Side Views

Why I have nothing much to say at the moment (Part 2) — Clive Kessler

November 09, 2012

NOV 9 — The challenge facing Umno/BN after the 2008 elections, I have suggested, was not to embrace ever more closely Ketuanan Melayu and to capitulate to its vociferous partisans. Instead, it was to make itself the champion of everything that Ketuanan Melayu was not.

The outcome of the 2008 elections had displayed for all to see the exhaustion, even collapse — after its long and strangely prolonged afterlife — of Malaysia’s second post-independence political “dispensation”, the “regime framework” that had been designed for the initially intended NEP era from 1970 to 1990.

The outcome made explicit and evident, above all, the repudiation by many non-Malays (and Malays too!) of the Ketuanan Melayu zealots’ definition of the Malaysian nation. That was a view which, with at least tacit Umno complicity, had been stridently promoted over the preceding years: a limitlessly expansionist view of the constitutional entrenchment of perpetual, and perpetually undiscussable, Malay political ascendancy.

The election results made it clear, above all to the Umno and its leaders, that a very large part of the nation’s non-Malay citizenry were no longer prepared to accept, and now unambiguously wished to repudiate, the “blood-and-soil” Malay nationalists’ insistence — contrary to the terms and spirit of the Merdeka agreements of 1957 — that all non-Malays were, and had from the very outset  and perpetuity had been, incorporated into the nation as categorically subordinate.

They signalled that they would no longer offer the complicity of silence to the Ketuanan Melayu view of their congenial, complaisant and uncomplaining acceptance of that view: the view that — since the majority sets the rules and may always continue to change the rules as it may see fit — they as members of the minority had to be, and so would reliably be, satisfied with whatever the champions of Ketuanan Melayu might at any time offer them.

They would no longer accept the view that theirs was a citizenship not of equal and equally legitimate participation but of an obligatory and silent consent in the face of expanding Malay assertiveness grounded in expressions of Malay historic grievance.

In great numbers those non-Malay citizens signalled that they were no longer prepared to accept, and that the majority were no longer entitled to hold, this view of their affable, uncomplaining, congenial and undemanding subordination within the Malaysian nation and its political life.

Yet this was a view of the “terms of non-Malay citizenship”, which many Malays had by now come to take for granted. It was a view to which many Malays had even come to feel entitled to have permanently acknowledged and affirmed by all their non-Malay fellow citizens — not least because of the powerful promotion and widespread diffusion of those ethno-supremacist ideas, and their quasi-official elaboration as covenantal national doctrine, since 1986.

A Nation Divided, But in Basic Agreement

On this question the nation was now divided, bifurcated.

Yet strangely, both sides were in basic agreement.

The basic perception on both sides was the same, and it was correct.

Both sides saw that the familiar “old game”, that of the second national political dispensation, had been challenged and was now over.

The two sides were agreed on that. They differed, and differed diametrically, only in how they saw it.

On the one side, that of those who rejected any notion of non-Malay “subordination-in-perpetuity” or “second-class citizenship”, their defiance was for them not just a timely declaration of principle but a necessary affirmation of a basic truth, the truth of the nation’s origins in its formative moment in 1957.

For the other side, those of the Ketuanan Melayu persuasion who felt that the subordinate incorporation of non-Malays into the nation was not only constitutionally entrenched but had always been accepted by the generality of non-Malay citizens, this stance was shocking. It was an affront. It was perceived, and also by many of them it was personally experienced, as nothing less than treason, derhaka. The non-Malays, to them, had ungratefully rebelled (memberontak) against the “core Malay character” of the country and nation, against the Constitution, and even against the Malay rulers and their sovereign status.

Hence the dramatic rise and growth, following the 2008 elections, of the panoply of powerfully encouraged Malay NGOs devoted to upholding, and further promoting, Ketuanan Melayu, together with the accompanying revisionist or “retro-fitted” view that this doctrine had been part of the nation’s innermost nature since the time of independence itself.

A Stark Choice, A Challenge "Squibbed"

That was now the stark and evident choice. In May 2008 I wrote a letter to the New Straits Times making the point:

“... Umno, I suggest, cannot go on forever maintaining itself electorally as a sectional [Malay] communitarian party and, at the same time, rule the country as a moderate and mediating centrist party.

"Sooner or later — and with the accelerating momentum of political developments in this country, it may come sooner than many people expect — the Umno will have to choose, and find a way, to be a genuine and consistent centrist party and to live with the consequences.

“Among those consequences, it will not be able to command all of the Islamist Malay vote or the Bangsa Melayu Malay [cultural supremacist] vote.

“It may have to concede some of those votes in order to position itself as the credible leader of a widely-supported governing party that enjoys the confidence alike of many Malays who recently voted against it and of the supporters and leaders of its non-Malay partner parties in the governing coalition.

“It may have to accept openly that it is not as Islamist as PAS. It may also have to recognise that it cannot forever — in the face of the vast transformation and diversification of peninsular Malay society that it has promoted over the last half-century — call for or expect ‘Malay unity’ as the basis of national political life.

“The big question facing the Umno, and the country as a whole, is whether the Umno will prove itself smart enough to decide upon, and brave enough to achieve, this impending inner transformation.”

But, rather than facing that challenge, Umno/BN has shirked and avoided it.

Umno/BN has preferred a strategy of denial, buttressed by a lot of “whistling in the dark”, the ritualistic repetition of exhausted mantras and similar bravado, all augmented by the importation of fancy but dubious consultancy expertise and expensive “new media” gimmickry and mumbo-jumbo.

The result of that avoidance, of shirking the central challenge, has become clear.

It has been on public display every day for a year and more now. Ever since the moment of prime ministerial succession, in fact.

Umno/BN and its leader need to call and hold an election. They need to reaffirm and renew their legitimacy by means of electoral success and its ensuing validation.

But to take that course, they have to do so under what may plausibly offer themselves as promising circumstances. Circumstances that provide some decent prospects of success.

And no “good moment” has ever presented itself, or has ever seemed likely to do so. Not since the present prime minister’s accession to the highest office. He and his advisers have always kept a “weather eye” attentively cocked to the prospect of some fine political weather, a brief season to collect the desired political harvest. But it has never come.

So Umno/BN and its leader, the prime minister, have been “caught in a wedge”, trapped in one of their own making.

They know they must go forward, that they must make the fateful wager on their own political triumph, but cannot.

So all they can do it to hang on and hope, like Mr Micawber, that something will turn up, that for no good or apparent reason things will simply improve.

This is hardly the strategy of those who are, or wish to project themselves and be seen as, the masters of circumstances — which is what all successful politicians and leaders must do.

Again, how did this situation come about?

Again, it is a predicament of Umno’s own making and authorship.

The Challenge Refused, History’s Gambit Declined

The 2008 elections placed Umno at a political and historical crossroad.

It could continue under the Ketuanan Melayu banner in its grim march along the path to the periphery or it could return to where it had been in 1957, and throughout its better times since then, to the political centre.

And the centre is where modern politics is played and won.

Did the Umno take that path?

No.

That was the challenge, and Umno “squibbed” it when the moment came.

When was the fateful choice made?

In my recollection it occurred several months after the election, on June 28, 2008.

It occurred when the Bar Council — responding to the new “post-communalist” spirit that was evident and to the now  growing interest in and curiosity about the Merdeka agreements and the idea of the “social contract” that many, following Abdullah Ahmad’s lead, were now imputing to and reading back into them — sought to hold a public forum on the origins of the notion of the Malaysian Social Contract.

For some, that was to prove “a step too far.”

The forum, and those attending it, were curious to explore, historically and constitutionally, what the idea of a foundational Malaysian Social Contract entailed, and specifically whether it contained, and had done from as early as 1957, the idea of Malay political ascendancy or Ketuanan Melayu.

The forum began calmly but ended in uproar, when a group of Malay nationalist activists — by declaring their wounded feelings rather than by making any substantive argument — made all further discussion impossible.

An ensuing Bar Council forum scheduled for the following month on the question of religious conversion and family law was still-born. It was dead even before it could ever take place.

Why? How?

In my memory of those developments, the public lead in resisting any “move to the centre ground” by Umno was provided not by the more radically nationalist elements within the party but by three of its main “moderate” leaders from what was ever routinely described as the progressive state of Johor and its Umno party: by Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Within a day of the Social Contract Forum ending (more in confusion than in uproar), all three made strong statements. The Bar Council’s action had been impertinent, they insisted, and the attitude behind it was intolerable. This kind of initiative, and any further repetition of the affront to Malay political sensibilities that it had caused, had to be stopped.

And it was. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi issued a statement affirming his support for what the Three Strong Men of the South had said.

Once again, as in the earlier Article 11 dispute over the constitutional right of religious freedom and the right of citizens to discuss it peaceably and publicly, his hand was forced. He moved against those who sought to open up legitimate national questions to informed and reasonable public discussion.

That was the fateful moment.

And what was the fateful error here?

A Nation whose Origins Must Remain Shrouded in Mystery?

The matter is simply put.

There is something inherently wrong, broken and crippled about a nation that cannot bear to acknowledge and publicly contemplate its own origins.

That will not let its founding moment and character be a matter of principled discussion among its citizens.

That feels obliged to respond instead to a strange imperative to shroud its own birth in secrecy, to cloud its founding moment and processes in a blinding fog of  cultivated ignorance.

To protect itself from any clear knowledge of the nation’s basic “facts of life” by hedging them around, just as those other biological facts of life often are, with all manner of taboos and prohibitions.

Umno’s Fateful Choice

That is the fateful choice that Umno then made.

And, by making it, Umno also at the same time chose not to reform itself. In that action it also decisively resolved not to move to the centre, to become a force and focus for national conciliation and renewed unity.

It chose, instead, to turn decisively in the opposite direction: to shore up its support, and to try to rescue its credibility, among those to whom the Ketuanan Melayu “true-believers” were appealing and among whom — now more than ever once they had the Umno-led government panicking and “on the run” — they were becoming ever more credible, authoritative and powerful.

The Ketuanan Melayu front, both inside Umno and outside it — in Perkasa and Pekida and the rest, now openly encouraged by an iconic giant, in the form of a long-serving ex-prime minister, and driven forward by the restless energy of the great “political gymnast” from Pasir Mas — had now become not just a pressure group or an NGO coalition but a “veto group.”

It was now, thanks in part to Umno’s own fearfulness, an independent force exercising a formidable veto power upon the embattled Umno itself.

In the short run Umno might perhaps have shored up its position in that way.

That was the temptation to which it succumbed, the easy option that it was happy fearfully, and out of weakness, to grasp.

But in the long run, even the medium term, it could not possibly have saved itself in that way.

Yet — and this is the source of its predicament today, and of the prime minister’s cruel dilemma in choosing an election date — by making that all-too-easy choice the Umno created for itself a situation in which, after another term of office, it would have no basis to go plausibly to the electorate, to the nation as a whole, for a new mandate at the next elections due by 2013.

To do that, the job of party reform, and of credibly repositioning Umno (and also of “rebranding” it, if you see things that way!), had to begin in 2008, by year’s end at the very latest.

A Forward Step?

To say this is not just “hindsight wisdom.”

It is what the some perceptive and thoughtful political commentators said at the time. I was one of them. In late 2008 I wrote (and in early 2009 had published, in that now extinct and much lamented “leading Malaysian monthly of political analysis, cultural commentary and unwelcome ideas”, Off the Edge) a serious analysis entitled “Can BN Win Again? — Malaysia’s Next National Elections: A ‘Last Hurrah’?”

The choice was clearly laid out there, and the Umno’s present pre-election predicament was directly foreshadowed.

But the Umno chose a different path. Yet, that path, as is now evident, was not a plausible “Way Ahead”.

Umno did not “Melangkah Kehadapan”. Instead, it tried to make a clever sidestep, and it has only blundered backwards. It has retreated into a past that never existed, a spurious simulacrum of what once was — a past that is the creature purely of its own wishful yet historically defective imagination.

So now it stands cornered, politically handcuffed, deprived of options and the initiative, simply waiting upon events and hoping for the best.

Again, it is not the master of events, not the captain of its own fate. Hope is a fine attitude, but it is not a policy or a strategy.

Nor is hope or trust in managerialist mumbo-jumbo (the acronymic chorus, or more often the cacophony, of GTP, KRA, KPI and the rest). Nor in the marketing gobbledygook of “branding”, as in the “I Choose Malaysia” multiplatform “new media” exercise that seeks to promote and “sell” Umno/BN without mentioning their name.

There is no alternative to simple leadership, genuine leadership. This involves, above, all the ability persuasively to deploy the capacity to teach people, or help them learn, what they need to know about themselves — and may already sense inchoately — but which they cannot yet put into words. That is what all the currently fashionable chatter about “narratives” is trying to get at, lazily.

Here the Umno of 2010 to 2012 is like a ship at sea, with a brave and willing captain on deck, but rudderless. Worse, without an adequate map and compass.

In Umno thinking in 2008, short-run tactics trumped longer-term strategic analysis and choice.

Convenient and “easy” in the short run, perhaps, but disastrous for its own and the nation’s future.

The key issue was clear at the time to those who wished to see.

When elections would next come, when the Umno-led government would next have to seek endorsement and a new mandate from the Malaysian people as a whole (and not simply approval from and security with the Malay core), it would be able to do so only from the political centre.

Umno chose not to claim that ground as its own and to position itself unambiguously there.

And there, in that choice made in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 elections, Najib’s and Umno’s dilemma of 2010 to 2012 began.

That is the source of their current impasse.

That is Najib’s political legacy, here not from his distinguished father but from his two immediate prime ministerial predecessors. And, however loyal he may have been to his father’s way and memory, it can hardly be said that he has here made the best, and bravely, of what was bequeathed to him by the two national leaders in whose political footsteps he now follows.

From those two predecessors he inherited a cul-de-sac, a dead end. And he has failed to find, for himself and his party, a way out of it.

He still hopes to do so. He looks for promising signs and portents, for good auguries.

And the nation holds its breath.

As they do, weary political commentators hold their words, maintain a patient silence.

I have been doing so for some months now.

Cornered in a Trap of One’s Own Making

So that is why I do not have all that much to say at the moment.

I don’t, because Umno has backed itself into a terrible corner.

Eventually, it will have to make a move and try to get out of that tight place.

But until it does, there is nothing much to say.

The Umno/BN party’s situation resembles the dilemma, with which some may be familiar, of Buridan’s ass.

In that parable, the poor ass stands halfway between two equal-sized and equally appealing (or unappetising) bundles of hay.

The ass is not an idiot. It is practical. Its approach is nothing if not, as the consultants approvingly say, “strategic”, ever responsive to finely pitched and subtly modulated incentives. It calculates things, it likes to make rational choices.

That is its problem here.

It knows that it must eat. But it can see no good reason for moving towards either bundle, and the reasons for not moving away in either direction it can see equally well.

Because there is no preponderance of attraction or repulsion either way, it stands stranded in the middle where, if nothing changes, and if it cannot make up its troubled mind, it will simply die of hunger.

Umno’s situation these days is a bit like that.

Or again, those who play chess may be familiar with the notion of “Zugzwang.”

This term applies when you have a fairly bearable, even acceptable position on the board.

It would be fine if only you could just go on standing there, if you didn’t need to move.

But you must.

The game must be played, it must go on.

You have to make a move.

And that’s the problem.

While the present status quo is bearable, you cannot stay there, you have to move, and the two best moves away from it are both bad, and likely to lead to disarray and defeat.

So what move will you make?

Only a bad one.

You have a choice.

But only between bad alternatives.

Again, that is rather like Umno’s situation today. That is a situation in which it positioned itself and in which it has been cornered for the last year or two, as it has kept trying to decide when to call and face the next general election.

It has been in that situation ever since it failed in 2008 to recognise and face up to the meaning, and the dire implications for its own political future, of the election results of that year.

Meanwhile, as it anguishes over its fateful choice and the troubling alternatives, there is nothing much for political analysts and commentators to say at the moment.

The nation and its political life are at a standstill. Malaysians and the world simply await Umno’s choice, its decision about when it will put itself up again for the people’s verdict on its political stewardship of the nation’s affairs.

It ponders, it calculates, it hesitates, it even dares to hope, and it makes brave noises.

But, with no good choices available, and in the face of the clear fact that no “good moment” for the election was or ever will be likely to present itself, the Umno’s leadership stands stalled.

And, as they do, the pungent smell of fear in their sweat pervades the words that they now use.

So why don’t I have much to say these days?

Because Najib and Umno/BN are in Zugzwang — where, by choosing not to do what was necessary, they placed themselves in 2008 — and until he decides and finally opts to make his move, there just isn’t very much any more to say.

That’s why.

Meanwhile, Malaysia remains stranded between two worlds: between the old dying world and the new one waiting impatiently to be born.

That is a challenge which faces both sides of politics, government and opposition alike.

It is a challenge in which the success of neither side is guaranteed — or precluded.

It is never too late for courage, even if people may come to it only belatedly.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.