After a relatively disastrous election result in its history, UMNO is in crisis. As its members try to rejuvenate the old lady, strong voices from inside of the party calling for the resignation of various party leaders could be heard. In their eagerness to follow through their loud calls, dissatisfied party members are demanding for a more democratic process to be implemented within the party. Regardless whether the calls are based on sincere belief in democracy, the restoration of democracy in UMNO will strengthen the party.
Many have derived many conclusions from the result of the recent general election. The Malaysian blogosphere has been hailed as the instrument which brought UMNO down to earth. A perceived weak Prime Minister has been thrown into the kitchen sink of conclusions along with the mysterious Fourth Floor team. One grand conclusion involves the transformation of a race-conscious Malaysian society into an issue-based one. There are several other factors which are believed to have caused BN’s less than stellar performance but pundits say this and pundits say that and the sink is overflowing. Now, allow me to add another plate into the sink of punditry.
Voters voted the way they did because they were tired of UMNO and BN leaders in general. If I must find a word to describe why it was so, then arrogance is the word and this arrogance evolved from the confidence built in the 2004 general election. After receiving an overwhelmingly strong mandate in 2004, confidence of the Abdullah administration and its supporters was at an all time high.
In an undemocratic environment which approvals from the top matter more than that of the grassroots, the strong showing of UMNO in 2004 created an atmosphere of invincibility. After all, if undemocratic process prevails in a democratic system, it paints the picture that an undemocratic system is able to produce outcomes endorsed by democratic processes. Somehow, it created an assumption that if the Prime Minister approved a person, so would the grassroots.
As UMNO politicians’ perception of invincibility ballooned, their statements and actions became far removed from concerns of voters. Some of the statements and actions made in response to issues of public concern were so outrageous that the only thing that made it all the more outrageous was how they could say it with a very straight face while real problems raised by voters were dismissed nonchalantly. These politicians had become unaccountable to whom they were supposed to serve.
The situation was ratified on March 8, the day which top-down and organic approaches clashed. Only after it was too late did many incumbents realize that they were not invincible after all and that the Prime Minister could not save them from the guillotine.
The outcome of March 8 would not possible had happened if a more organic approach was taken by UMNO. With democratic processes in place, the more savvy and capable leaders more presentable to the Malaysian voters would face the general election. As the convention goes in democracy, or at least in meritocracy, the cream would rise up to the top.
Furthermore, those closer to the grassroots would know better the sentiment on the ground than those at the top. That itself is the reason why organic politics is better than top-down approach. Undemocratic practices in UMNO however pushed the cream down at the bottom while elevating the unfaltering crust to the top. The Prime Minister was way too detached from the earth, sitting on his throne in the desolated but lavishly decorated Putrajaya. He could not see the graffiti drawn around the Central Market or listened to the talks at various kopitiams across the country.
The weakness of top-down approach was compounded by the fact that Malaysian politics is party-centric and party-centric politics is a fertile ground for generalization. When ministers associated with UMNO repeated outrageous statements over and over again, it reflected badly on his party and it gave the Pakatan Rakyat more ammunition against UMNO. As we saw on March 8, the generalization worked: good representatives like Shahrizat Abdul Jalil were voted out along with those with penchant for insulting statements such as, if I may name a name, Zainuddin Maidin.
Restoration of democracy in UMNO will allow better leaders to rise up to replace the old guards. The change of guards will improve the party image and with infusion of more capable blood, old image will wear out to be replaced with more admirable generalization. The President of UMNO recently wanted the members of UMNO to prove to all Malaysians on how that the party is not arrogant during the 62nd anniversary celebration of the party a number of days earlier. If he made that call in earnest, he should begin with the reintroduction of organic politics in the party.
Finally, as much as I dislike communal politics, I do not believe that race-based politics has met its maker. After all, the question of race could still be heard easily in public domain. A majority of the Malays is still concerned about Malay privileges. Even during the election, the Pakatan Rakyat’s success has much to do with issues surrounding the Indian community. In Perak and Selangor, the issue of race riddled appointment to high public offices. All in all, I believe it may take another election or two to truly prove that our society has truly transcended communal politics.
Until then, race-based politics will continue to be the hallmark of Malaysia. And if UMNO begins to respect organic wishes, it has an opportunity to tread the path which the Phoenix had treaded.