What Najib seeks is 1BN

He has managed to cobble together 1Umno, but can he do the same for his coalition?

The decisive factor in the end may be about which coalition has the least disunited members, BN or PR?

By Ooi Kee Beng, Today Online

It may be saying too much to claim that Malaysia’s major political parties are self-destructing. But they are certainly not in the best of health.

The recently-ended National Delegates Congress of Parti Gerakan Rakyat was a lacklustre show where a well-timed, sassy challenge to resign issued to Gerakan president Koh Tsu Khoon by an Umno backbencher, Mr Mohamad Aziz, had to be brushed aside.

The main news from the congress was the proposal — quickly rejected — raised at the Gerakan Youth meeting to discuss the party’s withdrawal from the Barisan Nasional coalition.

This came several weeks after Penang Gerakan and Penang Umno agreed to patch up over insults thrown by the latter at Koh, which included the public tearing of his portrait. That burying of the hatchet is not expected to do Gerakan’s reputation any good.

Gerakan’s problems are a great pity, given how it had started life in 1967 as a strong voice advocating multiracialism, and how it had tried to remain the paradoxical “opposition within the system”.

The new discourse in the air is exactly that of multiracialism, and yet Gerakan finds itself on the wrong side of the fence.

Backbencher Mohamad’s cheek was also aimed at the embattled president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Ong Tee Keat, who recently lost a vote of confidence but who has refused to resign. The party is now caught up in a leadership crisis that it will not able to resolve for some time yet.

The fourth party in the BN, the Malaysian Indian Congress, is just as badly mired in an inability to renew itself, whether in leadership change or ideological rejuvenation. The appearance of new parties to compete for votes from the Indian community is not helping matters.

This same dilemma is suffered by BN’s Big Brother, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), as well. As Razaleigh Hamzah — nowadays the major internal opposition within that party — has been stating every chance he gets, Umno reforms are not going far enough to remedy the ills it suffers from.

Tellingly, the measures on reform that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has announced thus far avoids changes within the police, the anti-corruption agency or the judiciary.

In fact, he recently extended the employment term of the unpopular Inspector-General of Police, Musa Hassan, by another year. According to analysts, it was disillusionment with these institutions, along with anger over BN arrogance in general, that led voters to move to an unprecedented extent against the coalition.

At the moment, reforming Umno is PM Najib’s easiest chore. This was evident at the party’s recent general meeting, which was the least rowdy in many years. His hold on the party is undeniably strong at the moment, and delegates seemed to be happily obeying signals from above. So, by most accounts, he has achieved 1Umno.

The concept of 1Malaysia — his vague call for national unity — has been endlessly ridiculed, except in the mainstream media.

With rumours now circulating that general elections will be called much earlier than constitutionally required, Najib’s greatest advantage is that two of his three opponents in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition are showing cracks.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) remains torn by disagreements about the role of religion in policy making, while Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is suffering internal dissent in its top ranks. The Democratic Action Party is the only major party without serious internal issues.

The problems PAS and PKR are now facing could have been predicted, and probably were, even by those involved. But should they remain unsolved over the coming six months or so, a snap election would put the PR in a jam.

Recent populist initiatives by Najib, such as declaring Malaysia Day a public holiday, suggests that such a turn of events is not impossible.

The decisive factor in the end may be about which coalition has the least disunited members, BN or PR?

For Najib, keeping his allies outwardly unified is one thing, but convincing voters that governance has improved is something else altogether.

PR’s strategy will be to remind voters that not much has changed within BN parties since the last general election, and the reform of key institutions remains a dream.

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. His latest book is Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi (Refsa).