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  UMNO and the Changing Political Culture  
  Abdul Rahman Embong  

A decade ago, a well-known Japanese scholar wrote a book, entitled An Age in Motion to describe early twentieth century Indonesia which saw the birth of radicalism and various nationalist forces that later fought against the Dutch for independence. The writer also argued that similar characteristics could be found in post-war Malaya . Looking at the situation in Malaysia today as it makes the critical transition into the twenty first century, the same analogy can perhaps be used to describe the contemporary scene, although the context and issues obviously differ.

Malaysia today is without doubt ‘a nation in motion'. From the economic to the political, from the religious to the socio-cultural, from market to consumption, and from state to society -- all these domains are in motion, precipitated by globalisation, in particular the recent financial and economic crisis as well as by the political turmoil following the Anwar episode. In this historical period, despite the dominance of the market ideology of consumerism and materialism in society, idealism tends to come to the fore again.

These new developments have repercussions upon the ruling coalition, especially UMNO. While idealism seems to have fired many of those demanding for change and has permeated the ranks of the opposition, UMNO seems to face a lack-lustre situation.

Many observers including some UMNO leaders themselves, have noted certain worrying trends prevailing among many UMNO members.

First, there is an apparent lack of commitment and dedication on the part of many party members if they are not assured of pecuniary gains, compared to the apparent devotion to their cause found among many members and supporters of the opposition. Second, joining the party for some is not to serve the people but to seek for positions which are equated with power and wealth. Thus, while remaining generally passive vis-à-vis major events and issues, or at best ‘tailing' behind them, many would suddenly burst into a flurry of activities during party elections, be they at branch, divisional or national levels, especially when major stakes are involved, as is the case with the UMNO election of May 11 this year. Third, there is not much desire or initiative to engage in serious independent debates and dialogues on major issues affecting the world and the country, except to echo what has been articulated by the top leaders. Fourth, having been entrenched in power for so long, many UMNO leaders and members have developed a particular ideology and working style that often cannot accommodate differences -- what more dissent -- thus often leading to over-reaction on their part when faced with that kind of situation. This inevitably creates the conditions for a culture of flattery and sycophancy on the one hand, and a mute syndrome on the other – all of which are not healthy for the party and the country.

For a ruling party to remain historically relevant, such a situation warrants serious introspection. UMNO, the backbone of the then Alliance and now Barisan Nasional government, has been in power for more than four decades, almost four-fifths of its history. UMNO today is a changed party, very much unlike what it was during its early years before and just after Independence . It used to be a party led by school teachers and government servants, with its traditional rank-and-file consisting of rural Malays. The semangat perjuangan for the party and country was strong in UMNO then.

However, rapid modernisation and social transformation -- spurred by the New Economic Policy (NEP) since the 1970s -- have brought about dramatic changes in the class composition of the Malaysian society, the most notable being the rise of corporate and upper middle class Malays, or the Melayu Baru , and with that, the party too has been transformed. The UMNO leadership today at various levels consists of more than a few corporate big wigs and upper middle class Malays, some of whom have been ‘parachuted' into their positions, contending with those who have risen from below. Traditional politics with emphasis on face-to-face meetings, gotong royong activities, meet-the-people sessions, as well as coffee shop interactions that would enable leaders to ‘feel the pulse of the people' has eroded, and given way to party machine politics, with backroom machinations, lobbying at hotels and coffee houses as well as sponsored overseas visits to boot. Oiled by lush funds obtained from their businesses or projects, the operations machinery of the new UMNO stalwarts is formidable, and any ensuing battle for power has always been plagued with money politics.

The dominance of corporate and middle class figures in the party is both UMNO's strength and its weakness. With the rich and powerful in charge of the party, UMNO has a huge financial muscle that it can flex for election campaigns and other activities. But its corporate bias, its disjunction with the grass-roots and the lack of cultural sensitivity in its handling of the Anwar issue, the ulama , the young and women, have caused its alienation from the more idealistic young urban Malays including students and professionals, and from large sections of the Islamic-inclined Malay rural populace who turn to parties in Barisan Alternatif, namely PAS, with whom their aspirations seem to resonate.

Malaysian political culture is obviously changing, but not in the direction that UMNO would like to see. However, UMNO has to face it whether it likes it or not. The results of the last general election with ensuing demands for inner party reforms as well as for social change and for wider democratic space, have been regarded as a ‘wake-up' call for UMNO. The test of the party's preparedness to undertake reforms has to be seen in whether it is capable of and succeeds in instilling and reviving idealism or the spirit of struggle and commitment within its ranks as proposed by the party President in his message appended to the UMNO annual report tabled at the current general assembly. It has also to be seen in whether the party succeeds in changing the mind-set and working style of its leaders and members, and in repositioning itself vis-à-vis the changes inside and outside the party and country. UMNO's major challenge is that it needs to understand that in today's era of globalisation, both homogenisation and heterogenisation occur simultaneously, and that differences and diversities have become commonplace, intensified by the sudden influx of ideas and views through the uncensorable cyber space. Thus, it needs to adopt a more inclusive approach towards dissent, criticism and questioning, should be prepared to create wider spaces for political differences and diversities, and accept setbacks and defeats with grace. It is the willingness and ability to acknowledge differences and dissent and to regard them as part of our evolving political culture and to harness them for the good of the country and people that constitute the hallmark of a party that can march ahead with the times. To ignore the changing political culture or to adopt a non-engaging approach towards it in this ‘age in motion' will be to its own peril.

  ( Note : A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the special pull-out edition on the UMNO General Assembly 2000 of The Star , 12 May 2000 under the heading “Vital to be in tune with the times”).  
  Dr. Abdul Rahman Embong is an Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Research Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), UKM, and the newly-elected President of the Malaysian Social Science Association. The views expressed here are his own, and not those of the association.