Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Triangulation


Since its inception, Perkasa and the poster child for it, Ibrahim Ali, has been a political blessing - not so much for Pakatan Rakyat, as it has been for Umno.

This, of course, would not be the popular and prevailing view; but it is one that I find most compelling and politically critical.
  
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the highly public posturing and prancing by Ibrahim Ali and his ilk, whilst music to the ears of his parochial political base - one that incidentally is already well-rooted in the ultra-conservative wing of Umno - will merely stoke the flames of communalism and further alienate moderates across the electorate.

According to this line of thought, therefore, Perkasa can only be detrimental and adverse to the interests of Umno. Therefore, this conventional thinking would posit that Umno can least afford to further alienate moderates and non-Malays given that the political reality on the ground, so to speak, has arguably grown even more competitive since 2008.

Whilst there is something to be said about the aforementioned interpretation, there is in effect a deeper and more complex political dance unfolding since the arrival of Perkasa on the political scene.

This political dance is no doubt unfolding both within Umno and across the wider political spectrum. Perhaps the most vivid and colourful illustration of this is the apparent tension between the so-called “liberals” within Umno (exemplified by Khairy and his bandwagon - those self-proclaimed Malay liberals) and the more conservative/ultra-nationalist who would be sympathetic and predisposed to the Perkasa mind-set.

But it is precisely this juxtapositioning that illustrates how the self-identified Umno moderates are attempting to triangulate – and in the process, re-capture the political middle-ground for Umno.

This process of triangulation by the moderates involves ultimately trying to situate themselves in-between the Perkasa-types on one extreme and the so-called turncoats – those accused of having betrayed the Malay race who reside in the opposition.

As a result, there could be no better development for the likes of Khairy and his ilk within Umno than to have Ibrahim Ali and Perkasa around as a political punching bag.

Permit me to explain.

One the one hand, the moderates within Umno are clearly trying to put some daylight – and distance - between them and the Perkasa-sympathisers. Indeed, Khairy has seemingly been revealing in the chances to take a swipe at Ibrahim Ali’s theatrics and rhetoric every chance he gets. 

Far from simply being a clash of two personalities, this high profile drama encapsulates the essence of this strategy by Khairy and other self-professed moderates to embellish their reputation – and by extension that of Umno as a party committed to a balanced approach to the preservation of Malay superiority.

Hence, they hope to reinvigorate the Malay base through their apparent “moderate” outlook relative to Perkasa and the ultra-conservatives. (Incidentally, the moderates must also be betting on the fact that this will also not hurt Umno’s image in the eyes of non-Malay Barisan Nasional sympathisers.)

Of course, this “moderate” outlook is one that does not involve abandoning the core ideology of Ketuanan Melayu; on the contrary – instead it presents itself as a benign purveyor and protector of that agenda.

In this scenario, Perkasa essentially becomes the face of “militant” Malay nationalism that the moderates look to be standing up against, whilst still being able to lay claim to the mantle of preservers of Malay superiority.        

To take on Ibrahim Ali is to attend to and keep intact one major part of the triangulation strategy.

On the other hand, these self-proclaimed moderates are of course equally sensitive about distinguishing themselves from the “traitors” in the opposition who have betrayed the Malay race. Hence, Anwar – as the poster child of those afflicted by this corrosive debasement has been repeatedly portrayed as having gone to the dark side.

Whether it’s the allegation of being an American agent or for cozying up to Jewish interests, the repeated demonization of Anwar by Umno continues to enable them to co-opt key elements of the tone and rhetoric of the Perkasa sympathisers, whilst still distinguishing themselves from the crassness and crudity associated with Perkasa; thus, being sensitive to the need to preserve a moderate face for Umno.

Of course, every now and then, the moderates find themselves in a dilemma and in the unenviable position of reconciling their moderate face with the crass ultra-nationalism of the extremists. But that, precisely, is part of this triangulation political dance that the moderates continue to have to sustain.

Hence, whilst the attacks on Anwar and his comrades continues full throttle, having Perkasa around, and even publicly quibbling against that entity, feeds into Umno’s strategy to re-capture its “moderate” image.

There is a saying that the worst thing one can do to arouse extremists and “militants” is to engage them; doing so simply animates them even more.

The strategy within the dominant camp in Umno to engage with Ibrahim Ali in the most public and highly visible ways is abundant evidence that they fully understand the political value of such public friction and tussling with Ibrahim Ali. Key elements within Umno no doubt fully appreciate the benefits of keeping Perkasa aroused rather than ignoring them.
 
In this scenario, it would be na├»ve and simplistic indeed if we were to simply consider Perkasa – and Ibrahim Ali – as a thorn or a liability to Umno.

Far from it – Ibrahim Ali may yet unwittingly turn out to be exactly what helps Umno preserve its claim as the only entity capable of keeping the extremists in check whilst also preserving Malay superiority from being watered down by those in the opposition who are routinely accused of having betrayed the Malay race.

Along with having Anwar around to demonise, publicly taking on Ibrahim Ali represents the other critical piece to Umno’s triangulation strategy. 

Therefore, far from being a liability, Perkasa is in fact critical to Umno's survival.

G. Krishnan