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MGG: Xenophobia at the UMNO meet
By M.G.G. Pillai

30/6/2001 2:30 am Sat


01-15 July 01


Xenophobia at the UMNO meet

By M.G.G. Pillai

The three-day UMNO general assembly last month (20-23 June) was yet another occasion for the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, to wean his magic over the delegates, who came down for some entertainment, hectoring from the leaders, to be told how they failed the national agenda by not making the Prime Minister proud of their achievements. Nothing that should have been discussed was. The most dramatic was the resignation of its treasurer of 17 years three weeks before the general assembly. It was barely raised at all. Nor were other issues.

Dr Mahathir has turned UMNO general assemblies into one of his own creation. With 20 years experience of it, he has become a past master in directing the delegates to rise up in xenophobic support. He tells them what they want to hear. None of his speeches at these gatherings can stand close muster. In fact, he has had the same theme year after year. He talks to the gallery, and they rise in enthusiastic support.

The debates are scripted to the last detail. Speakers are chosen for their ability to entertain, to make irrelevant comments on issues of the day, to send the delegates home happy in the belieft that everything is in safe hands. When the going gets rough, as this year when too many issues he did not want discussed had to be sidetracked, he attacked the foreigner and the Chinese and Indians. Xenophobia is an attractive option in any Malay crowd to rouse them to injured anger. This UMNO meet was no exception.

UMNO Youth calls to stop building Chinese and Tamil schools. The Prime Minister and UMNO president, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, denies it, but fans the xenophobic flames by attacking Chinese newspapers for ensuring the National Front's defeat in the Lunas byelection. The home minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, says his minister tracks all newspapers and if any breaches the law, their editors are hauled up and told.

So, when Dr Mahathir attacked the Chinese newspapers, it was more than the bearer of bad tidings attacked; it was to rouse the gathering to believe that its electoral failure in Lunas was caused by Chinese newspapers. The National Front lost Lunas because UMNO's failed to bring in the Malay vote. The UMNO youth leader, Dato' Hishamuddin Hussein, was in charge of the National Front campaign there, but he deserted it mid-way to answer a pressing need for a holiday with his family overseas.

The UMNO and National Front arrogance, compounded with more Mercedes Benzes and BMWs seen in Lunas, the wrong choice of candidate, and unable to counter the opposition's smooth campaign, caused its defeat. The Chinese vote was important, but it was not as important as the Malay. When UMNO could not deliver the Malay vote, the battle was all but lost. If it had, and the Chinese had not, the Prime Minister's complaints would have been valid.

The long and short of it is when the Malay vote is critical to UMNO, xenophobia surfaces. So, Dr Mahathir attacks the Chinese newspapers. He did not explain why he did nothing when the newspapers did. Indeed, if they had, his government would have acted quickly. It did not. Which suggests that the Prime Minister's remarks about Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press was to show how rascally the Chinese can be when it suits them.

None at the UMNO general assembly spoke of what was wrong with UMNO, and how its arrogant prescription on how Malaysia should be governed is now under attack, not just from the Malay community but from Malaysians in general. PAS is attacked for going to the ground and nurturning the Malay community. UMNO talks of going down to the ground to counter the growing challenge to its governance.

It talks of a cadre of speakers who could answer the opposition campaigns. It attacks PAS for its Islamic worldview, which in Dr Mahathir's view is not Islamic at all for it "shuns" development. But so long as UMNO leaders insist on attending ceremahs in remote villages in their Mercedes Benzes and PAS men on their bicycles, no amount of Chinese support can save them.

Instead of addressing these issues, the delegates were told the others -- MCA, MIC, Gerakan, PAS, Keadilan, DAP, the Chinese, the Indians, the anti-UMNO Indians, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim -- want to see UMNO and the National Front out of power. UMNO, more than the National Front, alone has the key to national wisdom. All others are anti-national.

UMNO loses sight of its goals. The glib belief that long years in office gives it immunity from attacks is now challenged. This came to the surface starkly in how the former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was humiliated, battered and jailed. It released the pent-up anger of the Malay community whose voice could not be heard, except in controlled sequences.

The geriatric UMNO leaders had an answer for every problem, and blamed everyone else for it but themselves. They did not accept they are the problem. UMNO and National Front leaders are out of touch with the rising generation. There seems to be a race amongst UMNO and National Front leaders who would remain longest at the helm.

But the grandchildren of the fathers of independence are out of touch with the National Front that has been in power since 1955. Dr Mahathir was a member of UMNO at its formation in 1946. His successor can never be, but that he is is as much the problem in UMNO as other factors. But he does not see it that way, and UMNO is in his absolute control for it to want to ask him to retire.

It is more important for the Prime Minister to continue at the helm than give way in the larger interests of the country. His autocratic hold is near total, but he is also isolated. There is no sign of this changing yet. So, the UMNO xenophobia is bound to be an important feature of the coming years. Race relations is headed for a rocky patch in the coming years. UMNO must fight to earn its support from its support base, the Malays. The cause for that is, of course, every one else. It is this denial syndrome that raises the ante. It is not one we should laud.

M.G.G. Pillai