Umno’s Unholy Trinity

Predictably, Umno’s method of striking back is to racialize the issues with notions of 1Malaysia chucked into the drain when it suits them. Their mouthpiece Utusan is used to lead the charge with ugly racial rhetoric such as “Malays Arise!” with not even a veneer of deference to a multi-racial society.

By Kenny Gan, Suara Keadilan

Umno must be getting desperate. They have lost all six by-elections in the Peninsula including the one in Penanti where they lost by default.

The upcoming by-election in Permatang Pasir is likely to deal them another blow.

Not only is the ruling regime beset by its inability to win by-elections, but the recent anti-ISA street protest in Kuala Lumpur drew large crowds not seen since the days of Bersih and Hindraf despite dire police warnings.

Coming on the heels of Teoh Beng Hock’s untimely death under suspicious circumstances at the MACC office in Shah Alam which turned public sentiments against the BN government, Najib seems to have lost the momentum of his tepid economic reforms.

Predictably, Umno’s method of striking back is to racialize the issues with notions of 1Malaysia chucked into the drain when it suits them. Their mouthpiece Utusan is used to lead the charge with ugly racial rhetoric such as “Malays Arise!” with not even a veneer of deference to a multi-racial society.

The public anger against MACC was twisted into attacks on “Malay institutions of power.” Anwar was flailed as a Malay traitor and PAS as lackeys used by the DAP for taking part in the anti-ISA rally. Mahathir has pitched in by disseminating communal poison in his blog at times, the latest being his “Chinese are the real masters” piece.

Why does Umno keep resorting to playing the race card and trying to ratchet up racial tension every time it faces the public’s wrath? Aren’t they aware of the new politics of accountability? Umno could easily steal the opposition’s thunder by giving the public what PR has been promising them – good governance, accountability and a more equitable society rather than resorting to nation and soul destroying racial politics to maintain its hold on power but they will not.

To understand this we must first of all understand the foundation of Umno’s power and the unholy trinity on which its power rests.

Patronage, the First Leg

Patronage is the first leg of the Umno trinity. Umno’s power base is firmly rooted in the feudal system of patronage where favours are given in exchange for loyalty.

On an individual basis it means distributing largess to the loyal such as positions of power, plum government contracts, monopolies, legalized rent-seeking devices, economic opportunities enabled by licenses and regulations, privatization of money making public utilities and many other perks of power.

The distinction between patronage and outright corruption can be blurred indeed such as the unequal contracts with toll operators and independent power producers and the PKFZ dubious business deals which penalizes the public or rob the public purse.

Yet another form of patronage is looking the other way for real cases of corruption involving loyal members of the regime. On a wider scale, patronage is used to bind the Malays to Umno by special privileges, preferred education, employment and economic opportunities and a host of other racial policies which define Malaysian society.

Treating all races equally would give the Malays few reasons the vote for Umno. Nebulous terms like ‘bumiputra’ and ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ are invented by Umno politicians to articulate the special treatment and special privileges of the Malays and distinguish them from the non-Malays.

Authoritarianism, the Second Leg

The distribution of patronage via government policies which is the antithesis of good governance requires an authoritarian government which is not accountable to the public. Such a system of government operates on a “government knows best” basis and there is little deference to the views of civil society. Public policies and laws are formulated by the ruling regime and Parliament is treated as a rubber stamp.

Compliant institutions are of course needed to support an authoritarian government. Chief among them is the control of Parliament and parliamentary debates. Other critical support institutions are the police, the MACC, the Attorney-General and the judiciary to oppress and cow critics and enforce laws selectively as well as a controlled press to spin propaganda and shape public opinion. Unjust laws such as the ISA, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act helps.

Naturally, choice patronage can be used to make enforcement bodies and democratic institutions one-sided so authoritarianism and patronage exist in a two way symbiotic relationship.

Ethnic Tension, the Third Leg

Naturally, an authoritarian government cannot survive in a real democracy as it will be voted out but it can flourish in a pseudo democracy with a one party system where there is little chance of being voted out.

Malaysia’s multi-ethnic composition provides Umno a given means of sustaining an authoritarian government by making use of racial tension especially in the wake of the 1969 racial riots. By keeping the threat of racial strife alive, the public is browbeaten to accept authoritarianism is as a lesser evil to ethnic violence.

It is also easier for an authoritarian government to whip up racial tension through control of propaganda organs and selective enforcement of the laws so the relationship between authoritarianism and ethnic tension is a two way street.

Against a background of festering racial tension, Pakatan Rakyat is made to look useless as only a strong, authoritarian government is seen as being capable of keeping a lid on racial strife. The draconian ISA is justified by the authorities as necessary to rein in any rabble rousers although one wonders why it was not used on deserving ones like Ahmad Ismail.

Race based patronage also plays an important role in keeping ethnic tension simmering. There will be no reason for racial envy if all races are treated equally. Furthermore, a colour-blind society means that the Malays cannot be threatened with losing their special rights if Umno loses power, ostensibly to the other races.

A Three Legged Stool

Hence, patronage, authoritarianism and ethnic tension are at the points of a triangle and connected to each other. These are the three legs of the trinity which uphold Umno’s political power and support each other in an interconnected way.

Patronage sustains and is propped up by authoritarianism which in turn instigates and is justified by ethnic tension. Patronage also stirs and sustains ethnic tension. Like a three legged stool, if one leg breaks the whole edifice becomes unstable and topples.

The problem for Umno is that ethnic tension is dissipating 40 years after the May 13 race riots with the present generation lacking any first hand memory of that infamous event and changes in the socio-economic environment.

Back then, the Malays and the non-Malays were on opposite sides of the political divide with the Malays in the government and the Chinese in the opposition but this is no longer true. The rise of the Malay middle class also means that the once sharp economic gap between Malays and Chinese has been bridged.

The 12th general election with cross-ethnic voting is testament that racial polarization is diminishing despite Umno’s assiduous attempts to maintain it with sordid racial rhetoric. With one leg of the trinity weakening, the whole platform of their political power is threatening to collapse especially when a two party system has emerged.

Umno’s Choices

Umno has two choices – to restore the ethnic tension leg of their unholy trinity or to institute real reforms to be democratically competitive with Pakatan Rakyat.

To dismantle authoritarianism by making enforcement bodies truly independent and giving the public more democracy and good governance means dismantling Umno’s deeply entrenched patronage system. It would mean open tenders for government contracts, no more rent seeking APs and no more lucrative IPP contracts and toll concessions.

This is like asking a drug addict to voluntarily give up drugs. No Umno President was or ever will be strong enough to tinker with the patronage system no matter how strong-willed and good intentioned. Just like all the previous Prime Ministers before him, Najib Razak is a prisoner of history.

Hence it is not surprising that Umno chooses to heighten racial tension to protect their power despite the horrendous harm it does to the nation. Pitting the races against each other is an awful method of governing but to Umno losing power is worse.

A Hollow 1Malaysia

It is clear from this that Umno thrives on racial politics. Race based parties fighting for rights and privileges of their own race serve to maintain racial tension rather than racial harmony.

Mono-ethnic parties like MCA and MIC also benefit from racial tension. The Chinese and the Indians are told that in the face of Umno’s hegemony they need the MCA and MIC respectively to protect their rights.

Multi-ethnic parties which speak for all races have no place in BN and so Gerakan and PPP have become effectively mono-ethnic despite their multi-racial constitution.

However as Umno becomes stronger and more arrogant this has curbed the popularity of MCA, MIC and Gerakan whom voters see as having become subservient.

A race based coalition is a delicate balancing act in which the strong must limit its strength so that the other partners are not seen to be castrated but this is what Umno has failed to do.

Hence the need to create slogans like 1Malaysia to win back the minority races under the guise of racial unity and equality but in the face of the discordant need to keep ethnic tension on the boil, the slogan of 1Malaysia is just as hollow as Mahathir’s old slogan.

Will Umno Succeed?

Will Umno succeed in ratcheting up racial tension using its controlled mouthpieces in the mainstream media and orchestrated statements by its politicians including the one who will not stay retired?

Umno is fighting a losing battle. The days when authoritarian regimes monopolized the flow of information is over with the rise of the Internet. The online world provides readily accessible alternative news and views.

Communal poison from Utusan, Berita Harian, NST and Mahathir’s blog are immediately dissected and debunked. The readership of online news and blogs now exceed the mainstream press.

Furthermore, it is painfully obvious that Malays also dominate the opposition and for the foreseeable future, any non-BN Prime Minister will be Malay. Umno’s strategy is to label all the Malays in the opposition as traitors to their race and their leaders as puppets of the Chinese. It also tries to blur the distinction between Umno and Malay as if Umno is synonymous with Malay.

Harping on racial tension will not succeed because the people have become more educated, more matured and more tolerant in a globalized world that de-emphasizes the importance of race. People are more connected than ever before and can see through Umno’s racial antics.

In the end, Umno and BN will hasten their political obsolescence for using ugly racial tactics that have no place in a modern nation.


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