Out of the cage: Umno unplugged aside,
what matters most is Malaysia

COMMENT by Khairy Jamaluddin
(From New Sunday Times Online of November 26, 2006)

After the fire and brimstone, the invocation of supremacy and rights, and the cries of nationalism and communalism, some people are taking a hard, long look at ethnic identity in Malaysia today.
Some have expressed their concern over the debates that took place at the annual congress of Malaysiaís biggest and most significant political party.
Some have said that the speeches were full of threats and hatred. Others have even lodged police reports against supposedly seditious interventions, including against the author for my winding-up speech at the Youth assembly.
Undeniably, there was some latent tension within Umno and on the Malay ground this year.
There was the "memorandum" to the Prime Minister by non-Muslim ministers. There was the polemic over Malay economic achievements in Penang. There was the Asli report about Bumiputera corporate equity ownership.
And there was a general momentum that started at last yearís general assembly when the party agreed to pursue a more formalised Agenda Melayu by refocusing on the original spirit and intent of the New Economic Policy.
These issues, no doubt, channelled into a crescendo of powerful oratory, one or two of which crossed the boundaries of ethno-nationalism into jingoistic chest thumping.
This has led to alarm bells of communal tension ringing, with many understandably concerned about the future of race relations in Malaysia.
This yearís assembly was my eighth. I am a keen delegate to the assembly and I try to sit through as many speeches as possible, taking copious notes in every session I attend.
In the aftermath of this yearís assembly, I looked back at past meetings and saw nothing unusual about what took place.
Sure there were some sensitive issues being debated in the media in the run-up to the assembly, but there is always a set of communal concerns that get strategic publicity before each Umno meet, and for that matter before any annual meeting of the communal parties in Barisan Nasional.
This is to be expected because the raison díetre for individual communal parties like Umno, MCA and MIC is our "struggle" or perjuangan for our respective communities.
When I checked with several other more experienced Umno figures if my impression that the debate this year was no more, no less emotionally charged than those in the past, they agreed based on historical perspectives that far outstretch mine.
To them, there was nothing new with the rhetoric. It had all been said and articulated before, many times over. The only difference this time around was that the proceedings were carried "live" on television.
For the first time ever, Malaysians who previously only read reports in newspapers or saw excerpts on the news were exposed to Umno uncut, unplugged.
For the first time, they followed every syllable, every word and every gesticulation from each speaker.
The ensuing "culture shock" is understandable. Never before have those on the outside had the opportunity to see what only delegates, observers and official media have seen in the past.
But what must be understood here is that, as far as Umno members are concerned, there was nothing unusual about this yearís debate.
Now that logically begs the question: If the rhetoric in Umno has always been like this, then shouldnít non-Malays be even more worried since this is the norm?
The answer is an emphatic "no".
For those who are peddling around the spin that the recent Umno assembly is testament to intolerance and even racism, it needs to be pointed out that while there is nothing extraordinary about this yearís congress and that similar sentiments have been raised in the past, these feelings have never compromised the ultimate manifestation of governance in this country through BNís power-sharing formula.
Simply put, no matter how emotionally charged the assemblies have been in the past ó whether Umno, MCA or MIC meetings ó at the end of the day, the government that all the BN component parties represent has never abandoned the moderate centre in our political spectrum.
So the fact that this happens year after year, and yet we still ultimately manage to deal with all our differences in measured and considerate ways, speaks volumes for all the parties in BN and the trust that exists among us.
Failure to understand this and to conclude that "communalism" as practised by BNís main parties is outdated naively denies the political reality on the ground.
To understand the Umno assemblies, one must understand the political and cultural milieu of the Malays.
One must understand there are matters that are considered sacrosanct, such as Malay rights and the status of Islam as the official religion of the Federation.
The general assembly has always been a platform for Umno to remind ourselves, and others, that these matters must never be questioned or compromised because it relates to the very reason why Umno was founded and forms the essence of the Malay position in the "social contract".
Seen from this perspective, what we say during our meetings is as much a reminder to ourselves that these principles must be defended as much as it is a reminder to others that we still hold these matters sacred.
The assembly provides a crucial avenue for the grassroots to vent their frustrations about what they perceive as attempts to undermine, question or even revoke these hallowed principles.
Although there was nothing new in the intensity of the rhetoric this year, it took place within the context of a more open political climate.
The prime ministerís decision to give more room for discourse and debate has resulted in a sense of anxiety, that issues Malays have considered off-limits to everyone else are suddenly considered fair game.
The delegatesí speeches were part of a process of accepting the realities of the new openness by saying: "Yes, by all means, let us embrace the political space that the leadership wants to create as part of a maturing democracy, but let us remind everyone ó ourselves included ó that there are limits to freedom.
"And for the Malays, the limit draws a protective line around religion and race."
That was the essence of the debate. If we sift through the heroics, the storm and thunder, it was a safety valve that needed to be released.
There was too much pent-up frustration and latent tension on the Malay ground. All the issues that preceded the assembly resulted in a community that was akin to a highly coiled spring, ready to unwind with unstoppable force.
But the Umno general assembly proved once again that it is a crucial gathering that allows for the community to air their concerns, vent their frustrations and, yes, even unleash their anger.
But as with any meeting ó political or otherwise ó it is always the first word and the last that frames the event for posterity.
The prime ministerís presidential address that opened the assembly, his winding-up speech at the end and the resolutions that mirrored his speeches are the ultimate reflection of the assembly.
That he chose to remind the delegates that Umno must stay the course with its coalition partners, that we need to hold fast to consensus and compromise, that no one community walks away from the negotiating table with everything nor is left with nothing, that our approach of fighting for our race and our religion yet respecting what other communities pursue is not mutually exclusive or inconsistent, that the president of Umno is also the prime minister of all Malaysians, showed that he was in control and that the situation is under control.
After a few days of charged rhetoric it would have been too easy for the final word to merely echo the sentiments on the ground.
But that is not leadership.
Leadership is when you let everything that needs to be said, out in the open, but have the credibility, moral authority and courage to bring everyone back to the centre, to smooth the frayed edges, to soothe raw nerves and to turn charged emotions into a positive energy with a purpose not just for Malays but for Malaysians.
That is the leadership that we saw from the president of Umno and that must be the enduring image of the general assembly.

Hisham: The keris is here to stay


By Joceline Tan
(From The Star Online of November 26, 2006)

STANDING BY HIS GESTURE: Hishammuddin who brandished the keris at the recent Umno general assembly (inset) says : ĎWhat is it about the keris that makes people so uncomfortable? It is the symbol of Malay cultureí
DATUK Seri Hishammuddin Tun Husseinís face is deeply tanned after a short break in Pangkor with the family where he caught ďthe biggest fish of my life.Ē
When he saw the sceptical faces around him, he did not stretch his arms wide as is the case in most stories about a catch from the sea but held them apart at a realistic chest width.
The weeks leading to the party general assembly had been stressful for the Umno Youth chief.
ďIt is such an important forum for Umno and my speech before the Youth wing is always my most important in the year,Ē he said.
He had walked into his office in a cornflower blue baju Melayu in preparation for Friday prayers later on. As he went past a painting of a pair of keris, he joked: ďBaju Melayu also cannot, is it? Okay, okay, take down this painting (of the keris).Ē
Inside his Education Ministerís room, his aides joked that he had better remove a massive tongkat ali root Ė a gift from a supporter Ė sitting on the side cabinet since it resembled the keris.
It has been a week since the assembly but public disquiet over the content and the tone of the debate has yet to dissipate.
The 45-year-old son of a former prime minister has come across as rather ďultraĒ to some but in person, he is erudite, sophisticated and, hard as it may be for his detractors to believe, rather reasonable.
In the interview with JOCELINE TAN, he argued why it was necessary to allow the Umno grassroots to release their fears and uneasiness in the controlled environment of the assembly rather than let it get out of hand elsewhere. He defended the keris as a Malay cultural symbol and spoke about the impact of the assembly on race relations and ties with the other Barisan Nasional component parties.

Q. This general assembly saw the Malay Agenda come out stronger than in previous years.
A. Two questions I get everywhere I go Ė why more so this year, and why I did what I did. Any leader in a complex society like Malaysia has to feel the pulse of the constituency. Itís like what one of the delegates said about the duck swimming in calm waters but paddling like mad to stay afloat. Itís the same with ensuring stability Ė it requires a lot of work that is not seen, thereís all this furious paddling beneath the water surface.
What happened this year was because issues raised in the past year or so have created resentment, frustration. I could feel the Malays were very restless over issues like the Lina Joy and apostasy case, the IFC (Inter-Faith Commission), the status of Islam.
SMSes going back and forth about Christian conversions and the Azhar Mansor thing. Geo-politically, there are the issues of Palestine, Iran, Israel. Then there were vocal criticisms from Asli (Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute) and Lee Kuan Yew.
There is also the process of more transparency and freedom of the press. All these played on the Malay psyche. If they had not been allowed to release their feelings in a controlled channel, it could have been even worse. We are in control of the situation.
If you look at what happened, there was the opening speech, then the delegates spoke, then I pulled them back on track with my closing speech. Itís not about starting a fire and letting it go out of control. I told them Umno Youth has never been as strong as today and that it has to be translated into strength in the Barisan.
Of course, a few of them got out of control like Shamsul (Najmi), who asked Zam (Information Minister Datuk Zainuddin Maidin) to resign. I was so upset but when I met him the next day, I told him to apologise and Zam had accepted it.

Q. The target seemed to be non-Malays rather than Umnoís political opposition.
A. If you read my speech in detail, you will realise the targets are those who were wrong in their assumptions and arguments such as Asli and Lee Kuan Yew. People tend to look at things from what one, two, three delegates said. You have to also look at the leadership.
I am the leader of Umno Youth. Do I look like somebody out to target the non-Malays? And would I do that intentionally? For what purpose? Pemuda Umno (Umno Youth) is at its strongest. I donít need that kind of record. We have built up Pemuda to the extent that it is respected. My relationship with the BN Youth is so good. Why would I want to jeopardise it?

Q. But do you have to keep brandishing the keris?
A. What is it about the keris that makes people so uncomfortable? The keris is on the Umno flag. There are two keris on the Umno logo. It is the symbol of Malay culture. Itís not Umno. Itís not Pemuda. You give keris as gifts to non-Malays and non-Malays give them to me at functions. (Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh) Tsu Koon showed me a huge keris during our Penang convention.

Q. Will you carry it again next year?
A. Yes, I will carry it again next year. The keris is here to stay. I told Liow (MCA Youth chief Datuk Liow Tiong Lai), give me your kungfu sword and I will carry it. I am doing it on a question of principle, until people realise the keris is not there to threaten non-Malays but to motivate the Malays. These are all symbols to get Malays to move.
We will do whatever it takes to bring them to a point where they donít feel they are alienated in their own country. Weíve tried everything and if it can help Malays be more focused on what they can do, then my conscience is clear. I did it for the future. I want non-Malays to understand that our doing this is not to take anything away from anybody. That is also enshrined. Allowing the release will help the stability of the country. It wonít drive off investments.

Q. Is the keris not also symbolic of Malay supremacy?
A. Far from it. Unless I keep going on, every day, every year, people will not get out of thinking about the keris this way. If I canít do it, I donít think anybody else can.
If I canít do it when Iím leading Umno Youth, with Pak Lah (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) as the PM and Najib (Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak) as the DPM, when our economy is going strong, and we are rolling out the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP), then when? Wait till our rubber and palm oil prices go down before voicing our fears about apostasy and the IFC? By then people will be hungry; they donít want to talk anymore.

Q. MCA and Gerakan may lose votes at the expense of Umno releasing tension.
A. We have to get our priorities right. Itís not just about winning elections but building a society and a very complex one that requires strong leadership. We are in it together. Even if Umno wins a lot of seats and the component parties do not win, it is not going to make us happy. We have to deliver as we build up to the elections.

Q. What does all this say about race relations after almost 50 years as a nation?
A. If you were talking to me when I was (Youth and Sports Minister), Iíd say we could do it in our lifetime. But now I am more realistic because you get pulled in so many directions. You have to look at things from so many angles. It is very difficult being in a society that is very complex, but there is strength in diversity. If we galvanise that, we have something to offer the world.

Q. There was so much about Malay issues and too little on meritocracy, competitiveness or the push against corruption.
A. Itís all relative. If Dr Mahathir (former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) had been there, you probably wonít be talking about the keris, or the New Economic Policy. But people expect too much of a three-day gathering. How much more (do) you want to say about fighting corruption? Pak Lah is moving in that direction.
As for meritocracy, Johor Umno has said that we are worried about Malays in the rural areas who cannot get the same level of opportunities in education.
Reducing the gap between rural and urban areas is the right way. As for teaching Mathematics and Science in English, we cannot decide till 2008 even though the Malays and the Chinese donít want it.
On competitiveness, we are telling them: ďBuck up, weíve got only 14 years (till 2020). Donít worry about your rights and religion. For now we have to implement the 9MP.Ē Lecturing them to work harder, telling them they are lazy and corrupt, those days are over. Pak Lahís approach is different and we have to go with the new leadership.

Q. What did this assembly mean for you personally?
A. This is my eighth assembly. The early part was trying to rebuild the wing (after the sacking of former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim). Morale was so low, some didnít even want to wear the Pemuda uniform. After eight years of hard work, we have the strength to move on. In my speech, I told them not to look back but to move forward.

Q. Your deputy Khairy Jamaluddin had a controversial run-up to the assembly. How do you think he fared?
A. He did very well. I told him, now that people outside have heard the real grassroots speak in Umno, they are probably thinking that Khairy is not so bad. Yes, he is Oxford material and people expect more of him. But heís back in Malaysian society and he has to address the concerns of the constituents. An Oxford degree is not going to help if your country is in shambles.
But he will need to prove himself, and if he learns, heíll get wiser. Sometimes people come back and feel they want to change things. Then you realise it is not so simple and you really sit down and learn. He has learnt a lot but heís still got a lot more to learn. Heís so lucky he has Pak Lah as his father-in-law.

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