Will their Dominance ever End?

It appears that as long as UMNO remains identified with an ethos that is relevant for Malays, especially vis-à-vis Islam, and is perceived as “delivering the goods” for Malays and protecting the non-Malays from theocratic rule, its dominance will continue indefinitely.

By Masterwordsmith

After more than 22 years as Prime Minister, 78-year old Tun Dr.Mahathir stepped down in October 2003 and was succeeded by his deputy, Tun Abdullah Badawi who called for a general election in March 2004 to give him a mandate to rule and to strengthen his hand in the upcoming UMNO elections. At that time, Badawi had hoped he could capitalize on his popularity by holding early elections and projecting himself as being different in substance and style from Mahathir. His main policy pronouncements were a pledge to fight corruption.

UMNO and the BN won conclusively in an election that heralded the return of the Malay vote, to the disappointment of those who hoped that UMNO’s dominance was waning. The Barisan Nasional won 198 of 219 parliamentary seats (90.4%—the highest ever) with nearly 64% of the popular vote (an increase of 9%). It also won back control of the oil-rich state of Trengganu.

Badawi won with the UMNO/BN advantage of having sufficient funds, strong control over the media control and party machinery. Prior to March 2004, Mahathir had already weakened the opposition. Some Keadilan leaders had been detained under the ISA in that period. Three others were jailed on various charges which meant they were ineligible to stand for election in 2004 while languished in prison. Without leadership and organizational structure, Keadilan won only one seat. At that time, the federal government had rescinded oil royalties to the state, a major source of revenue, when it came under PAS control. UMNO workers were also very successful in getting out the vote in Trengganu—85% of eligible electors voted which was a record turnout.

With that came a strong demand for the fulfillment of economic and consumption expectations that valued political stability above all. Despite the presence of a large, educated middle class in Malaysia, few actually wanted more democratic practices at that time because many were in comfortable positions.

Many were contented to maintain the status quo to protect their positions so to speak. Malays win as their percentage of the population is a more stable majority, nearing 60%. The Malays now are also better educated, more prosperous, and confident than in previous eras.

Through the years, UMNO and the BN became factionalized and immersed in issues of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. Some engaged in patronage to develop their power base and to progress in party hierarchy. Many ventured into business, using the opportunities created by the NEP and UMNO to fund their activities but for some, this led to conflicts of interest and related problems. Business competition led to serious divisions and issues that eroded public trust. Subsequently, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi pledged to crack down on corruption and “money politics,” but faced many barriers.

Despite being widely regarded as “Mr. Clean”, in the UMNO elections of October 2004, Badawi did not get many loyalists elected to important party posts. He failed to kick out the old guard which meant he did not have a serious Cabinet reshuffle for a clean house. More factional fights among up-and-comers happened and allowed Mahathir an opening to become active in party matters again. Nepotism reared its ugly head if one had a father, father-in-law, or some relative in the party hierarchy.

The situation inside UMNO is not new, but the rivalry between “rising sons”, the intensity and rancor between the factions, and the escalating financial costs of being a successful factional leader were very real problems. In 2005, 62 high-powered UMNO veterans led by former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Ghafar Baba met to discuss what could be done to save UMNO. They passed a resolution to end “money politics” and to restore democracy in UMNO. They feared that internal infighting could cause UMNO to disintegrate. They also expressed concerns about the economic situation of the Malays and called for efforts to “bring UMNO back to the rural Malays” before it was too late.

Undeniably, certain policies have helped Malay business folks but these fared poorly in achieving equity. Malaysia has one of the worst disparity ratios in wealth and income in the region. Some argued that these policies are benefiting “UMNO-putra” more than others. A UN development report found Malaysia to have one of the worst income disparities in Asia, with the richest 10% earning 22 times more than the poorest 10%. See Ioannis Galsiounis’ article HERE. This could lead to Malay anger directed at UMNO in the future.

Although UMNO could overcome challenges in the past, the internal “condition” of UMNO with its inherent problems and changing demographics, may make UMNO dominance vulnerable, especially during an economic downturn, accompanied by wrong moves that alienate rather than befriend the public.