TO Umno veteran Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat, loyalty is a lost virtue in politics. In his recently published memoir, Umno: Akhir Sebuah Impian, Mohamed laments Umno’s other disease besides money politics: the culture of backstabbing to further self-interests.
Mohamed was information minister from 1987 to 1999. He served under no one less formidable than former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose image he took pains to protect through propaganda campaigns like Setia and Semarak. For Mohamed, loyalty to country and leader is paramount for the sake of larger issues such as national harmony. This explains why Mohamed did not hesitate to criticise his former boss for commenting negatively on his successor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Tok Mat, as he is also known, was also Umno secretary-general from 1988 to 1996. Chauvinistic members within the party notwithstanding, Mohamed believes Umno is gradually changing to become more inclusive. “Don’t be afraid of Umno. The Malay [Malaysians] cannot rule this country alone,” he says at the end of a 6 Nov 2009 interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite poor health, Mohamed, 71, found time and strength to expound on the current political landscape, and what Umno must do to stay relevant.
TNG: What do you think of 1Malaysia as propaganda?
Mohamed Rahmat: The [country's] problem is racial polarisation. So this concept of 1Malaysia makes us feel that we are one, irrespective of race or creed. We should think, act and feel as one.
If we can achieve that, then polarisation won’t be a time-bomb. We already experienced it on 13 May 1969. So we must always be aware and make the effort to make Malaysians feel that this is their country. So [Prime Minister Datuk Seri] Najib [Razak] has come up with the 1Malaysia concept at the right time.
How is it different from your Setia and Semarak campaigns?
The problem then was lack of loyalty to the country’s leaders [following the 1987 split in Umno]. Loyalty is a basic ingredient for nation-building. Without loyalty, the whole thing will come down. So I had a campaign to make people realise how important loyalty is.
Do you remember the big national flag wrapped around the Angkasapuri building? The flag resembled loyalty to the country. People were saying [then] that this country was no good, even though they had a good life. But it’s our country, whether you like it or not.
What then is your observation about the results of the March 2008 general election — is that a loyalty issue as well?
It’s not a question of loyalty. I don’t think it was about people rebelling against leaders and the government. In the last elections, there were two things that are important to note. In any election, we go to the people to gain power to rule this country. But the [Umno] leaders didn’t do that. They were more concerned about the coming party general assembly and party election.
So the general election was geared towards that. I don’t think that was right. They chose candidates which the party did not accept and the people did not accept. In their mind, they were thinking, I must make sure my supporters stand as candidates and win, so that when the party election comes, they will support me. This happened at all levels, at selection for parliamentary and state candidates.
That’s why I think, this time, if Umno wants to come back strong, Umno must change the way it selects candidates. They have been saying, let the president decide the candidates. But the Umno members have always felt that when you talk about candidate selection, you must listen to the grassroots. Because they are the ones who work on the ground to deliver the government. If the candidate is not suitable [for] them, they become frustrated. They can even boycott the candidate.
And we will lose the elections unnecessarily because we didn’t listen to the grassroots. So for the next elections, let the grassroots decide on who should be the candidate. Not only Umno, but every Barisan candidate, whether Malay, Chinese or Indian [Malaysian], must be decided by the grassroots.
Number two, there was a very damaging campaign where people said don’t vote for MCA or Gerakan as you will be voting for the Malay [Malaysians] to be in power. They think that the component parties are under pressure by Umno. It is not so. We have been fair in the allocation of seats. Even Malay [Malaysian majority] seats are given to MCA, Gerakan and MIC. If we don’t do that, there won’t be enough representation of the various ethnic groups in the state and federal governments.
In a way, Umno has sacrificed its own interests for the sake of unity and for the sake of establishing a very strong representative government. That campaign did a lot of damage in the last elections. Why else would MCA and Gerakan lose so many seats? People were being told that if you vote for Barisan, you are only helping the Malay [Malaysians]. I hope this doesn’t happen again. Because Umno needs the support of component parties. Malay [Malaysians] cannot rule this country alone. Umno depends on its component parties.
You must remember, the British would not give us independence unless we undertook to work together with the Chinese and the Indians in this exercise of nation-building. So this dirty campaign should stop.
Do you think future generations of young Malay [Malaysians] will think less of Umno as their protector and defender?
I don’t think so. In the past, they saw Umno as a kampung party. The youngsters and urban people didn’t want to join Umno. But now Umno is the national government. People in rural and urban areas are supporting Umno, including young people. So it’s a process. I believe today’s young people will change their minds as they grow older. Now, they are being guided by their emotions. When they are older, sanity will come in and finally they will support Umno.
But something must be done to bring them in as much as possible.
Do you think there will come a time when Umno will have to change its ideology to become more inclusive, and not just cast itself as defender of Malay [Malaysians]? Even Najib said at the recent general assembly that Umno needs to be more inclusive, while Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin said Umno should replace Malay dominance with Malay leadership.
Umno started as a Malay party. When Datuk Onn Jaafar wanted to open Umno to non-Malays, the party refused. But it has changed. If you look at Umno members now, there are a good number of ethnic Indians who are Muslims. Non-Muslims, too, have joined the party. Siamese members are Buddhists, Portuguese members are Christians, the Sabah members, some are Catholic. So Umno has opened up itself very well. The question is, whether Umno can open itself to all other races. I think that’s a matter of time.
Umno is also having to handle a new kind of Malay [Malaysian]. One who is highly educated, professional, and has developed thinking. This is the process of nation-building. We should see how we can accommodate new ways of thinking. We can’t just say it’s all nonsense.
Looking at the problems of the MCA, MIC and Gerakan today, if you were information minister, what sort of propaganda would you recommend for the BN to regain its credibility?
They must first set their own parties right. Unity in the party must come back. If they continue to quarrel with one another, the public will get fed up of them.
Communication today is more challenging with the new media. But fortunately, I think, the influence of the new media is more urban than rural. And rural areas [are] the base of government [power].
For as long as there is still the divide between urban and rural where the new media is concerned, for the moment, we can still overcome them. So the official media is still important. Radio and TV caters to the rural areas.
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