Monday, October 27, 2008

Can society ever extricate itself from Umno’s party penetration?

OCT 25 — The recently ignited debate about the dominant position of Umno within the ruling coalition may yet be the most fruitful of all the soul-searching attempts endeavoured by Malaysians to understand the electoral surprises of March 8.

Aside from obvious disagreements among the Barisan Nasional’s members about how that dominance came about, and who are to blame for it, there are at least two related fields that promise a good harvest for interested analysts.

These are first, party penetration of the state, and second, party penetration of the society.

In democracies where the government occasionally changes hands, a healthy distance is maintained between political parties on one side and the civil service, business groups and social networks on the other.

Because of the conditional nature of power in such societies, politicians and party structures do not have the time and the coercive clout they need to infiltrate and colonise low-level associations. Society at large remains significantly independent of parties in power.

At the other end of the scale, we have party dictatorships, as in the case of China. There, especially before capitalist reforms were carried out, the party has been starkly relevant in the daily decisions of normal people.

Malaysia’s democracy lies somewhere in between these two polarities. Component parties of the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, have been in power throughout the country’s existence. The ruling parties, at least on the peninsula, have been Umno, the MCA, the MIC and Gerakan.

The continuous hold on power by the BN meant the same parties have exercised power over state formation and nation building.

In response to the logic of the New Economic Policy implemented in 1971 — and the heightened power of redistribution of wealth and opportunity placed in the BN’s hands — the business world, civil servants, as well as social organisations tended to align themselves as advantageously as they could in relation to the ruling coalition.

The spider in the middle of this widening web of patronage was Umno. The other parties played along despite an inevitable successive weakening of their own profiles.

Umno’s connection to its constituents — the Malays — has been strong since its very beginning. Its consistent position as the dominant party has led, in time, to a 180-degree switch in the direction of reliance between voter and party.

Malay civil society was quickly absorbed into the power structure of its major political representative. Umno and its channels became the most important routes available to ambitious Malays hoping for political, social and economic success.

This alignment around an increasingly powerful Umno could not but corrupt the party itself, and compromise the socio-economic ethos of the country.

This process of social incorporation — this Umno-ifisation — was started in the ’70s and became standard policy throughout the Mahathir period (1981 to 2003). At the top were big businesses given a string of multi-million ringgit contracts, and on the bottom were the tens of thousands of small contractors who had only one client — the federal government.

No rectification was forthcoming during the Abdullah Badawi period. A New Sunday Times report from 2005 stated that the country had 42,313 contractors (one for every 614 Malaysians), 35,000 of whom were low-end Class-F licensees living off minor government contracts involving sums of up to RM100,000.

A major problem here, which led to the government freezing the number of such licences, was that political connections had become more important than the ability to deliver quality products.

The phenomenon of Class-F contractors reflects the wider problem of the government — and party — apparatus disrupting social dynamics in such a way as to cripple productive forces and perpetuate dependence on the government.

The civil service has also been growing at an unhealthy rate, especially during Abdullah’s time in office, meaning that a larger part of the country’s workforce had become dependent on Umno’s power pyramid.

Now when five states are ruled by opposition parties, a serious tension emerges between the new governments and civil servants used to being loyal to the federal government. It may show itself to be a passing problem if and when opposition parties prove that they are here to stay.

Decades of dominance by Umno and the BN can not but leave detrimental effects that presently appear as more or less permanent aspects of Malaysian life. The major dilemma for the country lies in the liberating of civil society — especially Malay civil society — from the power structure and the dominant rationale of Umno. This explains why movements for the dismantling of draconian laws have suddenly become such a common phenomenon.

Indeed, Umno’s greatest challenge in its attempt to regain broad popular support lies in rectifying the damage done by its own excessive dominance. — TODAY

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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