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Can Umno change?

If the year were 1999, I’d almost certainly be voting for DAP. Anything but Umno. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was always repulsed by Umno’s shameless cronyism and corruption, ego-driven incompetence, and brutish hostility to basic freedoms. So, I’d never imagine that, 18 years later, I’d be on the verge of crossing the box for Umno-led Barisan.

 

What in the world changed my mind? What turned me into a self-loathing ‘traitor to the Chinese race’, as some DAP chauvinists would no doubt put it? The answers have a lot to do with how much Umno changed after the Mahathir years, and how much Pakatan remains stuck in a bizarre time warp.

 

Pakatan, the Umno clone in all the worst ways

 

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Pakatan today is little more than a throwback to Umno’s disgraced past. While publicly denouncing Umno in every shape and form, opposition forces also tried their best to look and act more like it. ‘Anything but Umno’ is a laughable battle cry when Pakatan slavishly inducts ex-Umno rejects and discontents into their leadership ranks.

 

Their de facto leader and likely PM candidate is an aging former dictator, who himself is dogged by financial scandals and a troubling record on human rights. As the world strides into the 21st century, Pakatan is intent on taking us back to the darkest days of the 20th. Like many Malaysians, I happen to think it’s criminally stupid to be mistaking the poison for the antidote.

 

And then there’s the absolutely farcical family dynamic going on in Pakatan. For most – if not all – of their history, three out of the four Pakatan parties have essentially functioned as the exclusive property of one family. So much for meritocracy: the Lims reign supreme over DAP, the Anwars PKR, and Mahathirs Pribumi. The change they keep promising us doesn’t happen even in their own parties.

 

Yes, Umno is still crowded with yes-men and plagued by money politics – which political party isn’t? But at the very least, it has seen 7 different party presidents and 6 prime ministers. And if these changes at the top are merely superficial, then why does Mahathir so passionately despise his successors? Could it be that he was horrified by the earnestness of their wide-ranging reforms?

 

Najib’s reformasi

 

For his part, Najib showed commendable backbone in cracking down on the Mahathir-era cronyism that led to shoddy results and steep losses. Lest we forget, our former dictator’s LRT and monorail projects – curiously awarded to private companies – all went bankrupt and needed taxpayer bailouts. In comparison, Najib’s MRT and LRT extension projects were either completed on time and within budget, or (better yet) ahead of time and below budget.  

 

No matter how you cut it, there’s been a tectonic shift in how the government and government-linked companies (GLCs) do business. But if Mahathir appears so often in this tale, it’s surely because Najib (and by extension, Umno) has had to rectify his egoistic excesses. Shunning Mahathir-style megaprojects catered to wealthy contractors, Najib instead focused on welfare programs directly targeted at low- and middle-income families – BR1M, Klinik 1Malaysia, and others. It’s the right approach, and one I wish we adopted decades ago.

 

Of course, back then, one stubborn dictator ruthlessly squashed any opposition to his self-absorbed vision. And here he is today, still shaking his fist at the winds of change. He may have given Pakatan a new lease on life, but the freedoms they now enjoy could not have existed if he remained in office. Given a chance, he may have ISA-ed the whole lot of them into oblivion.

 

As Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the think tank IDEAS, rightly observed, “Pakatan would not have grown if Mahathir is still in power, because he would not allow the democratic space to be enlarged.” I believe Pakatan officials should thank Abdullah Badawi and now Najib for being far more tolerant, progressive, and democratic than their own chairman. And if they had any shame left, they’d be suitably embarrassed.

 

Can Umno change?

 

If you told me 18 years ago that Umno would be the agent of change in Malaysian politics, I’d laugh my head off at you. And yet, that’s clearly the reality today. While Pakatan kept recycling the same old politicians and making the same old mistakes, Umno made a clear and commendable break with its past. And it was a courageous decision given the residual influence of the old guard led by Mahathir himself – sadly, it may have cost Pak Lah his job.

 

To me, the choice in GE14 couldn’t be clearer: A return to Mahathirism (the old Umno) with all its discontents, or an affirmation of the reformasi we’ve seen under Najib (today’s Umno). And knowing all I know, I’d gladly vote for the latter. We cannot and must not go back. I’m confident that even me in 1999, so passionately opposed to Umno back then, would agree.

 

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