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Who you calling chicken?

(© Dmitriy Shironosov/Dreamstime)
SOMETIMES you need to change for the sake of changing. It’s all about signalling to others: “I am willing to take extreme measures, so you’d better do something.”

Even loan sharks know this. At some point, they stop calling the defaulter and simply show up to pour red paint on his or her house.

Signalling is even more important in a deadly car-racing game called “chicken”. In this game, two drivers speed their cars towards each other on a collision course. Whoever swerves before the collision will be called a coward or “chicken”. However, if both refuse to swerve, they will die in the crash.

How do you not lose the game, or, more importantly, your life? The answer is simple: you signal that you don’t mind dying so that your opponent will eventually swerve. How? Pull out the handbrake and throw it out the window.

“Chicken” is the game that Umno and its partners have been playing all this while because of the anti-competition and power-sharing nature of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

Because they are generally race-based, the BN component parties inherently need to convince their respective racial bases of their role in overpowering other races. Or they must appear to defend their own from being overpowered by other groups. And so these parties need to “crash” into each other from time to time.

(© Lorna/Dreamstime)
If both Umno and its subservient partners choose to continue speeding towards each other, they will crash and die.

Dangling carrots

As much as Umno likes to stress Malay supremacy, an Umno-only government is politically untenable.

The most cost-effective way for Umno to pursue its agenda is not outright coercion with blatant use of force. What really works is tacit subordination by dangling carrots on sticks for its opponents.

In other words, Umno’s hero prototype would be Tun Abdul Razak, who built the BN to make Umno more dominant. Their big no-no is someone like the former Selangor Menteri Besar, the late Datuk Seri Harun Idris, who played a controversial role in the 13 May 1969 riots.

Up to 2007, however, Umno never had to face the music despite its politicians frequently playing with fire, and this is for two main reasons.

Firstly, its non-Malay partners were fully aware of the consequence of either state repression or riots if racial tension went beyond what Umno could swallow. The Operasi Lalang crackdown in 1987 was a lesson too powerful for many. The MCA’s vocal deputy president, Lee Kim Sai, would probably have been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) had he not left for Australia in time.

Lee Kim Sai (Source:

Secondly, since there were 12 non-Malay/non-Muslim parties in BN — and a few more waiting to join — they were caught in a “prisoners’ dilemma”. Speaking up against Umno would only be a rational option if everyone were to take the same stand. If others were to keep quiet, the lone dissenter would eventually get punished on its own without making any real impact.

The first consideration explains why Umno’s junior partners have not dared to really question the “established fundamentals” of Umno’s electoral one-party state. They back off from such issues as the notion of “Malay supremacy” (and the unquestionable “social contract”), the New Economic Policy, and the master-servant relationship within the BN.

The second consideration explains why the junior partners dare not even challenge new encroachments. The best example is former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s “Malaysia is an Islamic state” declaration at none other than Parti Gerakan Rakyat’s national delegates conference on 29 Sept 2001.

Had Gerakan challenged that statement, even in an agree-to-disagree manner, the out-Islamisation race between Umno and PAS would have somehow been checked. Instead, Gerakan leaders chose to spin for Mahathir. Eventually, the Umno-versus-PAS out-Islamisation led to several religious controversies in the last years of the Abdullah administration.

These two considerations combined explain why the so-called BN spirit broke down during Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s laidback reign. Umno had won the “chicken” game before, and its junior partners forgot that Umno, too, could suffer if a collision were to happen. Also, Abdullah did nothing to stop Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, Khairy Jamaluddin and the likes of them from going overboard.

Imperial overstretch

Members of Bersih who organised a rally on 10 Nov 2007
to campaign for electoral reform
In a way, this is Umno’s “imperial overstretch”. Like the United States that it so loves to condemn, the hegemonic Umno has overstepped its boundaries.

The moment of truth finally came with Hindraf’s protest on 25 Nov 2007. Uninterested to be co-opted into state positions, Hindraf leaders boldly mobilised Indian Malaysians nationwide with a non-sequitur plan to sue the British government for the community’s marginalisation.

This is how Malaysian politics was fundamentally changed, notwithstanding the contribution of the lawyers’ walk for justice and the Bersih rally that paved the way for the Hindraf protest.

Umno was brought to face the political reality: race-based politics is a game of chicken, and Umno itself can suffer damage if its opponents choose not to swerve. Umno could not do much other than detain the Hindraf five and embark on some small-scale witch hunts. But these measures were not enough to stop up to 80% of Indian Malaysians voting against the BN on 8 March 2008.

However, that Umno could be dethroned by non-Malays is too harsh a reality for its politicians, with the possible exception of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. The rest are in denial. This is why Datuk Ahmad Ismail blundered, shot Umno in the foot, and remains defiant until today.

In this sense, Umno needs to wake up before its assembly next March. This wake-up call should have been the function of the Gerakan convention last week. It is also what the MCA assembly this week needs to accomplish. This wake-up call is more important than Umno’s own leadership election.

The MCA and Gerakan are already unlikely to make a comeback in any of the Pakatan-ruled states come next elections. They may even be wiped out in Negeri Sembilan and Melaka. And only with luck might they survive as a Johorian state party.

Koh, speaking to reporters after Gerakan’s
national delegates conference held from 10 to
12 Oct 2008
They need a firm commitment from Umno at its assembly next March for the reinvention of the BN to prevent their respective political deaths.

To wake Umno up, they need to send Umno an ultimatum for reform.

Missed opportunities?

And for those who count on Abdullah to deliver, he may have not even have five months to do this. He effectively only has two months to table all the bills for the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), the Independent Police Misconduct and Complaints Commission (IPCMC), and the Malaysian Commission on Anti-Corruption (MCAC), before Parliament adjourns on 11 Dec.

By convention, the Malaysian Parliament is not convened before March, and it is unlikely that Umno leaders will make an exception in 2009. And this chance may be seized by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to launch a new attack.

Short of such a change-or-divorce ultimatum, Gerakan and the MCA would need some very strong signals, like electing a Malay vice-president for Gerakan.

More than the appointment of Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim as DAP vice-chair, an ethnic Malay Gerakan vice-president would say to Umno: “Going multiracial is a must! We are embracing Malays whether or not you embrace non-Malays.”

Gerakan did not do that. It just intends to recruit more non-Chinese. The party did not even have a debate on Gerakan’s future in the BN.

Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon is probably worried that he might go down in history as Gerakan’s last president if he pulls the party out of the BN. But the party’s recent convention may have just marked the beginning of its dying process.

Koh needs to cross his fingers that from now until March 2009, no Umno leader will say anything nasty about non-Malays or the BN’s junior coalition partners.

However, now that Abdullah is gone, who else can Umno’s leaders attack to differentiate themselves from each other?

Bubbly (© Min Broughton/
And without a clear mandate from the party’s convention, Koh may need to endure another photo-tearing session somewhere.

Ironically, a Gerakan that has failed to save itself and by extension Umno, may now need the MCA for its rescue.

Let’s say the MCA assembly sees real debate on its future in the BN and a surprise in the election of at least either of the top two posts. This would be a signal Umno cannot ignore.

Otherwise, enjoy your last glass of champagne. The night may still be young, but the party will soon be over.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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6 Responses to “Who you calling chicken?”

  1. joehancl says:

    NOW you are showing some guts. That’s the way to write. 1 is 1, 2 is 2 and no dilly dallies. Is this guy on your staff, Nut Graph? He should be.

  2. hamzah says:

    To Ketuanan Rakyat!

  3. csk says:

    Resistance is inevitable when Umno Malays have gone over the boundary of tolerance. Economic hardship and protest votes remain the main reasons why Barisan lost the 5 states.

  4. David says:

    I wish the BN component leaders would agree with you.

  5. beh cs says:

    They (MCA, MIC, Gerakan, and the 12 other BN component parties) don’t have the guts to tell Umno to ‘stop the rot’ before it gets worse. When asked if he intends to abolish ISA, AAB told the reporter even the USA have their own version of ISA but he conveniently forgot that the laws are aimed at terrorists not reporters, MPs or bloggers. At the MCA convention, when OKT told Umno not to be a bully, AAB said, “Where got bully.” Always in denial mode. All those component parties should leave the BN. They can either join the Pakatan Rakyat or be independent – they have nothing to lose. Someone once said “When money is lost, something is lost but when dignity is lost, everything is lost.”

    Do the right thing, quit now or be damned forever.

  6. charles tee says:

    I think your analysis is fair and reflects the current sentiment of Malaysians. I’ll be concerned that if the situation continues, these political groups may head in separate directions, and the immediate economic recession will hit Malaysia severely without any solutions.

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