The new Umno dilemma

After 60 years of independence, rapid socio-economic development, mass education right up to the university level, an exodus of rural urban drift, and the emergence of a vibrant urban Malay middle class, the Malay community has been transformed beyond recognition.

Hermit Hornbill, Malaysian Mirror 

One gets the feeling that the political ground in Malaysian national politics is going through a quiet but radical and fundamental shift; there is now a serious challenge to the many assumptions of the politics of race by an increasing number of citizens of all races.

Ever since the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963, observers and academics who have made their career by studying and writing books on Malaysian politics have always asserted their assumption that politics in Malaysia was forever condemned to be communal.

Even among voters, the great majority of them had long subscribed to the appeal of communal political parties for racial unity for a long time past. For many decades now, they responded to the call to be united under a single-race party so as to give the party greater negotiating leverage within the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition.

The primordial emotive and visceral power of racial slogans has allowed Umno, MCA, and MIC a gridlock on political power in West Malaysia, and therefore the nation.

Then something previously unthinkable happened; 60 years after independence, voters were voting across racial and religious lines in droves and in silent unison in the general election last year, and the invincible BN lost power in five states and their two-third majority in Parliament.

The series of dramatic events and by-elections after the general election proved that this shift of voter-sentiment has not been a fluke. All of a sudden, the grand narrative of the politics of race is no longer politically correct.

The BTN controversy

The latest controversy over the civic course run by the Biro Tatanegara (BTN) — a body under the Prime Minister’s Department — is a perfect example in point.

It started when a Malay Menteri Besar of a Malay state, Khalid Ibrahim of Selangor, openly forbade the civil servants within his state jurisdiction and students in his state educational institutions to attend the BTN course, on the grounds that the course is divisive and too racial in nature.

Immediately, a flood of horror stories surged through the media, especially on blogs and Internet news portals, as former participants of past BTN courses retold how they were taught to vilify opponents of the ruling parties — including Tengku Razali Hamzah when he was in the Semangat 46 — as well as accepting the ideology of Malay Dominance.

The response from Umno leading lights is extremely confusing and self-contradictory, to say the least.

The immediate reaction from Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was that there is nothing wrong with the BTN courses, while the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz announced the cabinet decision that the BTN course would be revamped to reflect the 1Malaysia spirit touted by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

As if the Umno water was not murky enough, the vocal and acerbic former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad came out in defence of the BTN, drawing an angry response from Nazri that Mahathir is “a bloody racist” and the “father of racism”.

This started a spat of name calling between the two, with Mahathir describing Umno as a ‘racist’ party, while Nazri calling it “the most stupid statement I have heard in my life”.

This sort of open and acrimonious rift between the leading Umno luminaries was quite unheard of in the past, and has now become common public debacle, indicating some confusion and disagreement among Umno top leaders as regards to the future political direction for Umno to take in these uncertain times of transition.

Nazri is one of those younger generation of Umno leaders who do not have the Umno old timers’ emotional baggage and addiction to the Malay nationalist narrative so typified by Dr Mahathir’s book, ‘The Malay Dilemma’. He is probably aware of the radical shift among the Malay grassroots, as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS gain new support among rural and urban Malay votes.

As a lawyer, Nazri is also probably more sympathetic to such democratic concepts as human rights and rule of law.

The sort of racially-tinged messages taught in BTN courses, as revealed by former participants of those courses, go against modern concepts of human rights and rule of law.

Apart from the dissenting voice of Tengku Razaleigh, who opined that the BTN courses should be scrapped altogether, none of Nazri’s Umno cabinet colleagues have come to his support.

In contrast, there seems to be more Umno top leaders who opt for the continuation of the old BTN business as usual.

Meanwhile, the Umno-owned Malay language daily Utusan Malaysia continues to churn out highly inflammatory articles and editorials, taking swipes at opposition figures with racially stereotypic statements.

Umno is under siege from all sides

It would appear as if Umno has given up any chance of resurgence and revival on the part of MCA, MIC, and Gerakan in West Malaysia, and has taken a deliberate move to withdraw into its conservative nationalist past. This option was discussed by a meeting of Umno heads of divisions, though no definitive decisions were arrived at.

When Umno is under siege from all sides, with their rule in Kuala Lumpur guaranteed only by their BN fixed deposit in Sarawak and Sabah only, it is tempting for them to withdraw into the comfort zone of their nationalist past.

But the Malay world in Peninsular Malaysia has changed irreversibly.

Many members of the Malay working and middle class are financially independent from the institutions of state.

Some may have harboured the perception that all that affirmative programmes are but excuses for crony capitalism to thrive at the expense of the national coffers and real people-friendly development programmes.

Judging from the fierce competition for support of the Malay voters between Umno, PKR, and PAS, the power of the myth of Malay unity may have been debunked forever.

After 60 years of independence, rapid socio-economic development, mass education right up to the university level, an exodus of rural urban drift, and the emergence of a vibrant urban Malay middle class, the Malay community has been transformed beyond recognition.

The surge of Internet communication in the last decade or so has also created the space for new Malay consciousness to explore their ethnic and religious identity, their fulfilment in their roles as individuals, and the complexity and sensitivity of their life was never dreamt of by their forebears.

Meanwhile, they share the same challenges with their Chinese and Indian counterparts in the urban habitat.

Everyday, they have to struggle through the bumper-to-bumper monster traffic jam, face the same possibility of being mugged by snatch thieves, grind their teeth at the spiralling prices of daily necessities at the same supermarkets, and worry about their children’s higher education some time down the lane.

In fact, these New Malays are more likely to share the sentiments of moral outrage with their urban Chinese and Indian counterparts as they read daily newspapers and net news portals on corruption in high places, among the institutions of state which are meant to promote the Umno idea of Malay dominance in all things Malaysian.

Confused crossroad

In short, the Malay community in West Malaysia is now perched at a confused crossroad in more ways than one, and Umno does not seem wary of it, as is evidenced by their insistence on the continuation of the BTN courses.

In the end, as any ethnic community evolves and moves forward, many solutions to the old problems create new problems of their own.

Any good management gurus will tell you that you have to constantly be on your toes to anticipate these new problems and be innovative to devise solutions for them even long before they appear.

Change is the only law in this fast changing world. Those who are not able to anticipate change, adapt to change, and even manage the pace and tone of change, will be left behind in the dustbin of history.

Even on the small issue of the BTN courses, Umno has proven once again they are in denial mode in their oblivion to the drastic change to the political climate in Malaysia.

The Umno president and Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is now busy overseas on his many foreign sojourns.

Even a small issue like the BTN affair is a Herculean task waiting for his immediate attention. He has coined the new slogan of 1Malaysia, against which the BTN courses run contradictory.

How will he decide as the Umno and BN supremo? It may be the severest test of his Umno leadership yet!