A nice big hug (Pic courtesy of theSun)
AND so, after holding the sceptre of power for five and a half years, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi now passes it to Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
While Abdullah’s ascendance to power in 2003 was greeted with cheers from Malaysians, his retirement is being met with grave apprehension. This is not because his term in office was an exciting one. Rather, it is because the weakened state of Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is further aggravated by the low esteem in which Najib is being held.
Nevertheless, given how so many within Umno, including Najib himself, seem to buy into the idea that the eldest son of the second premier, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, is fated to be Malaysia’s leader, nothing has been able to stop Najib’s climb to the top.
But staying there will not be an easy business.
For one thing, there is no status quo that Najib can rest upon. He takes over the ship in the middle of a storm — a tsunami, if I may be allowed to use the tired imagery one more time — and so, his new administration has to move fast, and be seen to move fast, in one direction or another.
Making promises and then taking one’s time to fulfill them in watered-down form did not work for Abdullah, and for certain will not work for Najib.
Adopting Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s authoritarianism is not possible either, basically because Najib is not Mahathir; Umno and the BN have never been as weak as they are now; and Malaysians today — post-8 March — are not what they were a couple of decades ago.
The times are a-changing, and the more things change, the less they stay the same.
Wanted: New discourse
The crisis of confidence that Umno and its allies are suffering from is due to them ignoring a basic rule in nation building: the words of leaders must actually carry real meaning to a representative cross-section of the population. These words must touch people, excite them and give them hope.
A national discourse that expresses the gravity, integrity and sincerity of the government is vital to a country’s stability. Otherwise, why pay attention to a government that either threatens you, takes you for a fool, or embarrasses you?
Umno’s problem is that it allowed its own internal discourse to become the national discourse. The party’s excessive concerns about losing the religious vote made it lose both the non-religious and religious vote. Its outmoded rhetoric made it lose the vote of young Malaysians of all races. Its fixation with Malay dominance made it lose the non-Malay Malaysian vote. And its desire to make the party increasingly dominant made its allies weak and its enemies strong.
Historically, Umno did manage to conduct discourses that captured general attention and gained it the right to rule the country.
In the 1950s, the twin goals of gaining independence and fighting the communists led to inspired innovations such as the Alliance model and the so-called social contract between Umno and its coalitional allies.
The 1960s was a difficult period when the Malaysia project almost collapsed and the Indonesians posed a serious threat to the country. The riots of 1969 showed that Umno and the Alliance — the precursor to the BN — failed to rejuvenate the national discourse to deal with new socioeconomic challenges.
Radical reforms carried out since 1970 to transform the colonial economy into one more suitable for a multiracial nation state did bring stable growth. Although this was done at the price of muffling parliament and the public, there was sufficient support for the New Economic Policy (NEP) goals of diminishing economic disparities and professional differentiations between the major ethnic groups.
When the NEP officially ended in 1990, Mahathir managed to initiate the ideas of Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia. This allowed Malaysians to hope for the best in the near future while tolerating current discomforts.
With the 1997-98 crisis, Malaysia entered a new era. The Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim trials and the Reformasi movement split the country fundamentally. This was seen clearly in the 1999 general election results.
When Abdullah took over in 2003, his promise of institutional reforms functioned in lieu of a proper national discourse, and managed to unite the country for a while.
Once it was clear that his reform agenda had failed, Malaysia’s lack of a uniting discourse once again became apparent.
Now when Abdullah leaves the stage a disappointed man and Najib takes over, it is vital that the new leader tries to create a discourse that is inclusive rather than exclusive.
Should Najib fail to do that, he can be sure that the opposition will do its best to step right in.
Ooi Kee Beng is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book, Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi (Refsa 2009), is a collection of commentaries on Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s five years in power.