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MGG: Confusing the Confuser [Meritocracy]
By M.G.G. Pillai

16/8/2001 9:57 pm Thu

Confusing the Confuser

This thinly-guised one-sided debate on meritocracy has no purpose than punish those Malays who desert in droves UMNO and the government it leads. The UMNO supreme council met to agree on meritocracy, only to dissemble after. This is normal. Once it did not matter. All agreed with their hearts and minds about what the UMNO president proposed. Not any more. Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, the Prime Minister and UMNO president, finds the going rough these days. So with his laudable plans for meritocracy in public universities. The supreme council solemnly agreed with him, but its members dissembled once outside, as often these days. UMNO and the government talked at cross purposes. Meritocracy is all right, but only within the special bumiputra quotas which allow the unfit in to fill irrevocable quotas. And so, another UMNO supreme council agreed to introduce it in stages. The confuser is now confused: it is merit for some, and mediocrity for the rest, but all would be admitted.

The UMNO supreme council is more important than Parliament. Dr Mahathir and his UMNO cabinet members would not dare miss a meeting as they would with impunity in Parliament. They would not shirk questions in the supreme council as regularly in Parliament. It is rare for ministers to answer questions addressed at them; that is relegated to deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries. So, with no surprise, UMNO supreme council decides, Parliament not informed, the cabinet enforces it, with no discussion or position paper. The minister of education is surprised at what it means in practice. UMNO vice presidents shiver at the consequences. But the Prime Minister's edicts are as irrevocable in Malaysian officialdom as Zues's from Mount Olympus in Ancient Greece.

But merit as Dr Mahathir defines it is political: the UMNO youth chief, Dato' Hishamuddin Hussein, is for it as strongly now as he was against it a few months ago. He and his UMNO youth went on a rampage a few months ago when a Chinese cultural group suggested it as one option for a Malaysian nation. But when When policies are announced like Olmypian edicts, it requires an unshakeable ground swell of support to carry it through. UMNO's good luck is that until the culturally unfortunate events of 1998, it had that. It has lost that now, and must wean that support back but not on its terms. But UMNO sees that desertion as treachery and punishes the Malay for it.

If it wants to be back in favour, UMNO must reform from within. That is but impossible. The corruption and the perks so comfortable that UMNO, and, by extension, its coalition partners, would fight tooth and nail to be deprived of them. Blood and gore there must be, with none ready for it: the Anwar blood and gore is too recent for UMNO leaders, especially when they could be victims. Besides, the perks of office are too good to want to be forced out. We see that in a small way: the MCA, MIC, Gerakan and other coalition party leaders cling to office long after they are an albatross to their party. For UMNO it is more.

So merit is the latest weapon to punish the Malay for thinking the unthinkable proposition of UMNO's invincibility, a tactical diversion to not rethink its strategic worldview. None in UMNO or National Front could surgically remove deadwood in UMNO and National Front leadership without a revolution within. So, Dr Mahathir's targetting of undergraduates is mystifying. His actions suggest that the undergraduates-to-come would be as obstreperous and defiant of authority as the current lot. It is a dangerous view to hold, for it reflects the targetting of undergraduates as perenially anti-government. There are side issues, mostly laughable, like forcing lecturers and undergraduates to sign contracts so that cabinet ministers and UMNO leaders would not be booed in campus.

When instruments of state bend its will to UMNO's overwhelming dominance, it did not matter. But when they would not now -- the judges for one, the civil servants for another -- UMNO's ship of state heads for the rocks. When ignoring this, the captain hectors, the Malay sea waves threaten to engulf the ship before it hits the rocks. So, it tells us to suspend what we know to be true to accept what is not. We are doing well because Putrajaya tells us, against what we now and see around us, we are.

What UMNO would not see is that in all three major communities in Malaysia -- the Malay, Indian, Chinese, Kadazan, Dayak -- the cultural aversion to their political leaders and parties in the National Front is near permanent. It did not matter when UMNO was intact. It is different now. As for meritocracy, if only Malay students admitted to public universities would only join UMNO and not oppose what opposition parties, like PAS, find objectionable, UMNO could heave a breath of fresh air. But that fresh air, in how UMNO handles undergraduates, is more distant than the fresh air pushed out by the haze we have over Kuala Lumpur.

M.G.G. Pillai