Sunday, September 12, 2010

UMNO & the average Malay : is the party still relevant?

Source : Malaysian Chronicles
Cheong Suk-Wai

(Straits Times) - It used to be that whenever it came to election time in Malaysia, the country’s ruling party Umno would gets its community development workers to fan out to all the hamlets on bicycles and on foot to take the political temperature and assure villagers that Umno was the best doctor for them, taking care of their births, deaths and everything in between. But then village youth began migrating en masse to towns from the 1980s and Umno lost these rural forts.

Malaysian sociologist Maznah Mohamad recalls Umno’s women telling her how urban folk would shoo them away and even hurl insults at them if they tried to woo them. Dr Maznah, 54, notes wryly: ‘You can’t go knocking on doors in, say, Subang Jaya. People will just chase you away. There’s no community spirit in such neighbourhoods. Anyway, they’re urbanised, so why would they need you to help them?’

An alumna of Macalester College, Stanford University and the University of Malaya, Dr Maznah knows a lot about such matters, having studied Malays in general, and Umno in particular, in her 27 years as a don in Penang’s Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

She retired from USM in 2006, and has since been a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Her husband, Dr Johan Savaranamuttu, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies here. They have two children.

She spoke to The Straits Times recently about her country’s New Economic Model (NEM) and where Umno stands today:

Who is the average Malaysian Malay today?
He is male, Muslim and has an excess of rights and privileges without too much responsibility, for he benefits from what I call a vulgarised affirmative action policy formally known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).
Why ‘vulgarised’?
Simply because it has veered from its original aim and has metamorphosed into a scheme that equalises rewards rather than opportunities… After a while, even a conscious policy like that is not necessary because it assumes its own dynamics – like people from the same ethnic group drawing their own (into workplaces), so you don’t even need racial quotas… But it is difficult to undo a policy that’s so entrenched.

So life is good for the average Malaysian Malay?
Besides NEP rights, Malaysia’s Islamic laws today are biased towards male rights, such as polygamy and the unilateral right to divorce. Even Jakim, the Department of Islamic Development, has had to set up a RM15 million (S$6.4 million) fund to assist single mothers who have not received maintenance from their children’s fathers. This is not good because the state picks up after these errant males… The average Malay male is treated with kid gloves.

Why so?
Well, there’s really a lot of disjuncture in the system. The (average Malay) has all these rights and privileges, but for a Muslim man who’s poor, that’s where the problem starts: Psychologically, he might think that he’s powerful and head of the household but, realistically, he’s not able to maintain it… That’s why you find many among them just leaving the family. You also have Muslim wives who earn a lot more than their husbands, yet are forced to be obedient and subservient. There is this whole entrenchment of a kind of politics and culture that does not actually assess (Malays) realistically.

So what is Umno’s attraction to them these days?
The attraction in joining Umno today is still that it’s a sure ticket to a plum appointment or business contract because there isn’t anything idealistic in Umno today. Sixty years ago, it was about wanting to help the Malays but that is not so today because Malay rights and privileges are already guaranteed in the Constitution… If Umno pays you RM300 a month to deliver letters to its branches, that’s enough to pay, say, the loan on your motorcycle. So Umno is more like a job than a party at the end of the day.

Which begs the question: Who wouldn’t want to join it?
Well, those who don’t need to, don’t have to, right? Also, those who join the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) have an idealism that has trumped even material benefits.

That puts Umno in quite a spot, surely?
Exactly. Umno’s lifeblood has been helping the Malays get to a certain level. So if the Malays are backward and not able to catch up, Umno would then be forever relevant… But now, what other language can Umno use?

So why are its leaders saying the NEM must replace the NEP?
In a way, it’s the right moment to do so because, on the one hand, Prime Minister Najib Razak isn’t exactly all that strong because he hasn’t gone through the baptism of elections and was endorsed by Umno when it was at its weakest. On the other hand, you have a growing Malay middle class that is clamouring for reform. This convergence of the weak and the strong makes Malaysia ripe for the NEM.

Having said that, it’s a misnomer to call the NEM a model. It’s really just a government wish list. Nevertheless, it’s going to provide a platform for some very important talking points.

How fresh are these points?
There are three which have not been stated explicitly before: The first links corruption to the faltering economy; before, corruption was there but it wasn’t considered a moral evil… But now the NEM has made that connection, albeit with the fancy-sounding term ‘rent-seeking in economic practices’. The second is trying to get rid of affirmative action, using the code phrase ‘affirmative action that is friendly to market policy’ – which is an oxymoron, right? The third – and this is very important – is how they’re going to stimulate the economy by bringing back ‘talented Malaysians’ which, again, is a code phrase for non-Malays… I don’t know if that’s possible under the present circumstances, but at least they’ve identified that as what they’ve to do. So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

These three things are good because a good policy has something which people desire commonly. So the NEP was very successful because it was made out to be something that could prevent future ethnic conflicts and also eradicate poverty – and who could quarrel with that?

But hasn’t the NEP rendered Malaysians uncompetitive?
Yes, but it never hurt the economy – until now – and so Umno became complacent and mixed up short-term necessities with long-term realities.

Can Umno change?
The only way it can change is if it loses… That’s because nothing has changed in Umno, not even its rhetoric. Has money politics changed? No. Histrionics? No. Keris-waving? No.

Is this Umno’s darkest period yet?
There are two ways of looking at it. If you view it in terms of election performance, Umno did very badly in 2008. But if you’re looking at Umno versus PAS, Umno is still ahead of PAS by a long shot. In Umno’s worst years, 1969 and 2008, it won 35 per cent of the parliamentary seats. PAS’ best year was 1999, when it won just 14 per cent of the parliamentary seats. See the gap?

So who or what is Umno’s biggest threat now?
Fence-sitters. The 2008 election was really about them; a lot of seats were won very narrowly and that was when the fence-sitters mattered.

Hard talk
SOCIOLOGIST Maznah Mohamad is an avowed feminist known for her incisive and perceptive views. Here she is on:

What the average Malaysian Malay wants out of life

‘Nothing much, really – well, except maybe pride and dignity – because he has too many rights and privileges but too few responsibilities.’

Malays and affirmative action

‘Many Malays increasingly do not feel comfortable about continually receiving handouts – unless they have political ambitions, then it’s tied to that.’

How she feels about being Malay

‘In Malaysia, it is about being inadequate culturally; in Singapore, it is about being inadequate professionally. So Malays like me feel neither here nor there.’

How she lives with that

‘Actually, I’m quite comfortable because it’s good to be in a category where you’re able to confuse people.’


‘Umno doesn’t want to promote a Malaysian Malaysia because that’s associated with the People’s Action Party. And then you have this peach of a slogan which means the same thing.’

The ruling coalition

‘They’re pandering to race and religion and people don’t need that. They need good food, good jobs, good education, good transport and good health.’

Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad

‘He was neither maverick nor Machiavellian; he was actually mainstream. He did bring radical change with Vision 2020 and he tried to create a Bangsa Malaysia. But he wasn’t forceful enough…and instead perpetuated race-based politics.’

The opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)

‘Many of its members were from Umno and so expected the same gravy train to come their way. But they’ve waited and waited and PKR is still not the government, so you can expect them to leave it.’

Malaysia’s future

‘We can still go out for hawker food; it doesn’t matter that the buildings are falling apart.’


Dr Maznah Mohamad – PROFILE

Dr Maznah Mohamad joined Asian Research Institute (ARI) of the National University of Singapore (NUS) as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in 2006. Concurrently, she is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Southeast Asian Studies Programme, NUS.

Before joining ARI, she taught at the Universiti Sains Malaysia and also held a visiting chair appointment (ASEAN and International Studies) at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

Dr Mohamad obtained her Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Malaya and her M.A. in International Development Education at Stanford University. She also holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology (cum laude) from Macalester College.

Maznah’s publications include, The Malay Handloom Weavers: A Study of the Rise and Decline of Traditional Manufacture (ISEAS, 1996); Risking Malaysia: Culture, Politics and Identity (co-edited, Penerbit UKM, 2001) and Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia (co-authored, Routledge, 2006). She has also published articles on Malaysian politics, Islam, democracy and human rights.

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