PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s recent announcement of the government’s most recent u-turn on legalising sports betting raises questions, once again, about Umno’s dominance within the Barisan Nasional (BN). Najib announced the Finance Ministry’s withdrawal of approval for Ascot Sports’ sports betting licence directly after an Umno supreme council meeting on 25 June 2010.
Najib told the press the sports betting issue was raised with Umno supreme council members who unanimously supported the decision to cancel the government approval. Umno supreme council member and information chief Datuk Ahmad Maslan later told reporters the government’s decision was also based on Umno grassroots’ strong opposition to the legalisation of sports betting.
But why was Najib’s announcement made after the Friday Umno supreme council meeting instead of after a weekly cabinet meeting? Do cabinet decisions have to be approved by the Umno supreme council? Who’s supposed to be governing the country — the BN cabinet or the Umno supreme council?
Not the first time
This isn’t the first time a major announcement was made after an Umno supreme council deliberation. In July 2006, then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi ordered the inter-faith group, Article 11, to cease its activities after chairing an Umno supreme council meeting. The prime minister said council members had expressed utmost concern over inter-faith issues being debated by Article 11 and that the discussions could lead to tension.
Abdullah said the government had already put on hold the inter-faith commission which was actually unrelated to, but conflated with, Article 11. Hence, he announced, there should no longer be public discussion by groups like Article 11. But was Abdullah issuing the directive on a government decision as prime minister or as Umno president if he did it after an Umno supreme council meeting? Why did the party have so much power to tell the rest of nation it could no longer have freedom of expression over the issues that beleaguer us?
Similarly, was Najib representing the nation or his party when he announced his decision about the sports betting licence?
Umno’s views also often seem to take precedence over other BN component parties’ opinions. The selection of P Kamalanathan as a compromise candidate for Hulu Selangor is one example, after MIC’s choice, Datuk G Palanivel, was rejected by the Hulu Selangor Umno division.
In 2006, then Kelana Jaya Member of Parliament Loh Seng Kok from MCA made a bold speech in Parliament on the “imbalance” in the History syllabus and the problems non-Muslims faced in relation to places of worship. Six days later, 50 Umno Youth members reportedly paid Loh a visit at his office to protest his speech. A poster of Loh in Petaling Jaya was also defaced two years later by unidentified vandals. Loh was not fielded by MCA in the 2008 general election and Kelana Jaya fell to Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Loh Gwo Burne.
Umno also seems to have ignored its component parties’ views on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims. After the High Court reversed the Home Ministry’s ban on the use of the word by Catholic weekly Herald, MCA issued a strong statement supporting the decision. MCA refuted a statement by Defence Minister and Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi that usage of “Allah” by non-Muslims could be used to confuse Muslims.
Upko president and Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok also defended non-Muslims’ right to use “Allah” to refer to God. Despite these BN component parties’ views, however, the Umno-led BN government is appealing the High Court decision.
MCA also protested the caning of three Muslim women, a position diametrically opposed to groups within Umno. Johor Baru Umno Youth and Wanita Umno, for example, lodged a police report against the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) for speaking out against the caning sentence of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno. However, despite MCA’s stand, the BN government continues to maintain the right to cane Muslim women under syariah law.
And as for the sports betting licence, analyse this: How much were MCA’s and MIC’s views taken into account? MIC president Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu announced his support for sports betting during the day on 25 June, only to have Najib directly contradict him later that night.
Cabinet, not Umno
Malaysians seem to have become so used to Umno calling the shots within BN that hardly any comment has been made on the timing of Najib’s sports betting announcement. After all, Umno has always held the majority of BN’s parliamentary seats, even more so after MCA’s and MIC’s disastrous performances in the 2008 general election.
Nevertheless, the government is made up of BN, not just Umno. And policy direction and decisions should be made by the cabinet, and not the Umno supreme council.
Cabinet members are, after all, directly answerable to Parliament and may be questioned. Cabinet members are also answerable to the public through individual ministerial responsibility where ministers are meant to take responsibility for their departments’ conduct. Under the convention, ministers have to explain their departments’ actions in Parliament, apologise for any shortcomings, and ultimately resign for serious professional shortcomings or failures.
The Umno supreme council, on the other hand, is not subject to any such conventions or parliamentary or public scrutiny. Some may not even be elected members of Parliament such as Datuk Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, Umno Baling’s division chief. It is therefore wholly inappropriate for the Umno supreme council to have a major say over government policy.
Moreover, BN frequently prides itself on its power-sharing model, and has campaigned in general elections on the basis of cooperation among its component parties. Genuine power-sharing, however, involves more than appointing a few token ministers and deputy ministers from MCA, MIC and other BN parties.
It also involves taking into account component parties’ views on policies. And when decisions have to be made involving different races, religions and interests, the power-sharing model so trumpeted by BN becomes even more crucial because it ensures that minority groups’ interests are represented in the decision-making process.
Following its poorest showing yet in the last general election and amidst dwindling support amongst the non-Malay Malaysian community, it is in BN’s interest to show that it is not just Umno that dictates national policy. It remains to be seen, however, whether an Umno so used to dominating and getting its way will have enough incentive to change.
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