Saturday, November 22, 2008

JOHAN JAAFFAR: To be strong, Umno needs to be clean

Saturday, November 22, 2008


THE secretary-general of Umno told the world "my party is sick". Perhaps he was asked to comment on the incidents of fighting and chair-throwing at the recent divisional meetings, but these are merely symptoms of the current problems bedevilling the party. The truth is, all is not well with Umno today.

Its detractors would argue that Umno has lost touch with reality and is fast becoming irrelevant. It is wrapped in a time capsule while the world moves on. Umno, the once venerable institution, is living on past glory. Umno is the party of yesteryear that refuses to reinvent itself. It does not speak the language of today's youth. It fails to understand the emergence of generations X and Y among the Malays. It has become largely a party of pakcik and makcik (uncles and aunties).

Not so, say its defenders. Umno will remain relevant forever. It is a party that has changed with time, in fact realigning itself to face the challenges of the day. It is not the myopic party that some would like to believe; it is in fact a dynamic one ferociously grounded in reality. More importantly, as long as the Malays are around, Umno will be their hope and legitimate representative.

The Malays are changing, more so their values and world views. These are not the same ones who had supported Umno in 1946. Those who fought the Malayan Union, the nationalists who were instrumental in demanding independence and the post-Merdeka generation of leaders are long gone.

Umno's policies have created a new generation of Malays -- educated, successful and more assertive. The rise of Malay businessmen and women is one of the proud legacies of Umno leaders' long-term vision and planning.

Umno is the victim of its own successes. Power corrupts, and being too long in power, corrupts indiscriminately. Power becomes an excuse for many of its leaders to become arrogant and lose their bearings. Like many established political parties in the world, longevity equals misuse and abuse of power. Umno produces leaders who are not fighters anymore. They are accidental leaders who are thrust to national prominence by default or worse.

There is no more idealism in the belly of Umno leaders, some would argue. The semangat perjuangan (fighting spirit) is gone. To be somewhere in the party, one has to play the game that others play. It is not just about schmoozing, cajoling and shedding a tear or two to win the hearts and minds of the general populace, but money, lots of money, is a critical prerequisite. Thus, politik wang or money politics is redefining the concept of trust, loyalty and patronage.

I do not know anyone in Umno today who denies the existence of money politics in the party. Some, even in Umno, believe that the coming party elections will probably be the dirtiest in its 62-year history. Everyone is aware of how money is being used to win elections even at the branch level. Someone estimated RM250 million as the "cost" of the coming Umno elections. Others think the figure is too demeaning to be taken seriously -- the amount is much bigger.

Where do they go from here? If money determines who gets the votes and who doesn't, what good is the party to the very people they say they are representing? Has its members become oblivious to what is happening to the party that has become the backbone of the Malays? Are they condoning the practice just for the sake of ensuring the party's continuity? Money will divide and eventually kill Umno. It will be a party fractured and fragmented.

Perhaps, more importantly, party members -- believed to be 3.2 million-strong -- ought to ask themselves what has become of their party. Is this the party that has gone through tough times fighting for the interests of the Malays? Is this not the party that has for more than six decades defended the Malay rights and ensured its dominance, politically or otherwise? Is it not the party that has produced some of the finest, outward-thinking and rational leaders the country had ever known? Is it true that Umno equals openness, tolerance and goodwill? And its leaders are respected by all Malaysians regardless of race? Are Umno leaders not just leaders of the Malays but also leaders of all Malaysians by virtue of their positions in government?

Perhaps things have changed. The political culture in Umno has changed. Umno used to be the party of Malay teachers and the common people. It is now a party whose members are businessmen and the rich. Uppity Malays are jostling for position and power with the royalties and the aristocrats. Lesser mortals, too, want their share of the spoils.

Little wonder that it matters to be rich in Umno. Wealth is the insurance policy everyone is looking for. Money matters. Money talks. And money is a surefire way for one to get elected. One aspiring vice-president cynically came out with a suggestion -- tender all the supreme council posts. May the highest bidders win. He was annoyed at how easily Umno members are swayed by the ringgit sign. Election year is musim menuai (harvest time) for the pecacai dan balaci politik (political operators). And the delegates as well.

Let us pray that what we hear are merely urban legends. I am sure there are many who still believe in honour and fair play. Umno depends on these people. Umno leaders must walk the walk and talk the talk. Making noise about curbing or crusading against money politics makes good news, but noise does not solve problems. Actions do.

For the sake of Umno, there must be enough members who have the audacity to say no to money politics and to choose only the worthiest among the leaders. Umno must take a strong and uncompromising stand to rid the party of rogue leaders and corrupt members. To be strong, Umno needs to be clean. Or at least seen to be clean.

I dread the day when the secretary-general will have to advise Umno members to look in the mirror and ask, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, am I not the dirtiest of them all?"

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