Politics by the skin of Dr Mahathir's teeth

M.G.G. Pillai

If the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, governs the country other than by the skin of his teeth, he keeps it well hidden. Since his nemesis, and ordained successor, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was run into jail in 1998, he acts, without successs, to prevent the prisoner ruining his political life. His cabinet is there to warm the seats, parliament is ignored, and projects and policies costing billions of ringgit are announced with abandon, even when it is known the Khazanah is empty. Parliament is reduced to a rubber stamp, but only if he finds it convenient to consult it. He needs Parliament now, but it comes with a cost he is unprepared for: explanations and justifications for his fiscal profligacy, amongst others.

Parliament is not consulted when tens of billions of ringgit are expended on projects like Putra Jaya, the North South Highway, the urban rail transport, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the privatisation of government assets to cronies, courtiers and siblings of the Establishment. The Prime Minister and his finance minister decided who gets what, and when it fails, as every privatisation has, decides how they would be rescued, often buying them back to prove to the failed business men that it pays to fail.

The governing Barisan Nasional, an irrelevant UMNO appendage to project the government's multiracial image, met this month for the first time since 1995. That gives one an idea of its importance in national policy. It was held because the Prime Minister wanted to strengthen his hold on the country, and needed multiracial assurance that he is not as isolated as he is. Much is made of it, that Bangsa Malaysia or Malaysian Nation is around the corner, the pep talks UMNO gives Malaysians when all looks bleak for it. As usual, it did not address the issues it should have: more than Bangsa Malaysia, the divide between the eastern and western halves of Malaysia is more serious, with the bumiputras in the two eastern states affronted more and more with western dominance in their states.

But is UMNO serious about Bangsa Malaysia? The UMNO president talks of Malay rights and nation, in his view more important than the rights of the other races; the Barisan Nasional president talks of Malaysians rights and nation; the Prime Minister speaks with forked tongue, pointing to one direction one moment and another the next. That they are one man, the man of the hour, Dr Mahathir, is what makes one laugh at such suggestions from the National Front convention: when the chips are down, it is the UMNO president who decides, and he looks not to Malaysians but to his Malays.

Nothing he said and did in recent years, especially after 1998, suggests otherwise. For when all is said and done, the essential governance of the country, despite its modern and Western constitutional trappings, is Malay. UMNO retains political power but the cultural trappings desert it. The complex feudal Malay code of behaviour is inextricably linked to its politics. It is imperative that the leader in return for absolute loyalty must not humiliate his subjects.

When Dr Mahathir did what he did to Anwar Ibrahim, he ran foul of this code of conduct, which though mystical and legendary has the same force on Malay politics as the Magna Carta which King John signed with the barons at Runnymede in the 13th century has on British politics. The Malay prime minister governs with Malay political and cultural support, not, as now, because the Chinese and Indians do.

So he diverts attention and upgrades Tengku Abdul Rahman College to a university at this juncture because the Chinese support he expected deserts him. The Chinese, especially the MCA, would laud him for it: the MCA after all needs a diversion from its disastrous purchase of the Nanyang Press. What better than an MCA-run university, with, as its president, Dato' Seri Ling Liong Sik, tells us breathlessly, a medical faculty, on the cards. That, he hopes, would take the heat of the Vision Schools and the constricting number of Chinese schools under the national education system.

What did the Barisan Nasional convention achieve? Precious little. A one-convention in six years is to state the obvious. Delegates were chosen at random, since there are no annual meetings of BN divisions and branches. It exists to contest all elections under a common symbol, and to employ defeated and discarded politicians: the present secretary-general is the former UMNO secretary-general, with as much clout in the country as he has in UMNO. This convention was no more to spout ad nauseum why Malaysia should opt for a Malaysian Nation. How important could such a call be if the BN president, before a Malay audience and as UMNO president, opts for Malay hegemony?

Why do National Front leaders run hither and thither at the first whiff of challenge? If truth be told, the National Front, as a political party, failed in what it promises to do. It did not allow politics to develop under its charge, insisting that leaders once elected should not be challenged. It was oligarchic and exclusive.

You could not break into its inner circle -- in each of its component parties -- unless invited. An 80-year-old National Front component party leader, in office for decades, says he would remain so long as he is wanted. One cabinet minister is the longest serving official in his ministry, there since its creation, the other being a driver: he joined it as a political secretary and rose through the ranks to minister in 27 years. No doubt he awaits to complete three decades in his ministry before he calls it a day!

BN leaders will not allow people to raise questions. The MIC president, Dato' Seri S. Samy Vellu's tetchiness at being challenged, when he went to Kampung Medan in a media spectacle, by those he had come to spread the government's largesse before TV cames. The tide has changed, and BN did not realise it. Few UMNO cabinet ministers would dare face their electorate nowadays, making it easy for the opposition to make hay.

So, when Dr Ling bought the Nanyang Press in a political sleight of hand, he did not realise the scale of the opposition it would raise. He took every step possible to bypass the party rules and frustrate his opponents. His deputy, Dato' Lim Ah Lek, and seven MCA central committee members, objected, he moved heaven and earth to make it impossible for them to succeed: Lim sent a considered letter to the 2,400 delegates to the EGM why he and his seven colleagues opposed the deal; not one reached its destination.

Who instructed Pos Malaysia Berhad to withhold it, or does PMB discard mass mailings, as I have reason to suspect, as a matter of course? I am no more surprised when I receive invitations to farewell parties from embassies weeks after the man has departed: I had one just last week, posted mid-May for June 12, a week after the Pakistan High Commissioner and his wife had departed.

After the MCA's extraordinary general meeting to approve the purchase of Nanyang Press, which it won with a wafer-thin majority, Dr Ling wanted Dr Mahathir the next day to sack from the cabinet a Lim supporter and health minister, Dato' Chua Jui Meng. It was refused. His calls for unity in the part has as much effect as Dr Mahathir's call for a Malaysian nation.

UMNO assumed, in Malay Dominance, it alone had the unfettered right to govern. All other political parties are fly-by-nights, even if they are as old as UMNO. It alone had the wherewithal to govern, all else must fail. It alone led the only multiracial party that could govern effectively.

This arrogance changed its focus from a political party strengthening and surviving with regular elections to one that cannot be defeated. This cannot be sustained. UMNO and BN did not work at making themselves relevant in the three generations of voters that had voted them in. It is frightened at the prospect of an opposition multiracial coalition, and does all it can to frustrate it. So National Front leaders give a blow-by-blow account of what ails DAP and PAS over an Islamic state, little telling that it has laid the foundations for one, as PAS discovered when it took control of Kelantan in 1990 and Trengganu in 1999.

But its arrogance in part was sustained by opposition political parties, content to be adjuncts to the BN worldview; the two exceptions being Parti Rakyat Malaysia and PAS, one meticulously upholding what it believed in even if the people preferred the greed the National Front offered without effort, the other an apposite albeit religious worldview to UMNO's Malay Dominance. What Dr Mahathir does now is plug the political holes which spout unexpectedly all over the place. But the more he does and runs around in circles, the more damaging BN's future role. If it does not change drastically and dramatically, rigor mortis sets in.

M.G.G. Pillai

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