Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Umno in search of its constituency?

NEWS of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad quitting Umno must have brought much relief for party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has been asked to take the blame for the party’s dismal showing at the last elections. The exit of Dr Mahathir may have little bearing on the party’s strategy to extricate itself from a very delicate position it is in. However, his exit could promise further cracks in a shell-shocked Umno and set it back further from getting its house in order.
Getting over the trauma of a humiliating rejection at the last general election does not guarantee that the party will eventually regain its strength.
Although it is hard to imagine Malaysian politics without Umno, the truth is, it is easier to see Umno withering away in the years ahead given the many issues afflicting the party. After all, the party, together with its Barisan Nasional partners, secured less than 50% of the popular votes in the peninsula.
And the bickering that has plagued the party in the aftermath of the elections seems to have done nothing to allay that fear. On the contrary, it threatens further injury. The danger is, the longer it takes a fractious Umno to find a proper cure for its ills and rehabilitate public perception of the party, the closer it approaches the point of no return.
But does Umno have a clue as to what had hit it so hard? How pertinent is Umno’s revival strategy?
Many reasons have been tossed about by party leaders and political pundits alike to explain Umno’s dismal performance at the recent polls. I believe, however, it takes more than the arrogance and misdeeds of a few to bring down a mighty organisation such as Umno. Mass desertion of supporters and sympathisers can only happen as a result of a structural fault within the organisation. Much like the event at the fault line in the Indian Ocean which caused the deadliest tsunami in living memory, Umno’s electoral rout was precipitated by a severely damaged link with its constituency.
If that was the case, the strain in the link must have been building for some time, perhaps even before the previous elections. The fact that voters returned Umno (and BN) post-Mahathir with unprecedented mandate could be more an indication of people’s longing for change than an expression of their confidence in the new leaders. It is important to recognise the difference.
People were crying out for a wholesome change in the country’s political scene. But Umno, and most of its BN partners, did not understand that the call was directed as much to the government as to the parties running it. Umno, in particular, has not been very good at distinguishing itself from the government. At times, the line between the two entities is so thin that it’s barely visible. At least that has been the public perception of how Umno activists continue to see and behave themselves.
It is the failure to make this distinction that had lulled Umno into thinking its fortunes were secure as long as the government did well in managing the country. In good times, perhaps, but in bad times people would distance themselves from the country’s leadership. Suffice to say, it was this failure that caused the party to drift away from the main body of its constituency. It was the broken bond that led to a structural failure which undermined the party’s very foundation.
Umno should have evolved with the times. It should have outgrown and laid to rest the notion that Umno equals government, a relic from the pre-Merdeka days. Nonetheless, it is instructive for Umno to learn how the notion came about and adapt the lesson to the present circumstances. It could yet be key to the party’s revival.
Umno started out as a movement. It helped the nation gain independence, and it moved people, intellectually, economically and literally — thousands of families uprooted from their villages to the Felda schemes. The party had a great gift — the ability to engage, organise and move people. And the success of its organisational prowess lay in the operative word that is so close to the Malay culture: “inclusion”.
The concept is well expressed in phrases like bergotong-royong and berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing. Umno was a successful organisation because it was one with its constituency.
It was the inclusive nature of the party that sustained the strong bond it had with the grassroots and regulate party leaders against excesses. Thus, it was not such a travesty for Umno to equate itself with government. Umno would have had no chance of maintaining the bond if it were perceived as an exclusive club for the elite, as what party stalwart Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has claimed it has become.
If Tengku Razaleigh is right, as seems likely, the task of reviving Umno’s fortunes would be extremely arduous. First, it has to dismantle the exclusive club and work tirelessly to mend the broken link with grassroots. It’s another question whether the party has enough dedicated activists to take up the challenge to see the job through.
Second, Umno has to prove that it is a progressive party that is able to operate outside the ambit of government and remain relevant to present day circumstances. It should be able to prove, for instance, that it can organise a well-functioning international relief body backed by the party’s three million members. Or, it can build a reputable private university to rival MCA-backed Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman without government help. It must be a party that its constituents look up to and have pride in.
At age 62, is it too late for Umno to change its ways? Even if Umno’s revival strategy is right, it may have lost its skill to engage its constituency meaningfully. More urgent perhaps is that the party identify and define its constituency — in the kampungs and in towns — before it can work on them.
It’s a competitive world out there, and Umno leaders must bear in mind that there are other parties that can guarantee a clean, transparent, efficient and pro-people government.

by Abd Ghani Hamat - The Edge 20 May 2008