But the real problem for the party is that it is trapped in uncompetitiveness — a consequence of subscribing to the unholy trinity of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism and patronage.
For the past 53 years, since Umno squarely defeated Datuk Onn Jaafar’s Parti Negara and PAS in the 1955 home rule elections, Umno members have viewed themselves as the “natural” party in government.
So long as Malaysians accept that Malaysia needs a Malay-led multiethnic government, and Malay Malaysians accept Umno as its champion, Umno has to be the irreplaceable element in any viable government. In Malaysia’s political equation, Umno is the given.
But how does Umno maintain this position of being the irreplaceable “given”, notwithstanding all of its contributions in developing this country?
Umno’s dominance is not a result of the numerical strength of the Malay-Muslims. Rather, it is a result of the threat of ethnic violence. The threat of ethnic violence makes authoritarianism the lesser evil, thus allowing Umno to perpetuate its dominance through authoritarian means.
And very often, that threat is coated in positive language; for example, when politicians talk about the need to preserve interethnic harmony, and by extension, political stability and economic development.
If authoritarianism is the lesser of two evils compared to the threat of ethnic violence, what is it that makes the threat of ethnic violence loom large in our consciousness? It is the sustaining of ethnic distrust and hostility.
If ethnic violence remains an attractive strategy for one side and a credible danger for the other side, Umno can sustain its privileged position of being the given. After all, the clearer and more present the threat of ethnic violence is, the more valuable a strong and authoritarian government will be — hence the observation that Umno is becoming more rightist.
Indeed, there are enough examples of a more right-wing Umno among upcoming leaders. Consider Hishamuddin Hussein’s keris-waving to Khairy Jamaluddin’s attack on embattled Perak Menteri Besar Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin as “penderhaka”, as well as Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir’s call to close down Chinese- and Tamil-language schools.
Is it any wonder that incidents such as the ban on yoga and on the use of “Allah”, and pro-Internal Security Act (ISA) demonstrations have also been on the rise? No doubt, ultra-nationalism will also rear its ugly head during the ongoing Umno general assembly.
In a nutshell, being the “given” requires no democratic competitiveness. This explains Umno’s addiction to ultra-nationalism and the discourses of ethnic threat and survival. And it is these addictions — not the mass migration of the “pendatang” or the existence of a multistream education system — that perpetuate ethnic tension in Malaysia.
Hence, unless Umno gives up authoritarianism, it cannot totally give up ultra-nationalism. Whether or not the keris — itself a covert symbol of ethnic violence — is raised at the Umno general assembly this time around will merely be a barometer of arrogance and insecurity. But if it doesn’t get raised, that can hardly be a real indicator of an ideological shift. Any shift, if it is to happen, can only occur after the assembly when leaders have secured their positions.
Authoritarianism breeds in Umno not only an addiction to ultra-nationalism, but also an addiction to the veneration of loyalty over meritocracy. (This is starkly different from Singaporean authoritarianism, which places competence at the heart of loyalty.)
The compatibility between ultra-nationalism and patronage is rather straightforward. If ethnic outsiders cannot be trusted no matter how competent they are, then similarly within the ethnic community, the party and faction faithful is privileged over the cynics and critics of ethnic solidarity. Hence, regardless of competence, it is the faithful who will hold positions of power and/or undertake projects.
This does not mean a competent politician cannot emerge from competition within Umno. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are all cases in point, but it is unlikely that any competent politician can win just on merit. Since a large war chest is paramount, it pays to be aggressive in building a network and sourcing for patronage.
This then leads Umno and the nation to the current dilemma we face. How can one clean out corruption in the party elections when corruption in general elections is rampant? And how can one not alienate thinking voters in the general elections when candidates excel in vote-buying rather than policy debates in party elections?
Umno is therefore caught with a tough choice: abandon patronage and money politics in toto in order to reform, or forget about reforms completely.
But it would be difficult for Umno to abandon money politics because patronage serves two important functions.
First, it materially sustains ultra-nationalism by rewarding supporters and penalising opponents. If all Malay-Muslims were treated equally, what would make Umno more attractive compared with PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat as the political vehicle of Malay unity? If bumiputera and non-bumiputera are to be aided on a needs and merit basis, Malay Malaysians would not rally around Malay unity for fear of losing out.
Secondly, patronage indirectly justifies authoritarianism by delegitimising the opposition. By narrowing the government’s function to redistribution of wealth, the opposition is made to look useless by default. Patronage therefore indirectly delegitimises both non-Malay parties (purportedly the threat to Malay Malaysians’ well-being) and Malay-based opposition parties (seen as naturally the culprit of Malay disunity) in electoral competition.
Hence, eliminating patronage would threaten both authoritarianism and ultra-nationalism.
The real issue
The real issue for this Umno general assembly is not the change of leadership or corruption, but how the new leadership will deal with the archaic unholy trinity of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism and patronage.
The trinity was effectively broken in the general election of 8 March 2008. Indian Malaysians refused to take Umno or its style of power sharing as the given. They voted in PAS politicians like Mohammad Nizar and Dr Siti Mariam Mahmud over the MIC’s Indian Malaysian candidates. Because an ethnic riot did not occur post-8 March, the spectre of another 13 May has somewhat faded. Thus, Umno’s own position as the natural given has also suffered a setback.
Umno now has two choices.
The first is to accept that the unholy trinity of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism and patronage has been dismantled since March 2008. If it picks choice #1, Umno will then need to be cleaner, more inclusive, and most of all, more democratic. This is the reform most Malaysians outside of Umno would like to see happen.
The second choice would be to restore this unholy trinity. There is a limit to what patronage can do, especially during an economic recession. Since non-Malay Malaysians will no longer accept Umno as the given, ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism will be punished come the next general election.
The only way to counter this would be to let the threat of ethnic violence materialise, hoping Malaysians would take it lying down and re-accept authoritarianism as the lesser evil.
The first choice is tough for Umno for it would have to accept the possibility of losing in the elections despite reforms. But in a real democracy, that would happen sooner or later. Umno would need to find inclusive ideological positions and device a democratic modus operandi to retain power or to survive as the opposition.
The second choice is much easier by comparison for Umno. That choice even stands a good chance of effectively convincing some Malaysians that democracy is bad. But what a catastrophe it would be for Malaysia and the region. Just look at Perak, which now offers a good example of democratic ruin.
So the question confronting us today, as Umno gathers at a politically-significant assembly, is this: Will Malaysians stand up before the second option is taken up?
UMNO’s unholy trinity