Disunity Over Malay Unity Talks

The Prime Minster behaves as a cornered rat.  These days, he talks of nothing but why Malay Unity talks must be held. He puts his feeble case for it, relaxing UMNO's initial tough stance with PAS as he goes on.  Without any aces up its sleeve, UMNO had its bluff called and PAS imposes conditions, which UMNO cannot meet without losing face. UMNO, which regards its role as a political party and in government as interchangeable, is now asked to ensure that Petronas' petroleum royalties to Trengganu are returned forthwith.  UMNO, of course, refused.  The PAS administration in Trengganu has filed a suit in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur for it, thus blocking off one condition UMNO cannot meet without mud on its face.  But he now says PAS can discuss it at the talks itself.  It would most likely not.  The ground has shifted against UMNO and him.  Especially if the talks are not eventually held.

     Which is why he desperately needs the talks.  PAS widens the agenda, but would agree to the talks only if conditions are met.  He now says that although Malays rights and privileges is the focus "we are willing to discuss any topic ... Tell us (UMNO) and we'll be there."  To prove his sincerity, he would cancel his programmes and be around. It is not that simple.  Not any more.  Both sides must agree to an agenda.  That is not since the conditions are not met for the talks.  The truth of the matter is that the talks are now subject to endorsement by UMNO and PAS supreme councils, and any talks, if held, would reflect it.  What should have been an informal round of talks between the presidents of the two parties is now something else.  And a stalemate beckons.

     UMNO and PAS secretaries-general met thrice to unlock it, with the latter suggesting the next at Parliament during its session from March 19.  The two are too far apart for an agreement at the next meeting.  Not when the Prime Minister then goes on to attack PAS and the National Justice Party (KeADILan), as he did yesterday after the UMNO supreme council meeting, for using the status of the talks for political mileage, using it, horror or horrors, to get non-Malay support.  The issue is more than that:  UMNO has lost the cultural mantle though, not yet, the political, and the unity talks is for it to.  But it cannot.  The most important factor, which neither UMNO nor PAS would concede, is the KeADILan eminence grise, jailed former deputy prime minister and deputy UMNO president, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim.  The talks has an unmentioned target, to keep him out of what UMNO insists is political mischief at least until the Prime Minister is not in office, but that is easier said than done.

     Now, there is another.  The oil royalties Trengganu is denied.  The High Court case Trengganu filed against the Federal Government and its fully-owned national oil corporation, Petronas, opens a can of worms.  Where does the money for the so-called "Wang Ehsan" come from?  Parliament had not approved it.  Petronas sends the sum due to Trengganu to the Federal Consolidated Fund or a special trut fund, only for it to be sent on to the Trengganu Consolidated Fund.  It cannot be used for any other purpose. The writ says that since 1978, for 22 years, the payments had been paid regularly to the Trengganu government, and ceased only when PAS unseated the UMNO-led National Front in November 1999.  More than RM7 billion had been paid.  This amount represents 75-80 per cent of total state government expenditure.  So, the issue is constitutional, legal, contractual, and political.  The Federal government's response to the suit would all but damn it, not necessarily in the courts, but in the public perception.  Even if the unity talks are held, it would remain so.

     The Prime Minister would have realised this, and its implications now.  It is done to spite PAS.  So PAS is under no pressure to continue the talks, makes all the conditions it wants, as UMNO would if it had the upper hand, which it does not.  But the talks must be held to have UMNO out of the Malay quicksand it sinks into.  Photographs of the Prime Minister at the Hari Raya Haji observances in his constituency showed a small crowd of elderly folk and young children, not the normal UMNO crowd who pack the hall at the drop of a pin.  This compares with PAS gatherings in the run up to the ritual Stoning of the Devil looked, as one senior UMNO member remarked, like a jamboree.  Crowds of up to 25,000 were on hand almost daily, with police breaking one up because 400 UMNO members wanted to join PAS.  Even in his own constituency, he is isolated.  Indeed, a group of UMNO elders in Kedah called his constituency representative and former state mentri besar, Tan Sri Osman Aroff, that the Prime Minister could well be removed as he was.

     But could Malay Unity talks rescue him from his predicament?  Probably not.  He is so isolated in the party and the government that, according to a confidant, he trusts nobody, and is worried about Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's intentions.  But few believes what he says anymore, unless Pak Lah confirms it.  None of his ministers and senior party leaders rise to his defence nor make his task easier.  Like rats off a sinking ship, many are prepared to jump.  One said he would like to be UMNO's Hesseltine to the Prime Minister's Margaret Thatcher.  UMNO's focus is no more the Prime Minister but UMNO itself.  The Prime Minister is too shrewd not to know this.  The Malay Unity talks is to bolster the credibility of his prime ministership.  But he left it too late.  And allowed himself to be persuaded to humiliate his former deputy, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Malay Unity talks now comes with ensuring first Dato' Seri Anwar is released.  There are no ifts and buts to this.

M.G.G. Pillai