Monday, November 3, 2008

Surprise! Surprise!

What earth-shattering news it was to learn that Najib Abdul Razak had secured enough nominations and would be unopposed for the post of Umno president. I’m sure you were as blind-sided with this news as I was, right?

Quite a feat it turned out to be; or perhaps not. In the same week that Abdul Razak Baginda was acquitted of the Altantuya murder, Najib essentially sails into the Umno hot-seat. Indeed, what was for a while now a foregone conclusion must surely come as a double dose of good news for Najib. Well, why not? Surely, he’d not want to see a former close associate of his be convicted of murder! That’s never a good thing – especially not if you’re on your way to fulfilling a seemingly long-time ambition to become prime minister.

 At any rate, what are we to make about this ‘smooth transition’ – what appeared to be part of the political pact between Pak Lah and his ‘loyal’ deputy? Oh, so much for all that rhetoric about changing the old ways of doing things. If we’re to take anything away from this news about Umno’s culture, it is that we can expect this rigid, conservative, and entrenched system to remain exactly as such. The mere fact that Najib’s ascendency went unchallenged speaks volumes about the prevailing institutional culture within Umno. The old guard and its methods have prevailed again. What a commentary indeed that Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah – who in the eyes of the so many is a true legend not just within Umno politics but on the national stage – could, to date, only muster one nomination for the post of president.

 I am certainly not suggesting that because Najib prevailed, therefore the Umno machinery is flawed. But what I am asserting is that once again, what we see unfolding – through the prism of Umno politics - is the very essence of an entrenched authoritarian political system. The central defining feature of such a system is the absence of any genuine competition within the political establishment. Whatever the means by which this is structured, the end result is the same: the democratic process is methodically subverted. But what is typically predictable about such systems is it nevertheless purports to be democratic and projects a persona of functioning democratically. But it’s far from being so.  

Any reasonable person would have to concede that a democratic process can lead to a landslide victory such where one candidate can – through a competitive system - of course garner a significant majority of the votes. But give me break; what we’ve witnessed here with the Umno nomination process is about as democratic as the process by which Robert Mugabe appears to muster the presidency of ZANU PF in Zimbabwe. Yes, Mugabe also sees himself as a ‘democratically elected leader’ of his party.       

So, if you have any expectations of seeing the culture of Umno change in the foreseeable future, may I suggest you don’t hold your breath. Much like the MIC’s quest for re-branding, we’re bound to get a lot of hype and cosmetic changes – changes meant more to allow the next crop of characters who comprise Najib’s own inner circle to put their stamp on the party. Umno can never become what is inherently antithetical to its institutional culture – one that is authoritarian by its very nature.

G. Krishnan