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Power-sharing models for the BN

AS the Barisan Nasional (BN) struggles to reinvent itself in the current political climate, three ideas have been raised to remake it into a single multiracial entity.

The coalition knows it has to respond to public perception that Umno is dominant over the other component parties. If it doesn’t, it risks losing more of the electorate to the only other multiracial alternative, the Pakatan Rakyat.

Notably, the suggestions came about at the general assemblies of two non-Malay component parties — Gerakan and the MCA — which were held within a week of each other in early October 2008.

The suggestions could be nothing more than political posturing. They could have been made to appease the grassroots of both parties fed up with Umno’s perceived high-handedness, and who think that non-communal politics is the way forward. Or they could be designed to pressure Umno to reform itself and shed its supremacist thinking.

Whatever the case, the suggestions bear deeper consideration.

On the menu

The first idea is for the BN component parties to merge into a single party. This was raised by outgoing Gerakan Youth chief Datuk Mah Siew Keong (now a party vice-president) at the Youth assembly on 10 Oct. Party president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon followed up and said the time was ripe for the BN to consider the option seriously.

The second is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s suggestion for the BN to allow direct membership into the coalition. The BN chairman said this at Gerakan’s general assembly on 11 Oct. He said he knew of many people who supported the BN but did not want to join any of the component parties.

Liow Tiong Lai
The third is for the BN to create a second deputy chair post for the MCA. This proposal was made at the MCA Youth assembly on 17 Oct by (now) party vice-president Datuk Liow Tiong Lai. The idea was elevated by a delegate during the debates to the extent of asking that a second deputy prime minister’s post be held by the MCA.

History shows that none of these ideas are new. And in their time, the first two concepts failed, while the third has never been tested. How feasible are they now?

Who will give up power?

Datuk Onn Jaafar’s idea of opening Umno to non-Malays and making it the United Malayan National Organisation was ahead of its time in the late 1940s. With Umno refusing to give up its communal stance, Onn, the party’s founder and first president, left to set up the multiracial Independence of Malaya Party in 1951. This too, lost out to Umno and the MCA, which cooperated in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur local council elections to great effect, winning nine out of 12 seats.

Onn’s idea of the different racial groups working together eventually took form under Tunku Abdul Rahman, in the shape of separate race-based parties sharing power under the Alliance banner, later formalised as the BN in 1973. Onn himself was eclipsed from national politics.

Umno founder Onn’s multiracial stance
eventually led to his political oblivion
(Public domain)
Against this backdrop, Gerakan probably knew that despite its daring call to merge, the issue was really a non-starter, says political analyst Ong Kian Ming. The realpolitik about political parties is, everyone wants to hold a post.

“Gerakan knows that Umno would never accept something like this. It also knows that if there was a single BN party, many Gerakan leaders would probably lose their positions,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Merging would also mean a dilution of Malay power, an unacceptable and “humiliating” idea for Umno, according to Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek.

Even some who are more forward-thinking feel that race-based parties are still relevant for the present, even if non-racial politics is the way of the future.

Umno member Zakhir Mohamed subscribes to this. Middle-class and urbanised, the Petaling Jaya Selatan division member typifies the younger generation of Umno members who feel caught between their party’s ethnocentricity and the challenge of an increasingly competitive, globalised Malaysia.

“I do believe it is important that we move towards multiracialism, but not until everyone is at the same level. The different ethnic groups are not progressing at the same pace. Because of this variable, you cannot simply pro-rate everything,” he says.

Powerless club members

Sadly for advocates of multiracialism, power is derived from communalism. This is the lesson from the failure of the Alliance Direct Membership Organisation, or Admo, the precursor to Abdullah’s idea of allowing direct membership into the BN.

Admo was active in the early 1970s with the purpose of increasing support for the Alliance from those who did not want to join Umno, the MCA or MIC. It lacked power, and ultimately closed shop when the Alliance was replaced by the BN.

Abdullah at the Gerakan general assembly on 11 Oct, where he revived
the Admo idea
“It’s not a well-thought-through suggestion,” says Zakhir of Abdullah’s attempt to resurrect the proposal. “I don’t become a member of the Bar Council unless I am first a lawyer. It is the same principle with joining the BN: the prerequisite is that you are first a member of a component party. Otherwise, there is no structure for direct BN members.”

However, structural issues can be dealt with if there is the will to do so, says analyst Ong. PAS founded the PAS Supporters’ Club in 2004 for non-Muslims, and it has been credited with helping the Islamist party make gains in the 8 March 2008 general election. The BN realises the value in tapping such a group who may be ambivalent about its component members but subscribe to its platform of multiracial political cooperation.

As such, Deputy Prime Minister and BN deputy chairman Datuk Seri Najib Razak has said the coalition’s management committee will work out the details for direct membership.

But campaigning for an election and shaping policies are two different matters. Why would people join a political organisation if they cannot be part of the decision making process?

“Those who would join the BN as direct members will just be making a statement that the BN should be one party, but they will have no real political power,” Ong says.

“All Vote for PAS” on a supporter’s shirt
shows the softer stance the Islamist party
took in the March general election to
woo multiracial voters
Far from advancing a non-racial political agenda, a grouping of direct members could merely end up as a social club. If they end up with big numbers, they may start demanding greater say within the main party, as requested by the PAS Supporters’ Club. The club’s president Hu Pang Chaw told The Nut Graph that their request to be formalised as a wing in the party has been accepted in principle and is being discussed by the PAS leadership.

With the BN, however, it is not so certain if Umno would be that charitable if the number of direct BN members threatens to dilute its power.

Levelling the BN field

This brings us to the MCA’s chest-thumping for equal partnership with Umno. Liow’s call for the MCA to hold a second BN deputy chair, based on it being the second largest party in the coalition, is seen as a direct response to the perception that Umno has become too dominant in the coalition.

Although Abdullah has said that the proposal can be discussed at the BN Convention early next year, Ong thinks that political reality will hold sway.

“Umno would never give the MCA a deputy BN chair or deputy prime minister position. It wants to concentrate power within itself. Other parties would start making demands. Sabah and Sarawak (where the BN retained most of its seats contested in the general election) would want its own deputy PM as well.”

Even if giving a second deputy BN chair to the MCA resolves some of the power imbalance, it would not further multiracialism. “It would just emphasise the MCA’s power at the expense of other component party members,” Ong says.

Furthermore, the idea of equal power sharing in the BN is viewed as a misnomer by Umno. Zakhir’s perspective of history gives some insight into the way party members think — that the history of cooperation in the early days of the Alliance is read as “working together”, rather than an equitable partnership.

“The MCA and MIC worked with Umno while understanding that political power lay in the hands of the majority, which is the Malays. Working together does not mean sharing equally. It was more about give-and-take. That is the foundation this country was built on,” says Zakhir.

It is a different reading from that of MCA central committee member Tan Cheng Liang, who believes that there was genuine power sharing before the 13 May 1969 riots and in the early days of the BN.

HS Lee, Malaysia’s first finance
minister from 1957-1959
This was evidenced by the fact that newly independent Malaysia’s first two finance ministers were Chinese — Tun HS Lee and Tun Tan Siew Sin. In 1964, Tan was appointed as the Alliance’s deputy chairperson. Even in 1974, a year after the BN was formed, the coalition’s first secretary-general was the MCA’s Tan Sri Michael Chen.

“We need to go back to that original spirit of power sharing when all the parties were on equal footing. Fifty-one years down the line, Umno has become so powerful. We have to institutionalise power-sharing in the BN now or it may be taken away by circumstances,” Cheng Liang said on the sidelines of the MCA annual general assembly.

For historian Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Khim, the difference between then and now is the leaders. “The leaders then were all friends. They were all basically English-educated and were at ease with one another. If the BN now wants to try any of the multiracial or power-sharing models suggested, the component parties should sit down and have sincere discussions as friends.

Tan Siew Sin, finance minister
from 1959-1969 and 1970-1974
“And should such efforts fail, they must be gentlemen, just like (second prime minister Tun) Razak and Siew Sin and others, to not publicise their grouses and stir up ill-feelings in public,” Khoo says.

That era of honourable politics gone, Ong feels that the BN component parties will be forced into a sincere discussion only when the coalition loses even more support from the people. It would do well to heed the results of 8 March now with honest reflection. And that should include a re-reading of history, and concrete talks on reform, instead of mere lip service.

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