Hard to ignore calls for reforms

THE cry for reform within Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional is getting harder to ignore with the outcome of the Permatang Pauh by-election.

For Umno, it is time to put forth its popular call for muhasabah diri (self-assessment) into action once again or it would affect whatever hopes the party has for a smooth road to recovery from its biggest election loss in history five months ago.

Writing off Pakatan Rakyat's ability to entice BN MPs to defect is something the Umno leadership should not do; especially now when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has taken what he described as his first step to Putrajaya with his win on Tuesday.

He now seems to be in a better position to get the sufficient number of MPs to cross over, and he is very determined to oust the BN government and become the sixth prime minister.

Time may not be on the side of this man, the self-proclaimed prime minister-in-waiting, to achieve his Sept 16 deadline but political observers are not dismissing the possibility, albeit at a later date.

When Umno failed to move away from its outdated campaigning style in the by-election, it left many within the party asking whether its leaders had indeed outlined a recovery plan as announced after the hush-hush retreat a couple of months back.

If there is one, it certainly was not seen in Permatang Pauh because voters had again rejected the BN. They instead favoured Anwar's political pledge to end racial segregation, revive the economy and put an end to corruption.

Anwar's victory has been aptly described by senior Umno politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as the party having "suffered a landslide loss".

There was no coordination in campaigning from Day One. Many party leaders were down in Permatang Pauh but there was a general lack of fighting spirit.

When a state Wanita Umno leader was heard complaining over her mobile phone why there was a need to hold meetings since Anwar's victory was "a foregone conclusion", it spoke a lot about overall morale.

With party polls approaching, one can expect more intensified in-fighting within the top Umno leadership from now on.

The defeat in Permatang Pauh can have an effect on the succession plan announced by president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi recently that he would hand over the reins to his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Razak in 2010 as there would be new pressure from some Umno divisions that this be done sooner.

Umno's by-election campaign on the "Malay Agenda" had also put leaders of the non-Malay BN component parties in an awkward situation.

The grassroots who have been calling Gerakan and MCA leaders to re-consider their parties' position in BN after the coalition's poor showing in the March general election also have another bone to pick.

Members of both parties have blamed their leaders' failure to stand up to Umno and fight for the rights of the Chinese community as reason for the swing in Chinese votes to the opposition.

Several members and leaders at various levels had abandoned ship although not in significant numbers. But when several Gerakan politicians floated the idea of leaving the coalition, and MCA vice-president Datuk Ong Tee Keat told a Chinese daily recently that the party may need to reassess its position in BN if Umno continues to champion the concept of Malay supremacy, it calls for immediate attention.

The new Permatang Pauh MP's brand of multiracial politics, where Malay rights will be preserved and protected but not at the expense of the other races looks tempting to the non-Malays.

Even if Gerakan and MCA chose to remain in BN, the possibility of more of their party members leaving cannot be dismissed.

Zubaidah Abu Bakar

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