UMNO and its Partners in the New Malaysia

Doing it not the shy way

By Dr Maznah Mohamad

Share of Popular Votes by Political Party for State Seats
in the 1999 and 1995 General Elections

Total Parliamentary Votes Received by Polical Party
in the 1999 and 1995 General Elections

Colour Key = 1999,1995
Vertical axis: Parties (from top to bottom) = PAS, Other opposition parties,
keADILan/Semangat 46, DAP, Other BN parties, MIC, Gerakan, MCA, UMNO
Horizontal axis: number of votes received (0 to 2,500,000) am1199

The tenth Malaysian general election concluded with a strange aftertaste. Never mind if the losers were devastated by the results. Even the victors did not find enough of a cause to celebrate.

First, victory was wrested through campaign strategies that were unlawful at many turns and phenomenally costly, both in terms of money and human dignity. Second, two states fell to Islamic governments, the very thing that Barisan Nasional voters thought they were going to the polls to prevent.

Instead of feeling smug over its two-thirds majority win, the Barisan Nasional, particularly UMNO is realising that the future for Malaysians on account of its performance may be a bumpy one ahead. Still we expect this government to go on, true to the Sinatra Principle, "Not the Shy Way, Oh No Ö".

Things Fall Apart

The stock exchange, the barometer of the Barisan Nasionalís economic achievement reacted coolly to the results. For several successive days, the KLSE indices went down and gaming stocks took a beating. Investors will still be jittery for some time to come, with the issue of a whittled Malay support for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad being one of the factors for concern.

Intra-party bickering within Gerakan came out into the open two days after the election. Disenchanted Gerakan members blamed the party for not bringing enough development into Penang and called for the state to be led by another. In typical authoritarian style, however, the rift was swiftly resolved by prime ministerial "decree" that the chief ministerís post shall reside with Gerakan.

Most revealingly, before the dust could fully settle, UMNO leaders began calling for a Ďreinventioní of the party, including hinting of a leadership change. PAS would never be an alternative to UMNO trumpeted one minister when it was plain as daylight that it already is.

There were also accusations that the association with PAS caused the DAP its poor showing and that, on the other hand, Chinese votes more than anything else helped UMNO to retain its ground. Such an impression could lead to testier inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations. Non-Muslims are now wary about the impending loss of various freedoms under a burgeoning Islamic tide and Muslims are confused as to which Islam is more legitimate; UMNOís or PASí.

Other uncertainties cropped up in relation to the appointments of mentris besar of several states (Kedah and Negri Sembilan, among others) which did not proceed with the usual cohesiveness. Most unfortunately, even leaders of the Barisan Alternatif were not spared the wrath of internal dissension and conflicts. The coalition looked to be on the brink of a break-up, with the DAP regretting its alliance in the coalition.

Among some, nation-building for the next five years is going to take a frightening course. So much for the Barisan Nasionalís campaign slogan that promised unity, progress and freedom. What seems to loom on the horizon is more disunity, perhaps even an economic slide and possible contention over loss of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms because of widespread perceptions of a strengthening Islam.

UMNO: Losing Its Grip

The source of this cause for worry is UMNOís performance itself. No matter what its supporters would like to believe, UMNOís losses in this election will have a reverberating effect on the political landscape. Besides losing a number of Parliamentary seats, it also lost popular votes compared with the previous general election. This time in constituencies where two-thirds of voters were Malays, UMNO received 48.6% of the votes compared to 60.8% in 1995.In this election, UMNO suffered an 8% drop in votes compared with the 1995 election. On the other hand PAS gained 18% more of the popular votes in the seats it contested.

The chart shows that UMNO received more than two million votes in 1995. The number of votes it received this time went down to about 1.9 million. On the other hand, PASí votes went up form 433,454 in 1995 to 996,512 votes in this election. For State seats PAS garnered about 1.3 million votes or more than a 50% rise from its previous performance.

No Kudos For The MCA Either

What was most revealing, besides UMNO and PAS all other parties performed consistently in terms of popular votes obtained. Despite its aggressive campaign machinery, the MCA and other component parties in the Barisan Nasional received almost similar if not fewer votes than in the last election.

The chart in fact shows that popular votes for the DAP were higher than what it received in 1995. Thus, despite the DAPís angst over its miscalculated alliance with PAS, it did not perform any worse than the MCA or Gerakan. The MCAís and Gerakanís hugging of the media to their advantage did not in the end deliver them much. One should only conclude that the MCA performed even worse than the DAP.

UMNO Recedes Into Johor, PAS Spills Out of Kelantan

UMNO only found comfort among Johor Malays. The pattern of voting there was an aberration in itself with 71% of the votes going to the Barisan Nasional. This number is 16.8% higher than the peninsulaís average and 13.5% higher than the next best state for the BN ó Negri Sembilan which gave the coalition 57.5% of its votes.

UMNO lost even more of its popular votes in several states when compared with the overall average. For Parliamentary seats, it suffered a 24.4% drop in popular votes in Selangor and the Federal Territory, 27.4% in Penang and 15.8% in Pahang.

PASí influence on the other hand is spreading out of Kelantan. In fact PASí share of popular votes (41.5%) for state seats in Kedah (which was retained under BN rule) was even higher than UMNOís (40.55%). In Penang, UMNOís share of votes in state seats went down by 5% and in Terengganu it went down by 13%.

Thus, we are seeing a situation where UMNO is seemingly retreating into Johor, its original birthplace while PAS has succeeded in moving out of Kelantan, its home state.

Clearly, only PAS was the celebrant and only UMNO was the loser. The pie charts further represent the share of popular votes (state seats) of political parties in the 1995 and 1999 elections. A chunk of UMNOís share in 1999 appears to have been consumed by PAS.

The charts show that in the end, the tenth Malaysian general election was largely a contest between two Malay divides. UMNO was not damaged, but it became dangerously unwound. As the results show, its legitimacy as the voice and choice of the Malays, has been seriously undermined.

UMNOís Loss is the Coalitionís Win

No doubt UMNO is still alive and kicking as it still managed to garner at least 50% of the popular votes in most of the constituencies it contested, and has remained the party which received the highest number of popular votes. It must be cautioned, however, that the above figures are not a reflection of Malay votes only but of all votes in UMNO-contested seats. If one were to assume that UMNO candidates also won through non-Malay votes, the proportion of votes lost among Malays may be even higher.

For a party that has been so used to getting almost undivided Malay allegiance and loyalty, this is a signal that it can no longer take its premier status in the league of Malay parties for granted. For one thing this election has shown that UMNO may not have done as well if not for non-Malay support. The question that arises is, will UMNO now be able to claim the status of primus inter pares or "first-among-equals" within the Barisan Nasional coalition?

UMNO now has less than half the total seats within the Barisan Nasional government. Not a cause for worry in itself and may even be a good thing that the Barisan Nasionalís support base is now more equitable, with East Malaysian parties contributing 24% of the seats, Chinese parties 24%, one Indian party 5% and UMNO 48%. UMNO may have lost a little bit of ground in pushing for a Ketuanan Melayu stance but that has nevertheless nudged the Barisan Nasional closer to a Malaysian Malaysia model.

Reclaiming Support

The question that will plague UMNO in its effort to "reinvent" itself would be over who will now form its core supporters. For sure, the party has alienated the Islamists and will not be getting the guidance of liberal-democratic Malays who will be more inclined to back the Barisan Alternatif.

UMNO is presently depending on its core of loyalists from the older generation and a circle of members whose support has been assured through the partyís patronage of their businesses, career positions and social status. They will not let go of UMNO because they simply cannot afford to. If not for the sentimental reminder that UMNO was the original party of the Malays and that it promises some form of individual material mobility, it has little basis to otherwise attract new adherents to the party.

UMNO will have to decide if its makeover would mean fashioning itself into a more centrist party with liberal-democracy being its core value. If so, it would be a good thing, although this would mean getting rid of dead wood, old habits and arcane cultural practices. Most importantly, UMNO must go through the daunting task of ridding itself of its reputation as a party that wields power through money politics and avariciousness.

After Mahathir, Who?

Foremost on most punditsí minds is the big question of who will eventually succeed the president of the party. This is going to be a tough issue to resolve. Although UMNO deputy president Abdullah Badawi is the most likely contender, he does not come from a state that delivered the most number of Malay votes to UMNO. There is also an impression that he may not be business-savvy in the ruthless (even shady) way of the Mahathir-Daim genus. Not having an influential moneyed mafia backing him might also be a liability in the rough and tumble world of big business.

Abdullah Badawi lacks charisma, and unfortunately, anyone coming after Mahathir would find the man a tough act to follow in that department. One has to admit that that even Mahathir at his worst verbal spew can still be arresting.

Former UMNO dissident Tengku Razaleigh, after having proven that he could not deliver Kelantan from PAS, may not now deserve the honour to deliver UMNO from its disarray. UMNO vice-president Najib Razak, the other likely successor, appears to have blown his chances of leading the party after his own close shave at the polls.

Many are speculating that Johor UMNO leaders will now be in the best position to fill the vacuum. Nevertheless, if UMNO were to descend to assume a regional identity would this make it a stronger or a weaker party? Would it not then alienate all the other Malays? If Johoreans control UMNO this will go against the spirit of UMNO representing the greater Malay community. That in itself will spell the demise of UMNO as the supra-Malay designate.

In all likelihood, the party will survive by lumbering along. Its coffers are still filled and it is the government for the next five years. In the meantime, Anwar Ibrahim will continue to haunt UMNO in its search for the leader after Mahathir. Not only would UMNO need a healer to rehabilitate the war-torn party from its excesses in combat but it also needs someone who can be a firebrand to match PASí line-up of increasingly dynamic leaders.

With or Without Anwar, Islam Is Here To Stay

The election has almost promised that there will be a widening ethnic divide due to the pull of the Malay electorate into two directions. The Islamic State notion will lead many non-Muslims into supporting mainstream and racially based political parties. On the other hand there will be the push-appeal towards PAS among younger Malays who are emboldened by the prospect of Islam becoming a credible basis for government. If not managed astutely, this will lead to a spiralling of racial mistrust.

Malaysians will also continue to be confused as to why it was necessary for Mahathir to go through all that imbroglio with Anwar Ibrahim. At the end of the day, what did Mahathir achieve out of all that? The very thing that he did not wish, that is the strengthening of radical Islamic movements , has happened and it will continue with even more intensity. Mahathir thought that by cutting off Anwarís influence as the lifeline of these movements, it would stave off their rise. Ironically, the Anwar Crisis gave the Islamic movements their greatest boost.

UMNOís Moral High Ground In Question

The fact that PAS, the party that holds the moral high ground, has won handsomely is testimony that charges against Anwar Ibrahim for moral offences were not swallowed by the people. The fact that most of UMNOís religious representatives - the most prominent of whom was Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Othman, who was defeated by Shahnon Ahmad, author of a so-called "profane" piece of literature - lost their seats speaks volumes of Mahathirís attempt to use Islamic morals to sustain his credibility. Malay voting patterns in this election have convincingly revealed the futility of Mahathirís dalliance with Islam to outdo another Islam that is not of his own image.

It should be clear by now that every time Dr Mahathir and UMNO go through a political crisis, one Malay state will go the way of Islam. While many might think that only Dr Mahathir can be the bulwark against extremist Islam, it has actually been shown that he had been the best reason for Islamisation to flower.

Is There A Role For The DAP?

The stock fear among non-Muslims now is that UMNO will try to counter radical Islam by becoming even more Islamic as a way of winning back the Malay heartland. On the other hand PAS can also try to become even more moderate and accommodating to non-Muslims as a way of winning over sceptics and tearing down fortress UMNO in the southern Malay states. There are many possibilities as to how both UMNO and PAS will be charting their paths in the bid to become the most credible alternative for Malays and Malaysians. It may develop positively contrary to the dark scenarios whipped up by politicians who can only think within a racially based paradigm.

Chinese-based parties like the DAP should seize this moment to carve a role for themselves in moderating the tensions that are now building-up. The association with PAS should be deepened and not severed as the DAP should serve as the conduit to cultivate and engage Muslims and non-Muslims in dialogue to bridge the gap in understanding. Malaysians may no longer be able to avoid the role of religion in building a more meaningful civil society.

The DAP as it turned out has been unnecessarily hasty in pronouncing its failure in this election. The truth is, as statistics show, none of the other Chinese parties, particularly the MCA, performed any better. Either the Chinese felt that they were merely bystanders in this whole episode of Dr Mahathir wanting to reassert his mandate (among the Malays) or they were left highly confused about the whole exercise. But now that the implications of a divided Malay constituency have finally sunk into the psyche of non-Muslims, the DAP must find for itself an appropriate positive role in the imminent processes of conflict resolution.

A Future outside UMNO

The aftermath of the general election will either be "more-of-the-same" or something new. In the meantime, we expect to be left with a judicial system that operates under the thumbs of the Executive. Herein, Anwarís fate in incarceration seems to be sealed.

We will likely be saddled with media that will slavishly continue to serve the political appetites of their shareholders. There will be no stopping how low they will stoop in the bottomless pit of indecency and unethical practices as long as some political agenda is met.

We will not hope to see fair redistribution policies involving the provision for a minimum wage, housing for all, or other social benefits. Not when maha projects are revived and the whole vicious cycle of crony capitalism and corruption is churned all over again. With "business-as-usual", the government will have to continue to lend extraneous support to big business conglomerates at the expense of distributive policies.

Vulgar Pragmatism Rules

Finally, what did the 29 November polls say about us, Malaysians? Did we think that by going to the polls on that day we were outlining a splendid future for Malaysia or were we actually exposing ourselves for what we really are? Nine days of an astounding media campaign by the Barisan Nasional that was Stalinist and Maoist in flavour beguilingly promised stability and the continuance of a "glorious" lifestyle. The message was that the corruption of government and the brutal victimisation of Anwar was but a micro-price to pay for an uninterrupted everyday existence that is familiar and therefore by habit, safe. Expectedly, the majority capitulated to the seduction of the Barisan Nasionalís trite sloganeering.

There were of course the 44 per cent who voted differently and were left dazed by the results of the election. They continued to clamour, "What about Justice? What about Truth? What about Accountability? What about Fair Play? What about Compassion?" It was heard loud and clear and 56 per cent of Malaysian voters actually replied, "Frankly, we donít give a damn!" Welcome to the Barisan Nasionalís New Malaysia.