Drawing from the Umno ‘fixed deposit’

When Umno suffered an acute loss of voter confidence in the 1999 general election (GE), many political analysts predicted that the party would be buried by the next GE. The majority of Malay voters were seen to have shifted their allegiance and beginning to favour Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Parti KeADILan Nasional. It was rationalized that if the Malays themselves had rejected Umno, then the party was no longer relevant and would soon become obsolete.

Such was the general perception in the heat of the election aftermath. Many from the opposition, especially those in PAS and KeADILan at that time were already dreaming of sitting in Putrajaya by the following GE. Nonetheless, when the 2004 election came around, not only did Umno survive, it rose to greater heights and made a clean sweep of 90 percent of the seats it contested. Here was a reverse scenario where PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) were the ones facing a genuine possibility of being obliterated.

The general election of Mac 2008 again saw the Umno dominance of the political landscape coming under threat. Barisan Nasional, of which Umno is the backbone, tumbled in five states and failed to obtain a two-third majority in parliament. Once more, Umno’s continued lifespan was questioned and the opposition alliance began entertaining the hope that the federal government was now within its grasp.

But the truth is, Umno is not a mosquito party. Umno has been in the political arena since the 1950s. Hence, if there are among supporters of the opposition coalition entertaining the thought that Umno might so easily collapse in the coming GE, they should be more circumspect in making their predictions. What can come to pass is another big win for BN and Umno as occurred in 2004.

The most evident strength of Umno is the huge number of loyal supporters that it has. And Malays loyal to Umno no matter what are those who are older (aged 50 and above) and those in the civil service.

‘Why fix it if it ain’t broke’?

For many senior voters, Umno is the only ruling party – “dulu, kini dan selamanya” (its slogan: “past, present and for all eternity”). It is not imaginable that other political parties are capable of ruling the country. For these people, Umno is the fount of everything – land, housing, water, electricity and all else is made available because of Umno. If not for Umno, all the luxuries and good things in life would not be there for the taking.

Umno is also seen as generous, and why not? Every time come election season, donations and free services are given. Batik and kain pelikat (men’s sarung) are distributed free, roads are tarred, surau and mosques refurbished, carrots dangled, and all requests and grievances of the rakyat are entertained with the utmost concern and diligence.

In the civil service, many are ensconced in the comfort zone and at ease with the Umno and Barisan Nasional authorities. Their salaries, perks and allowances enjoyed are quite adequate. The relationship between the civil service and Umno leaders is intimate, and the latter are seen as accessible. Many official visits are conducted and banquets held to facilitate common interaction in the course of work.

So even though there are blots in the copybook and weaknesses in governance, all these are taken as part and parcel of life. Therefore, the thinking remains among the civil service that as long as the government is able to deliver the comforts, why is there any need for this government to be changed?

If Pakatan Rakyat truly wants to wrest control of Putrajaya, meticulous planning is required to win increased support from the Malay electorate. Among urban Malays, and the young and professional classes, Pakatan Rakyat has an encouraging level of support. Nonetheless, this is not enough to fell Umno and Barisan Nasional.

Concern of government servants

There is not much that Pakatan Rakyat can do to win over the Malay senior voters. Their heart and soul is with Umno. Say what you will about bad Umno leaders, it is like water off a duck’s back. Marking the ballot means crossing the ‘dacing’ (BN’s logo of the weighing scale). It is the only equation that they know, and a lifelong habit.

In any election gambit, emphasis must be placed on the Malaysian civil service. A great number of those employed in the public sector will be worried if Umno and Barisan Nasional were to lose power; especially those who have – all this while either directly or indirectly – financially benefited from the largesse obtained through leaks and seepages in the system.

When Abdul Khalid Ibrahim made his maiden tour of Selangor’s government departments as the new Menteri Besar immediately after the March 2008 general election, the government servants were clearly glum and there was an air of despondency in the offices. Many were wondering what would be the action plan of the freshly installed state government and chief minister. Would he unearth all the state documents and pursue those who had been allied to the previous Menteri Besar? Or would there be a major overhaul involving transfers and job termination?

Presently, after two years of Pakatan Rakyat rule in four states of the peninsula, the civil service is ‘protected’ (will not be charged for offences) even though there have been efforts to expose the defects of the earlier Barisan Nasional state governments. However, there will surely be those who think that the officers colluding with the previous leadership should be exposed and taken to court.

Although certain quarters appear eager to dig up the dirt and punish all those complicit, one should nonetheless exercise caution and not go overboard. It must be carefully weighed whether such as step will ultimately be detrimental or rewarding. In realpolitik, a smart strategy requires pragmatic consideration from all angles and perspectives.

After apartheid was dismantled in South Africa in 1994, an independent commission (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) was established to collect evidence from the victims and wrongdoers in criminal cases arising from the country’s policy of racial discrimination. The commission was entrusted with the mandate to pardon and grant immunity to those found guilty should they be willing to come forward and provide information.

Perhaps this method is more appropriate to be adopted in Malaysia if Pakatan Rakyat wishes to successfully take over the federal government in the next GE. A conciliatory and less radical approach can reassure the civil service that there will be no widespread witch hunt. It should be borne in mind that many of them are involved in the scandals affecting public institutions only because they were following orders.

Strategy at state level

Aside from the above, Pakatan Rakyat is currently ruling four states and this allows it an opportunity to show its appreciation for the contributions rendered by the civil service. Don’t only point out the weaknesses and failures. Instead commend those who are dedicated and capable in their work as a note of thanks on the part of the state government for their meritorious service.

What can be done perhaps is to award excellent service medals as is the practice with the federal government. These special awards from the state governments can go a long way in showing that Pakatan Rakyat values the role of the civil service as partners in the mutual quest to develop the state and bureaucracy. Thus, the civil service would not feel that they are unduly regarded as an opponent to be wary of and whose motivations and actions are under constant scrutiny.

As for the police and armed forces, commemorate them on Police Day and Warriors Day. Even though the Pakatan Rakyat are often targetted, they should nonetheless realise that not all members of the police and armed forces swear a blind fealty to the Umno dan Barisan Nasional leadership. If there is a need to criticize the police and armed forces, direct the criticism at specific individuals who are responsible. Don’t generalize that all are bad apples and biased in carrying out their duties.

In Malaysia, there are all in all more than one million civil servants. Of this total, almost 90 percent are Malays. These individuals are enfranchised voters. Their personal voting choice will surely exert an influence over a large number of their family members. Therefore, the side which can secure their support will definitely have a big edge in the bid to carry the general election.

It is the civil service that is really Umno and Barisan Nasional’s‘fixed deposit’. They are the main barrier to be breached to pave the road to Putrajaya for Pakatan Rakyat.


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