Sunday, September 14, 2008

Barisan Nasional in crisis

Barisan Nasional in crisis 

AS the magic date of September 16 approaches, the rumour mill is churning overtime with all kinds of wild speculations of defections and party hopping among politicians in Sarawak and Sabah.

The landslide victory of the PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim at the Permatang Pauh by-election on August 26 has given credence to his claim that he is now on the way to Putrajaya with the help of massive defections from the Barisan Nasional to his Pakatan Rakyat on September16, or two days from now.

There is something hugely ironic in this turn of event. For decades now, there have been persistent calls from various quarters in Sabah and Sarawak for the federal government to give some sort of official recognition to this date, which for us was the day when our East Malaysian states achieved independence from British colonial rule.

Political leaders from the other side of the South China Sea have always expressed sympathy, but the calls were largely ignored, much to the frustration of Sarawakians and Sabahans. Many will simply regard this slight as just yet another symbolic disregard of the feelings of East Malaysians so typical of Kuala Lumpur.

This year though, the number 916 has struck headlines in the national media for weeks on end, thanks to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s preposterous claim about massive defections from the BN. Most people, including his allies in the Pakatan Rakyat, take this proclamation with a giant grain of salt.

We all know a little about our politicians, more or less. We even know about their occasional expressions of unhappiness about the regional divide in socio-economic development when we get to corner them on the quiet. But I just do not see too many of our Sarawak politicians jumping ship to change a whole government at the federal level. There are simply too many variables in the exercise, and too many uncertainties in the future for such a drastic political manoeuvre to bear fruition.

But politics is the art of the possible. If you know the art well, and if all favourable conditions are present, then indeed anything is possible. A few decades ago, who would have thought that an African American can become a serious contender in the US presidential race? History does have a convoluted torturous and unexpected way of working itself out.

We ordinary citizens can do little in this historical drama unfolding before our eyes every day. Whether Anwar’s plan for a regime change at the federal level will materialise, or prove to be just another strategic move to destabilise the Barisan Nasional, time will tell. One thing is certain though. It is obvious to impartial observers that the Barisan Nasional coalition at the federal level has now arrived at a critical point, a crisis of identity and credibility that threatens its survival in the future.

Formally launched in 1974 by the then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, it was meant as a response to the problem of ethnic tension that exploded on May 13, 1969. The intention was to make the ruling coalition as inclusive as possible, and so many former opposition parties were recruited into its rank.

The idea then was to reduce the acrimonious race based politics in the open, and national problems can then be discussed and solved behind the closed door of the BN conference room. As the late Tun Razak was never tired of saying, when politics was reduced, the country could then concentrate on socio-economic development.

This concept worked very well for a while, and Malaysia has taken off in all aspects of national development since the 1970s. Today, Malaysia is the 29th largest economy and the 17th largest trading nation in the world, while incidents of poverty have been slashed dramatically over the last 35 years.

But in the world of political reality, any solution to every political problem will create its own legion of problems.

Tun Razak had envisaged the two prongs of the NEP as a way of distributing wealth among the races, thereby ensuring national unity. He thought that by restructuring society and eradicating poverty on the basis of an expanding economic cake, every race will come out a winner.

Over the last few decades though, the balance of power within the BN coalition has shifted radically towards Umno supreme control, not only of the ruling coalition, but of the entire nation as well. The component parties of BN, especially those in Peninsular Malaysia, see their leverage for negotiation with BN being whittled away, while their constituents grow increasingly restless.

This problem is compounded by Umno having to go through very acrimonious party election every decade or so. One crucial way for Umno leaders to consolidate their leadership positions within the party, or to win the votes from Umno delegates in the process of climbing up in party hierarchy, is to make radical statement about the primacy of the Malay race.

More often than not, these highly provocative statements and gestures have aroused profound disquiet among Malaysians of other ethnic persuasions. Their confidence in the other component parties representing them has been eroded by leaps and bounds.

Finally, this feeling of alienation exploded, and on March 8, 2008, with the congruence of all necessary factors, the voters of all ethnic communities in Peninsular Malaysia decided to teach the BN a lesson. The BN’s two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat disappeared overnight, and five state governments fell to the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat.

After the general election, the BN ruling coalition was in tatters. Though Umno could still stand on its own feet, MIC seemed to have evaporated following the defeat of their president Datuk Seri Samy Vellu. Gerakan was wiped out in its home base of Penang, and could only hold on to two parliamentary seats. MCA might have retained many ministerial positions in the federal cabinet, but their number of seats were so reduced that they now resemble a mosquito party.

These component parties of BN can now hardly boast of representing the various non-Malay ethnic communities in the country. The traditional legitimacy of BN as an all inclusive alliance containing representatives of all ethnic communities engaged in negotiation is now in jeopardy.

Within the rank and file of MCA and Gerakan, there has been no end of cries for the parties to leave BN. The BN concept has failed because of racial posturing over the years, whittling away voters’ confidence in these component parties, and driving them to vote for the opposition instead.

Even within Umno, there were voices calling for a party reform, and a real attempt at reinventing and reengineering the party. The times have changed, and political parties must change to meet the challenges of new realities.

Unfortunately, Umno, MCA, and Gerakan are all consumed with the urgent prospect of party elections within the next few months. These party elections have always been brutal, acrimonious and divisive affairs. The in-fighting would be worse this year, following the election debacle in the March 8 general election.

Within these once very powerful ruling parties, there are numerous warlords, regional factions, and entrenched interest groups, all horse-trading and jostling for position to fill the post-election vacuum. Party reform would be the last agenda on their mind!

For days on end now since the Permatang Pauh by-election, the media is saturated with the controversy surrounding the racist remarks by the Umno Bukit Bendera chief Ahmad Ismail. He allegedly said that the Chinese are immigrants and therefore cannot enjoy equality in Malaysia.

What this Umno local leader fails to realise is that his statement is the sort that alienates Malaysians of all races. Certainly, the masses of Malay voters who supported PKR and PAS in Peninsular Malaysia would find this nationalist outburst insensitive and therefore offensive. It just goes to show how Malaysian politics has changed in the past decades after the time of Tun Razak. People are no longer that obsessed with ethic ideology. They care about bread-and-butter issues and their democratic rights. Harping on matters of race will simply attract revulsion.

Whether Anwar will bring about a regime change in KL in two days’ time is not all that important in the long run. Whether the Barisan Nasional can ride out its current crisis of identity and credibility is a far more significant matter.

After all, there will be many other elections in the years and decades to come.

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