The Bourbons of Malaysia

(Commentary by Tan Siok Choo in Sun2Surf of April 15, 2009)

TOP Umno leaders involved in two recent events – the by-elections in Bukit Selambau in Kedah and Bukit Gantang in Perak (the two Bukits) as well as the claim this country’s independence was forged by Umno and the Malay Rulers and no one else – bring to mind French statesman Talleyrand’s description of the Bourbons: "They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing."

Talleyrand’s comment was prompted by his exasperation with Louis XVIII who behaved as if the French Revolution in 1789 had never occurred. Instead of acknowledging the missteps that led his predecessor, Louis XVI, to the guillotine, Louis XVIII and his successor tried to recreate the ancien regime. Bourbon obduracy resulted in the July 1830 Revolution that ended the French monarchy.
Similarly, those who choreographed the electoral strategy of the Barisan Nasional (BN) in the two Bukits and those who persist in arrogating Umno’s status in the ruling coalition appear to have forgotten the message delivered by voters in the March 2008 general election and to have learned nothing from it. Many analysts, including myself, have suggested BN’s massive losses last year were due to voter disappointment with Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s inability to deliver in full the reforms promised in the 2004 elections – more openness and greater accountability from politicians as well as institutions.
Instead of re-dedicating themselves to implementing the ruling coalition’s partially fulfilled promises, BN masterminds reverted to the tried – but tired – strategy of offering more development projects and criticising opposition leaders. And in a gesture intended to recall the halcyon days under the fourth premier, they invited Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to campaign in the two Bukits.
Despite BN’s success in labelling Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin a traitor for refusing to accept his dismissal as mentri besar by the Perak sultan – a tactic that cost the Opposition a slippage in Malay support – PAS managed to widen its majority significantly in the Bukit Gantang by-election from March last year.
Another Pakatan Rakyat (PR) component party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, also succeeeded in retaining Bukit Selambau by a bigger majority, even though Hindraf, an Indian pressure group, was initially enraged by the opposition coalition’s choice of a political neophyte as its standard bearer.
BN’s losses in the two Bukits – both Malay-majority seats – and by a larger margin of votes, suggests the futility of the ruling coalition relying solely on Malay voters to secure victory, a trend already evident in the March 2008 general election. Voting trends in the two by-elections and in the March 2008 polls are Malaysia’s equivalent of the French Revolution.
Yet another example of selective amnesia is the stunning assertion this country’s independence was forged by Umno and the Malay Rulers and no one else. This claim is historically inaccurate, politically regressive and detrimental to the ethos of sharing the credit for victories and the blame for setbacks among BN component parties.
Many historians have noted the British government had set a pre-condition to granting this country independence: power would be handed over only to a multiracial party. It was this pre-condition that prompted Umno leaders to work together with their counterparts from the MCA.
A landslide victory in the country’s first federal elections in 1955 – the Umno-MCA alliance won 51 out of 52 seats and polled 80% of the popular vote – proved multiracial cooperation could be a vote-getter.

Furthermore, the political understanding reached by party leaders on three key issues – citizenship rights for the Chinese and Indians, the special position of the Malays and the primacy of Bahasa Malaysia – highlighted the ability of Umno and MCA leaders to work together to forge a common vision, thus meeting the pre-condition for independence.
What is worrying is unilateralism appears to be a recent and growing trend in Umno. This compares unfavourably with the increasing solidarity – with some notable exceptions – demonstrated by PAS, DAP and Keadilan towards one another.
One noteworthy example: PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s strong support for Perak DAP leader, Nga Kor Ming, who was strongly criticised by Umno for reciting verses from the Quran. According to Malaysiakini website, in a letter to the DAP leader, Nik Aziz praised Nga for his action and described Umno’s attitude as "unfriendly".
Would an Umno leader do the same for his counterpart in MCA or any other component party over a Malay/Muslim issue?
To be sure, the new cabinet line-up with several new and promising ministerial appointments, reflect Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s awareness of the need for change.
Change, however, must be embraced by all Umno politicians. Umno leaders should remember that only a radical change in their mindset – rather than a change in prime minister – will help BN to avoid becoming the Bourbons of Malaysia.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. Her email is