Remaking Malaysia: What now for Barisan Nasional?

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 20, 2018 - August 26, 2018.
-A +A

THE fact that Umno and even MCA wanted to discard the Barisan Nasional logo and use their respective party symbols in contesting by-elections says it all. Never mind whether they got their wish — the mere thought of it speaks volumes about the future of the coalition. If there is a future, that is.

BN insiders say the leaders of the coalition, in particular from Umno, are finding it extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that they have lost power and are struggling with “living as the opposition”.

Honestly, that does not come as a surprise. Anyway, since May 9, the question that is being asked, and continues to be asked, is will the BN reinvent itself? And can the coalition continue with its race-based agenda?

But first, is there even such a thing called BN now, a hundred-odd days after the 14th general election? In Sabah and Sarawak, it has ceased to exist.

In the peninsula, there are only Umno, MCA, MIC — a sorry state of affairs for a coalition which at one time boasted  of 14 communal or race-based political parties and dominated Malaysian politics for decades after it was founded in 1973, taking over from the Alliance coalition.

Since 2008, the BN had been facing a stronger challenge from Pakatan Rakyat, and later, Pakatan Harapan. The killer blow, as we all know, came three months ago.

So, back to the earlier question: will or can BN continue with its race-based agenda in the wake of its electoral defeat and the birth of the so-called New Malaysia, in which many say, or rather, hope that there will be no place for religious and racial bigotry.

Sadly, the answer is yes, according to political analyst Dr Oh Ei Sun, especially “if they team up with Pas”. By “they”, he is obviously referring to Umno. But what about MCA and MIC? “They are irrelevant” is his response. That’s blunt, but to be, well, blunt about it, that’s the real situation.

According to Oh, “Combined, Umno and Pas obtained 70% of the Malay votes. So, as long as they keep fanning their racial and religious agenda in symphony, they are likely to retain their proportion of the Malay vote, and maybe more.”

That, in a way, explains why Umno is stepping up the race and religion rhetoric and people like Supreme Council members Datuk Lokman Adam and Datuk Tajuddin Rahman are coming to the fore with careless remarks and statements, regardless of whether Malaysians are hurt and angered.

It is something they have done before, but now, they have stepped it up. True, despite playing the race card, they were not successful at the recent Sungai Kandis by-election, but that will not deter them from resorting to the divisive politics of race and religion.

So, we keep hearing about so-called “threats” against Islam, the Malays and even the Raja Raja Melayu, with the “Cina DAP” cast as the bogeyman over and over again.

Umno president Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi is keeping mum and is seen by Umno members as being “content to let  former Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak call the shots”.

In a nutshell, there are no new leaders coming up through the ranks of Umno, people who can change things.

Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin merely mooted the idea of opening Umno to all races and look where it got him. He did not get to be Umno president and his idea did not go down well with the party. That is stating the obvious. Khairy now is like the “bad boy” of Umno.

So, there will be no changes in Umno as far as race and religion is concerned. But then, why should it change when it can potentially bring future rewards, as Oh points out.

The “flirtation” with Pas has been going on for some time. Yes, there are Pas members who are not too happy about or even dead against any pact with Umno, but that has never stopped the Pas and Umno leaderships from flirting with each other.

Like Oh says, both parties can even hope to increase their Malay base.

That said, will Pas become more right-wing, so to speak? Says Oh, “Pas has been veering to the right since 2015 when Nik Aziz Niz Mat (the party’s spiritual leader) passed away.”

I agree. During the Reformasi era, after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked by Umno, Pas — under its then president, the late Datuk Fadzil Noor, working closing with Nik Aziz — was accommodating, adopting the “Pas for all” slogan.

That was also the time which saw the emergence of moderate professionals in the party.  However, they were ousted by the hardliners in 2015, after which they left to form Parti Amanah Nasional.

The hardliners are somehow seen as willing to work with Umno, which is accused of all kinds of excesses. That is the view of some in the political fraternity.

As I see it, Pas is currently “controlled” by the party’s Terengganu faction. I stand to be corrected, of course. Terengganu is the home state of Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang.

I view the Terengganu and Kelantan divisions as different from each other. Nik Aziz was from Kelantan. His son, Nik Abduh, is perceived to be keen on a pact with Umno — a totally different stance from his late father.

Long-time Pas observer Mohamad Sayuti Omar corrected me, saying Pas in Kelantan and Terengganu are basically the same. “Both chapters have their organisational roots in pondok religious classes and suraus. This is the political arena, in accordance with tradition,” he says.

However, he agrees that Pas “seems to be moving to the right in coming up with some sort of a new attraction. It is conservative and obsessed with Malay and religious extremism.It seems it is doing this so as not to bring dynamism into the party following the exodus of the professional group”.

However, that could very well be a calculated move — something that can make Pas and Umno dare to hope for increased Malay support.

While both parties cannot be faulted for holding on to such a hope, will the Malays — their obvious target group — fall for it?

It cannot be denied that there are Malays who do not buy what Pas and Umno are selling. Yet, there are others who do.

Take the LGBT issue, for example. Pas, in particular, and Umno, to a certain extent, have tried to inject religious overtones into the issue.

But to me, it is more political than anything else.

Simply put, their message is that the Pakatan Harapan government, despite having a Muslim at the helm and many Muslim ministers, is led by the DAP, thus making it “tolerant of all things anti-Islam”.

That may be false, but unfortunately, there are Malays who lap up this sort of thing.

Perhaps an old friend of mine, Hishamuddin Ubaidullah, sums it up best.

He says, “There are Malaysians who don’t think like we do. That’s why they voted for Umno and Pas all these years. This year, they voted like us. Does that mean they now think like us? I doubt it. Disregard this group and keep shouting Malaysia Baru and you’ll get a rude surprise in the next GE.”

Hence, the government of the day needs to strike the right balance in appeasing the group Hishamuddin is referring to and those living in what is known as the Bangsar bubble.

It’s no easy feat. Rest assured, Pas and Umno do not want the right balance to be achieved.


Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for over four decades.


Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.