Saturday, November 8, 2008

OBAMA & UMNO ~ by Karim Raslan

Karim Raslan | MySinchew | 6 Nov 2008

Let us compare the politics of two nations - the United States and Malaysia. We are often told that we should not import "foreign influences" into our politics - but globalization renders this moot.

With his historic candidacy and extraordinary personal narrative, Senator Barack Obama - the son of a Kenyan civil servant and an anthropologist from Kansas with (in his own words) "a funny-sounding name" has upturned the Washington establishment.

Now, this mixed-race, elite-educated lawyer and first-time senator appears poised to bring renewal and hope to a country wracked by eight years of Republican misrule epitomized by George W. Bush's disastrous White House.

For all the talk of racism, Obama appears to have secured much of the support of "middle America." At the same time he's also managed to engage both America's minorities and youth- most of whom have felt marginalized from the political debate.

However, this fact appears to have escaped McCain and his strategists. They have run a campaign largely fuelled by fear: fear of the unknown and the foreign. Rather than debate on the issues and America's a rapidly imploding economy, the Republicans have run a sleazy, scare-mongering campaign, highlighting Obama's 'foreign-ness' at every opportunity.

Furthermore, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska as his running mate has been polarizing. Her limited personal achievements matched by her insular world views have undermined confidence in McCain's judgement. Whilst Palin has energized the Republican base, polls suggest that her selection has backfired amongst the broader voting public who are less ideological and extreme in their views.

Obama has risen with class and fortitude above the ugly attacks. His election would not only be a victory for African-Americans, but for the United States as a whole as it restores and renews its battered integrity. Still, the final decision is in the hands of ordinary Americans as the world holds its breath.

(Image from Malaysia Today)

The situation in Malaysia is sadly very different. Unlike Obama, our politicians are not seeking to inject hope or even competence into public life. This is no more evident than in Umno. The ruling party (much like the Republicans) has evidently chosen to respond to electoral defeat by becoming more conservative and fearful.

Umno appears not to have realized how much corruption, inefficiency and racism have turned off Malaysian voters of all races, including the Malays. Money politics remains endemic, as the head of the Umno's Disciplinary Board; Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen has been forced to admit.

The party's ongoing rejection of genuine talent in favour of those with money and family connections is driving away young Malay professionals. This has meant that those who could do so much to revitalize Umno, are throwing their support to the more meritocratic Opposition. Even a cursory watch of the Parliamentary broadcasts will tell you that the party is suffering because of it.

Amazingly, Umno seems to feel that the mere removal of Abdullah Badawi and a return to the authoritarianism of the Mahathir years will repair the party's fortunes. In the face of calls for new politics and fresh faces it has put forward veritable political dinosaurs - men such as Rais Yatim, Rahim Thamby Chik, Syed Hamid Albar and Muhammad Taib – leaders past their prime who should really be happily retired.

At the same time I cannot understand how Mohd Khir Toyo can be a serious candidate for the Head of Umno Youth. Surely, it is inconceivable that a leader who had lost his state to the Opposition should not only be allowed to contest for a top post but even receive popular support at that.

In this respect, Umno's all-powerful divisional leaders may be the source of its problems. Their influence is disproportionate to their contributions to the nation. The fact that they can throw their support behind such low-calibre personalities suggests that they do not have our best interests at heart.

Many of the leaders who they are flocking to are also very similar to Sarah Palin in that they lack verve or experience. They may be well-regarded in the party, but what of the nation as a whole? As Malaysia seeks developed status, we shouldn't compromise with the second-rate in our politics.

In this respect, I'm afraid the current slate of candidates does not inspire confidence. Whilst leaders like Mohd Ali Rustam need to be popular with the Umno faithful, Malaysians of all races need to be comfortable with them and the sad fact is that very few are. One is not sure if these are the men and women that can revive the flagging Barisan Nasional coalition either.

The fact that Najib Tun Razak, who has now secured the Presidency of Umno was forced to backtrack from his remarks about liberalizing the NEP shows that Umno's top leadership is not all-powerful. If Umno is serious about changing itself, then the momentum must come from its grassroots.

At a campaign rally, Obama was quoted as saying "Change happens because the people demand it". Umno can only be saved if its members realize this and move past from the bad faith and blunders that have blighted it thus far.