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Moderate optimism in party democracy?

Posted on September 27, 2013, Friday

UMNO supreme council member Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah was quoted in the media on Wednesday with the headline ‘to recapture middle Malaysia, Umno needs Najib’.

Specifically, he went on to say “he is primarily very progressive. He is a democrat. He is a moderate leader … he knows that he cannot please everyone. But I think he is trying his level best to be as centrist as possible”.

It is comforting to read these views in an environment where moderate voices seem crowded out, and it is most appropriate that he has been given a suitable platform from which to articulate those views as chief executive officer of the Global Movement of the Moderates Foundation.

While not everyone might agree with Datuk Saifuddin’s assessment, even Datuk Seri Najib’s most trenchant critics target what they see as his inaction and capitulation to pressure rather than suggesting that he is racist or extreme.

A plausible hypothesis emerging from ‘Awakening: the Abdullah Years in Malaysia’ (and responses to that book) is that Malaysian voters would have returned the party to similar electoral strength in 2008 as in 2004 had the party president been more decisive in battling internal opponents.

There are of course others who have been labelled moderates in the party, and their performance will be used as a gauge of grassroots sentiment. This is helped by the more democratic system that Datuk Seri Najib put in place soon after becoming party leader.

It is now easier for a member to become a candidate, and the number of voters is much larger.

In the last party election only around 2,500 delegates could vote (less than the least populated parliamentary constituency), but this time around 150,000 will vote for the top posts (more than the electorate of Perlis) – through the mechanism of an electoral college system (the winner needs a plurality of votes from the 191 divisions, where in each division it is winner takes all).

My Umno friends say this makes them the most democratic political party in Malaysia. That needs academic scrutiny, but clearly such an increase in voters makes it much more difficult for practitioners of money politics to succeed: not everyone can be enticed with cash and promises of contracts, and thus ideas should matter more.

When Tunku Abdul Rahman received 57 votes to secure a large majority to become Umno president in 1951, no one contemplated that money changed hands before those hands went up at the Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. It was all about ideas and strategies in how best to attain Merdeka. A brilliant strategy it was, the Alliance winning 51 out of 52 seats in Malaya’s first elections in 1955.

It will be hard to recapture that same sense of energy and optimism today, and furthermore the moderates, who are already seen as a minority group within the party, face sustained attacks especially from the ‘right wing’ of the party, whose minions work to expose treacherous ‘liberals’. Indeed, even if on an issue one might agree 95 per cent of the way, they will focus on the 5 per cent difference of opinion. Certainly some did not understand my point about loathing a detestable communist terrorist but nonetheless subscribing to the rule of law, lest we become the very thing we fought so hard against. The wilful lack of nuance makes it seem as if enemies are being sought or constructed to foster unity in opposing such enemies, rather than nurturing a more inspirational sort of unity through articulating fresh ideas.

Seemingly outside of the fray, this week there was plenty of straight-talking moderation from one Umno veteran who decided not to throw his hat into the ring for the party presidency one more time. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah gave a lecture provocatively titled ‘Malaysia and the Non-Fulfilment of the 20 and 18 Point Agreements with Sabah and Sarawak’ on Wednesday for the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS), and then spoke about his National Stakeholder Economic Action Plan (‘The Amanah Plan’) on Thursday at Yayasan Mahkota’s new Economic Roundtable. At both, my fellow audience members remarked that few of his parliamentary colleagues – from either side – would be capable of such intellectually demanding events.

With only weeks to go before the polls, many of the party’s detractors are convinced that little will change, and that there is slim hope for the moderates to rise. Yet, the party members I know are extremely possessive of their voting rights and insist they won’t be swayed by any bullying and cajoling from party officials: “We will vote with the future of the country in mind”, they assure me. If they do, then that could be good for democracy well beyond the party.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.

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