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Umno’s unholy trinity

Corrected 12.15pm on 9 April 2009

MANY Umno leaders and analysts are talking about corruption in the party as if that is its biggest problem.

After all, it was the justification used in barring party vice-president Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam from contesting for the party’s No. 2 post. And as Ali’s supporters have persuasively argued, Ali did not do much worse than others in Umno who also engage in vote-buying.

Corruption, or more accurately, patronage is undoubtedly a problem with Umno. But the real problem for the party is that it is trapped in uncompetitiveness — a consequence of subscribing to the unholy trinity of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism and patronage.


For the past 53 years, since Umno squarely defeated Datuk Onn Jaafar’s Parti Negara and PAS in the 1955 home rule elections, Umno members have viewed themselves as the “natural” party in government.

So long as Malaysians accept that Malaysia needs a Malay-led multiethnic government, and Malay Malaysians accept Umno as its champion, Umno has to be the irreplaceable element in any viable government. In Malaysia’s political equation, Umno is the given.

But how does Umno maintain this position of being the irreplaceable “given”, notwithstanding all of its contributions in developing this country?

Umno’s dominance is not a result of the numerical strength of the Malay-Muslims. Rather, it is a result of the threat of ethnic violence. The threat of ethnic violence makes authoritarianism the lesser evil, thus allowing Umno to perpetuate its dominance through authoritarian means.

And very often, that threat is coated in positive language; for example, when politicians talk about the need to preserve interethnic harmony, and by extension, political stability and economic development.


If authoritarianism is the lesser of two evils compared to the threat of ethnic violence, what is it that makes the threat of ethnic violence loom large in our consciousness? It is the sustaining of ethnic distrust and hostility.

If ethnic violence remains an attractive strategy for one side and a credible danger for the other side, Umno can sustain its privileged position of being the given. After all, the clearer and more present the threat of ethnic violence is, the more valuable a strong and authoritarian government will be — hence the observation that Umno is becoming more rightist.

Indeed, there are enough examples of a more right-wing Umno among upcoming leaders. Consider Hishamuddin Hussein’s keris-waving to Khairy Jamaluddin’s attack on embattled Perak Menteri Besar Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin as “penderhaka”, as well as Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir’s call to close down Chinese- and Tamil-language schools.

Is it any wonder that incidents such as the ban on yoga and on the use of “Allah”, and pro-Internal Security Act (ISA) demonstrations have also been on the rise? No doubt, ultra-nationalism will also rear its ugly head during the ongoing Umno general assembly.

In a nutshell, being the “given” requires no democratic competitiveness. This explains Umno’s addiction to ultra-nationalism and the discourses of ethnic threat and survival. And it is these addictions — not the mass migration of the “pendatang” or the existence of a multistream education system — that perpetuate ethnic tension in Malaysia.

Hence, unless Umno gives up authoritarianism, it cannot totally give up ultra-nationalism. Whether or not the keris — itself a covert symbol of ethnic violence — is raised at the Umno general assembly this time around will merely be a barometer of arrogance and insecurity. But if it doesn’t get raised, that can hardly be a real indicator of an ideological shift. Any shift, if it is to happen, can only occur after the assembly when leaders have secured their positions.


Authoritarianism breeds in Umno not only an addiction to ultra-nationalism, but also an addiction to the veneration of loyalty over meritocracy. (This is starkly different from Singaporean authoritarianism, which places competence at the heart of loyalty.)

The compatibility between ultra-nationalism and patronage is rather straightforward. If ethnic outsiders cannot be trusted no matter how competent they are, then similarly within the ethnic community, the party and faction faithful is privileged over the cynics and critics of ethnic solidarity. Hence, regardless of competence, it is the faithful who will hold positions of power and/or undertake projects.

This does not mean a competent politician cannot emerge from competition within Umno. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are all cases in point, but it is unlikely that any competent politician can win just on merit. Since a large war chest is paramount, it pays to be aggressive in building a network and sourcing for patronage.

This then leads Umno and the nation to the current dilemma we face. How can one clean out corruption in the party elections when corruption in general elections is rampant? And how can one not alienate thinking voters in the general elections when candidates excel in vote-buying rather than policy debates in party elections?

Umno is therefore caught with a tough choice: abandon patronage and money politics in toto in order to reform, or forget about reforms completely.

But it would be difficult for Umno to abandon money politics because patronage serves two important functions.

First, it materially sustains ultra-nationalism by rewarding supporters and penalising opponents. If all Malay-Muslims were treated equally, what would make Umno more attractive compared with PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat as the political vehicle of Malay unity? If bumiputera and non-bumiputera are to be aided on a needs and merit basis, Malay Malaysians would not rally around Malay unity for fear of losing out.

Secondly, patronage indirectly justifies authoritarianism by delegitimising the opposition. By narrowing the government’s function to redistribution of wealth, the opposition is made to look useless by default. Patronage therefore indirectly delegitimises both non-Malay parties (purportedly the threat to Malay Malaysians’ well-being) and Malay-based opposition parties (seen as naturally the culprit of Malay disunity) in electoral competition.

Hence, eliminating patronage would threaten both authoritarianism and ultra-nationalism.

The real issue

The real issue for this Umno general assembly is not the change of leadership or corruption, but how the new leadership will deal with the archaic unholy trinity of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism and patronage.

The trinity was effectively broken in the general election of 8 March 2008. Indian Malaysians refused to take Umno or its style of power sharing as the given. They voted in PAS politicians like Mohammad Nizar and (corrected) Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud over the MIC’s Indian Malaysian candidates. Because an ethnic riot did not occur post-8 March, the spectre of another 13 May has somewhat faded. Thus, Umno’s own position as the natural given has also suffered a setback.

Umno now has two choices.

The first is to accept that the unholy trinity of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism and patronage has been dismantled since March 2008. If it picks choice #1, Umno will then need to be cleaner, more inclusive, and most of all, more democratic. This is the reform most Malaysians outside of Umno would like to see happen.

The second choice would be to restore this unholy trinity. There is a limit to what patronage can do, especially during an economic recession. Since non-Malay Malaysians will no longer accept Umno as the given, ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism will be punished come the next general election.

The only way to counter this would be to let the threat of ethnic violence materialise, hoping Malaysians would take it lying down and re-accept authoritarianism as the lesser evil. 

The first choice is tough for Umno for it would have to accept the possibility of losing in the elections despite reforms. But in a real democracy, that would happen sooner or later. Umno would need to find inclusive ideological positions and device a democratic modus operandi to retain power or to survive as the opposition. 

The second choice is much easier by comparison for Umno. That choice even stands a good chance of effectively convincing some Malaysians that democracy is bad. But what a catastrophe it would be for Malaysia and the region. Just look at Perak, which now offers a good example of democratic ruin.

So the question confronting us today, as Umno gathers at a politically-significant assembly, is this: Will Malaysians stand up before the second option is taken up?

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He agrees with Jose Rizal that “there are no tyrants when they are no slaves.” He believes that ordinary citizens are more important in ensuring political order than they realise because by signaling their responses, they can force politicians to change their calculations.

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14 Responses to “Umno’s unholy trinity”

  1. kah seng says:

    Chin Huat and readers,

    The unholy trinity looks more dynamic to me: It is a vicious circle that will spiral down to fascism. In other words, fascism is the inevitable eventuality – if reform fails.

    Although few see NEP as socialism, it is.

    NEP-implementating Umno requires central planning and distribution of goodies (EPU, Umno’s increasing small circles, corruption, patronage). It requires strongman (bring back Dr M, and let’s try Najib the multi-term Defense Minister). It requires a strong hand (back to authoritarianism, media oppression, MP-banning and lawsuits, state assembly coups).

    As such, the danger of socialism applies to NEP. Read Hayek’s “The Road To Serfdom” to take a peek at the prognosis.

    I argue in an article here that a combination of seven factors will give rise to fascism in Malaysia:

    1. Oppressive laws that we fail to reform

    2. NEP, a racist-socialist, ‘zombie’ policy that, not because it is badly implemented, but because it combines race-based politics and central planning that will eventually implode into authoritarianism to oppressing especially the Malays themselves,

    3. A culture of corruption and power-worshiping, with a multi-term Defense Minister as the future PM,

    4. A deterioration of rule of law, including the quality of legislative, judiciary, and law enforcement,

    5. A blurring of police and military, including via the empowering of Rela,

    6. A conformist youth education and culture, running into a global recession, creating a hotbed for extremist ideas. Plus a militarising of youth through the National Service program,

    7. The failure of the intellectuals to defend liberty through the most basic framework of livelihood: free trade, free commerce, globalization. Remember, it was the BN’s strong desire to entice foreign investments that opened up the cyberspace media and maintains a certain decorum and pretension in government services and law enforcement standards. Where free trade goes down the drain, like in Burma, so do liberty and rights.

    I was hoping the ACA would be Malaysia’s last standing institution. But MACC has turned out to be a reformist’s nightmare and a caricaturist’s wet dream, doing the exact opposite of what it should do. It appears worse than ACA.

    It all leads to questions “Are we seeing a failed Malaysia?” (subscription)

    What to do? Keep struggling. Keep moving reformist ideas to others.

  2. Pratamad says:

    I think the answer also lies in the type of leadership that Umno delegates choose tomorrow, whether it will be a short-sighted one or one with long-termed vision. The former will choose to slaughter the golden goose, refusing to wake up and change. The latter will learn, listen and change itself.

    Judging from the fact that over 60% of the delegates are contractors, the former will happen. Malaysia will suffer a birth pain, but give birth to a new era subsequently. Umno can only change if it shifts its power structure back to its grassroots.

  3. It seems only too self evident that as the course of events winds its way through the thickets that there can be no possibility for Umno to reverse its thinking and its ingrained “crutch” mentality. Educated Malays – who are ever increasing in number – do not need the Malaysian blogs to know what is going on. They are aware that the ill educated elites hold nearly 96% of the wealth of the Malays. The rest live on jobs in the civil service. Entrepreneurship is completely lacking despite all the efforts of numerous bloated agencies of government with many holding imagined high positions of Director-General, Senior Asst Deputy Director General and so forth.

    Everyone wants to be a Datuk or Tan Sri as this apparently tends to lead towards being favoured for inflated contracts at the public’s expense. The public holds with disdain the Tan Sris and Datuks floating around.

    Competition is not encouraged. Hence jobs or works using public funds are awarded according to political influence. In such an atmosphere, how could there ever be the spirit of entrepreneurship?

    Jealousy steps in when others work hard for a living – without crutches.

    52 years have passed. The “crutches” are there in every aspect of life. Some claim that marks in examinations at every level of scholarship are twiddled with to give a false pride of having achieved innumerous “A”s.

    Many of these “A” ‘scholars’ enter foreign universities and end up as psychiatric problems.

    Only in a level playing field with all aspects being equal can the nation slowly create the spirit of entrepreneurship.

    Not with “crutches” because that can be equated to BEGGING for a living. If Umno wants to live on begging – so be it.

    Surely the principle of “ketuanaan” does not ask one to emulate the spirit of crutchmanship.

  4. Ali says:

    I agree. Stop talking about race. People migrate into Europe from everywhere such as Iraq, Afghanistan and African countries as they are refugees and they have the same rights as Europeans. It’s called democracy, in Malaysia it is going backwards, why have to bring up race, because it is all about winning for Umno or other parties and to continue money politics. It is all about who is on top and has the most cash, not about race and helping people, it is about their own greed and power and to divide races so they can get their votes. People, whether Chinese, Indians or Malays are not falling for that one anymore. We are Malaysians!

  5. salak says:

    “…Will Malaysians stand up before the second option is taken up…”

    If the banning of PR’s newspapers and the action of the police in Selambau indicate anything, they point to Umno’s acceptance of their weakness in the 12th GE. Their ultimate response has been to dig their heels deeper.

    In Malaysia, reactions have been small as among the bumiputeras, patronage enhances elitism which signifies reward. Of course culture then is heinous when “absolute” authority rearing its ugly head is manifest in Perak. No doubt some would argue that the cry of “Long Live the King” is valid.

    Perhaps, the present global economic crisis might help us to appreciate the need for reforms and that Malaysians will stand up to be counted, albeit slowly.

    For Malaysia generally, we need new questions. Those will make more than a sprinkle of Malaysians stand up.

  6. bung says:

    In order to safe the country, we must not allow the politicians too much power and allow the sultans and Agong to have the final say in the political arena. As politicians come and go, self-interest is very likely.

  7. Raymond says:

    “Will Malaysians stand up before the second option is taken up?”

    As noted, the process of “standing up” began on 8/3/2008. Time will show whether we Malaysians as a whole have matured sufficiently to weather dual storms of global economic turmoil and a resurgence (I believe that’s where we are heading, after reading the proceedings from the Umno GA) of patronage and authoritarianism and ultra-nationalism. Thank you for this historical perspective.

  8. tengku mohd faizal says:

    There’s always two sides of everything, there is always Yin and Yang, tyrant and slaves but then the writer chose to ignore this fact, instead focusing on one aspect of it only.

    Yes, corruption exists in Umno, and is probably getting worse, but nobody writes about what Umno has done to the country. They think the PLUS highway is redundant, and the Twin Towers a waste of money. Better close down the PLUS highway and the Twin Towers and just focus on Umno’s corruption. We can start using the old state trunk roads and tell the world that the Twin Towers is not ours.

  9. kalam Perak says:

    Umno has no choice but to reform. Datuk Onn was a visionary man. He saw what others didn’t. But the Malay [Malaysians] were blinded by their fears in those days.The golden opportunity has once again arrived. Flourish by reforming to be an an inclusive party or perish. Regardless, the country has to move forward as other advanced societies have already showed the way. By then Umno will be in our National Museum for our children to see, how racial politics once destroyed our promising nation.

  10. Zedeck says:

    Hello tengku mohd faizal:

    While a great number of us are thankful for our highways, the way concessionaires such as PLUS are structured leave much to be desired. DAP has some pretty salient ideas on this:

    As far as the Twin Towers are concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the opinion on mega-phallic architecture is far from unanimous. Your mileage may vary.

  11. Abdullah Ahmad says:

    I am not very good with words but I would like to share a bit of my thoughts.

    Whatever Umno feels like doing or if it continues with its old ways of doing things, just let it be. It will only hasten its own demise even more.

    During the last GE, we were able to witness for the first time how the three main races of Malaysia worked together hand in hand to achieve a single goal of defeating the Umno-led BN. It was quite an achievement given the racial animosities, tensions and mistrust among pepole for the past 50 years due to the work of Umno who played with race sentiments in order to achieve political gains.

    The time is high for us Malaysians to discard all of these nonsense about race and ethnic differences. The differences should be respected and celebrated and not used as a weapon to segregate.

  12. tengku mohd faizal says:

    Hello zedeck,

    If you refer back to, you will notice, not once did the writer use the word “thankful”. Apparently, the writer has been using old state trunk roads all this while, and will continue to use state trunk road until end of his life.

    Or else he has to be “thankful” for using highways. Don’t you think so?

  13. Fikri Roslan says:

    The Malay [Malaysians], just like people in Southeast Asia, are very humble and accomodating. They gave away many things in the name of harmony and unity.

    The Malay [Malaysians] and Umno gave away many (aspects of) Malay heritage…the name of Tanah Melayu, etc. They shared with the Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] (governing) this country since Merdeka. The Malay [Malaysians]/Umno gave away seats to Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] so that they could be well represented in the government. I do not know why the Chinese [Malaysians] cannot do the same for the Chinese school for the sake of Malaysian Malaysia.

    Yes, I agree Umno has to change. It has to become stronger and have positive behaviour. The article provides options for Umno, and uses Perak as the example of democratic ruin. I do not think the options are proper for Umno.

    I view the case of Perak as a good sign for democratic ruin and radicalism among the new generation of non-Malay [Malaysians]. There is no more respect for the Sultan and Malay institutions. Politics based on race is therefore still relevant. Otherwise, the Malay [Malaysians] will become just like the natives of Thailand and Cambodia. They have been sidelined, as the politics and business are all dominated by Thai and Cambodian or Chinese (overseas Chinese). So Umno should be strong to ensure the Malay [Malaysians] are still relevant in this country.

  14. Zedeck says:

    Hello tengku mohd faizal:

    You seem to be deliberately misunderstanding me. Regardless:

    Someone has recognised that something (eg. the Plus highway) is important to the people; s/he is moved to urge the government to improve this amenity to better serve the people, and reduce wildly inappropriate profiteering. In short: thanks, but let’s do better!

    I’d like to think that Malaysians, as a people, are evolved enough to see the gratitude implicit in certain actions, and not merely latch on an overt, literal expression such as “aw gee, thanks!” But there seems to be some stragglers.

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