Thursday, January 22, 2009


The battle-cry has been sounded. The in-coming leader of UMNO and Barisan Nasional has seemingly set the tone and challenge for his political compatriots. Najib has unequivocally stated that his party and the regime must deliver on changes or the voters will make them accountable.

Najib has said in no uncertain terms, that the “Malaysian people are matured enough to gauge their leaders. They are no longer impressed with the rhetoric of changes which are nothing but plain rhetoric. They want results. They want to see actual changes taking place."

One of the hallmarks of leadership is accountability and as I interpret his comments, there is no doubt that the sentiment being expressed here is a realisation and admission that “actual changes” must take place. Implicit here – but not necessarily clear of course is whether the changes the regime must supposedly undertake reflect the sentiment of the public. One would think and hope!

There is much of course that we can deliberate and discuss about the kinds of changes that the public is demanding. It has been noted, time and again, that several major concerns stick out like a sore thumb: reform of the judiciary, transparency in governance, accountability, tackling cronyism and corruption, tackling racism, confronting poverty and the marginalisation of minorities, and education reform, to name just a few.

Whilst Najib has warned that if his party fails “to deal with these challenges effectively, punishment awaits us in the 13th general election," I would submit that the test for his party comes much sooner than the 13th general election. If after all, by his own acknowledgement, “actual changes” are necessary, then shouldn’t UMNO and BN be held accountable whenever – and wherever - the voters are next called upon to express their voice?

Indeed, as the party in control UMNO and BN will be accountable to the voters who are, in the words of our esteemed deputy prime minster, “matured enough to gauge their leaders.” If the next state elections in Sarawak happen before the 13th general election, then the yard-stick by which it must be judged will and should be the “actual changes” which the regime itself concedes the voters want to see.

And to this end, let me suggest a few things that the deputy prime minister might want to do about moving ahead with “actual changes.”

First, set a tone of modesty in the party. That would be a very positive change. Frankly, the arrogance that flows endlessly out of UMNO especially does the party little good among us the voters. In this run-up to his party’s general assembly, he could start by making sure the party doesn’t engage in its now predictable arrogant and racist-laden discourse and rhetoric. This would be a positive start. To paraphrase Confucius, those who speak without modesty will find it difficult to make good on their words.

Second, establish a clear set of priorities – without prejudice and a hidden agenda – and implement meaningful reforms that will speak to the lack of public confidence in the judiciary and law enforcement. This reform must be undertaken in a very substantive and tangible way such that it restores the public’s confidence in the judiciary and police. All these cases of police brutality and individuals dying while in police custody portrays more an image of a brutal rogue regime than a democratic government guided by the rule of law. Denying that there is a crisis of confidence with respect to the judiciary and law enforcement would show a lack of commitment to implementing genuine change.

Third, the BN regime needs to get off its high-horse and begin engaging at the highest level of government with the grievances of various minority groups. There needs to be a reconciliatory and constructive tone established by the regime; it must demonstrate to the public a genuine commitment on the part of the prime minster’s office to forth-rightly address such grievances. It does not bode well for BN’s image to shut off those with grievances by essentially further marginalising those who are leading the cause of the people. Rather than taking ‘a hard-line’ against those who have grievances, the government needs to show a commitment to having a dialogue with its detractors in order to move ahead. Denying that marginalisation of minorities has been a chronic problem is not a constructive step of “actual change.” Assuming that those of the minority community who have been a central part of the problem and aligned with the BN are the only acceptable parties through whom to address minority issues is not going to resonate as a form of “actual change.”

Demonstrating transparent, sincere and sustained commitment, and implementing believable changes in the aforementioned areas would make a profound difference in recapturing the faith of the public. I’ll revert to Confucius once more and note his insight about virtue – it never stands alone; he who practices it will have neighbours.

But for this to happen, the current modus operandi of UMNO and BN needs to be fundamentally revamped. Short of doing this, the UMNO system will remain without credibility – and therefore, without neighbours.

G. Krishnan