbanization blurs the line between rural and urban. The young generation brings awareness, critical thinking, higher expectations and the online world to the deepest kampungs with their Umno sponsored education. Time is never on the side of decadent regimes which depend on ignorance and backwardness for their survival.

But for how long? Will change happen within this generation?

On the Cusp of Change

We may be on the cusp of change. The super-wealth of the Umnoputras has not escaped the attention of the ordinary Malays be they urban or rural. Disdain for the Umno massive corruption and dubious Islamic credentials has allowed PAS to whittle away Umno support in the Malay heartlands.

Continued support may depend on the price of rubber and palm oil against the rising cost of living. At the moment, Umno baseline support lies at 55%, another 5% difference could spell the difference between holding power and being cast into the opposition.

Of course Umno fate will be tied to the unity or disarray of the opposition parties. For the first time in our nation history, a Malay leader has arisen with far-sighted aims to win power by uniting, not polarizing the races.

With his charisma and political skills, a loose coalition of the three main opposition parties has been formed to wrest power from Umno. Umno response is to attempt to put him in jail on fake sodomy charges.

PAS has been fingered as the weak point of Pakatan Rakyat, a possible source of fatal cracks for the nascent coalition but the political reality is that PKR and DAP cannot wrestle power from Umno without PAS which is critically needed to battle Umno in the Malay heartlands.

However the dependency goes both ways. Just as PR needs PAS, PAS also needs PR to transcend itself into a national party.

Change is usually gradual but Umno in its arrogance can unwittingly give it a swift kick to accelerate the process. The conviction of Anwar Ibrahim in a sham trial if repeated again will anger the Malays and benefit PAS as it did in the 1999 general election.

Change will come as the monsoon winds change direction, as awareness seeps into the rural consciousness like cool rainwater percolating into the rich Malaysian soil. The winds of change will blow away the accumulated debris and rubbish of the long entrenched ruling clique, the corruption, the cronyism and the excesses that threaten to suck the economy dry.

And the power to change the government will come from this setting of rustic wooden houses, wide green fields and brown skinned boys playing among water buffaloes, a charming and idyllic landscape repeated throughout rural Malaysia.

[Kenny Gan is an avid follower of the local political scene]