Umno in defeat: What now? — Clive Kessler

OCTOBER 20 — After its electoral repudiation by so many voters at GE14, Umno needs to think about its future prospects and direction. It now needs to look forward clearly. It can do so only by first looking backwards, honestly.

Dr Mahathir and his Vision 2020 again

One of the great ironies occasioned by recent events is that, some 15 years after his earlier retirement from his high office, Dr Mahathir is once more in charge of the nation as it now makes its final run to his target-date of 2020.

As outlined by him in 1991, Vision 2020 was comprised of nine key challenges. All of them were forward-looking and progressive, but together, as a package, they had a narrowly technical-economic character.

Yet there was, if one wanted to be critical, a missing dimension in his Vision 2020; or, if you wanted to be polite, encouraging and hopeful, it contained and assumed an implied tenth dimension, requirement or challenge. One that was not marginal but central and fundamental to the achievement of Vision 2020 with its nine declared goals as a whole.

Vision 2020 sketched an attractive end-state-of-affairs; but there could be no attainment of the end if you did not will and embrace the necessary means. Those were means that, here, were kept out of sight (and out of mind too?) in that tenth, implied or missing dimension.

Vision 2020 with its nine developmental challenges was essentially economic or technical in nature, at least as they are officially described. Yet the attainment of those objectives presumes and rests upon a complex ensemble of human, social and cultural correlates that might, for convenience, be summarised as “paraeconomic development” or “the cultivation of civil society”.

In this sense, whether it is widely recognised or not, the growth of civil society was not so much a “missing” (as an adverse criticism might have it) as an essential “implied dimension” of Malaysia’s Vision 2020.

The need to argue for the necessity of civil society to the achievement of modernity, and to question the vicarious or illusory modernity of “participation via consumerism”, was clear. There can be no accomplishment of modernity, no successful realisation of a culture of modernity, without modern people at the centre of things. The process of achieving modernity itself presupposes modern people. It presumes a life of citizenship beyond deference and apathy.

Why recall this old argument now, and in such detail? Not simply to underline the historical irony that direction of the Malaysian state has now returned into Dr Mahathir’s hands as the year 2020 nears. Rather, recalling these ideas helps us explain what happened at GE14 and why its results came to so many as a surprise.

A political straitjacket, a victory for civil society

An opposition victory at GE14 seemed unlikely given the fragmented and rather undeveloped, or incompletely resolved, nature — some less politely said inchoate, incoherent and chaotic — of the political opposition and its various components. Opposition to Najib’s Umno/BN in the explicitly political realm seemed weak, poorly organised, and lacking any clear, unified and coherent public voice. The state of the political opposition coalition loudly proclaimed this deficiency.

This was so. But one should have remembered that most Malaysians, with good reason, have long been reluctant to stick their heads up above the parapets in order to give brave voice to themselves in explicitly political terms. But it is not their fault. They have never really learned the language, thanks to Malaysia’s stultified educational system, or acquired the public voice for any deeply grounded public participation in the explicitly political sphere.

Speaking as servile supplicants bemoaning their “woes” (to use the preferred Malaysian idiom, as if these were heaven-sent afflictions rather than failures of government and public policy) or as resentful clients and disappointed dependents about their “grouses” (rather than the legitimate grievances): yes, that they know how to do.

But speaking as citizens, seeing and using the public realm as the inherently political terrain of citizens as rights-bearing and claim-affirming stakeholders in the nation and the business of its government? That does not come so easily to them. It is beyond what they have been educated and prepared for by their general and civic education.

Instead, what offers itself as the public political sphere in Malaysia is a realm where, largely unchallenged, the rhetorically inflated fantasies of ill-educated demagogues set the standards, and are the arbiter, of what is right and wrong.

Yet to focus upon this lack of opposition presence in the overt political realm was to overlook the genius that many Malaysians, including many Malays, have for networking — for making connections and conducting “busy-work”, and through it for informal mobilisation through NGOs — in the less than fully political space or “intermediate zone” of civil society.

If there is an explanation for the dramatic success of the opposition at GE14, it lies there: in its success in taking on the state commanded by Najib’s Umno/BN not by explicit frontal political assault but via the encircling and ultimately choking activity of civil society communication, sociability and organisations.

It was this popular mobilisation of diverse and even fragmented forces through civil society forms and processes that denied Najib’s Umno not just credibility and legitimacy but, in the end, political breath itself. Throttled by the force of NGO-type skills and activities, Najib’s campaign died of suffocation.

The defeat of Najib and his Umno/BN at GE14 was the remarkable achievement, in their large numbers, of those socio-culturally modern Malaysians who were presumed by but forgotten within Vision 2020 and its nine developmental challenges — who were implied by but written out of Dr Mahathir’s 1991 transcript of impending Malaysian modernity.

Acting as and embodying “civil society”, culturally progressive and socially modern Malaysians — the forgotten or excluded element of Dr Mahathir’s Vision 2020 — had mobilised to overturn Najib and, with its long dominance, Umno at the hand of none other than Dr Mahathir himself. It is the hugest of ironies. But a pleasant one.

Beyond civil society

Their amazing talent for networking and civil society activism enabled Malaysians, working together in independent and dispersed groupings, to throttle the old Umno/BN government and to stifle and stymie Najib’s desperate survival campaign. But winning an election, no matter how stupendous the achievement, is only one-half, and the easier half, of the job.

Beyond winning an election and the democratic mandate that it provides, the government that follows the old, exhausted regime must not fail. It must succeed and prevail. And it will not do so on “civil society skills” and sociability and communication alone.

A capacity for thinking and communicating and acting politically, in the full and explicit public sense of the term “political”‘, will be necessary. What is involved here is a bundle of skills and aptitudes that Malaysian citizens must develop, and which government itself, if it wishes to survive, must foster and encourage.

Citizens must master the political, learn to think and act politically, and find their own political voice. Ultimately, as the ancient Greeks knew and as political philosophers still remind us, the non-political person is an “idiot” — a creature only of her own private interests, his own personal inclinations, without public sense and spirit.

Deep origins of the victory

The opposition’s victory at GE14 was the culmination of a clear line of civil society development that, while its origins went back further, took decisive shape and assumed real force with Bersih in its first big public action in 2011.

It was Bersih, with its call for clean and fair elections, that first placed an identifying finger politically on the weak-point of the Umno/BN regime and its increasingly sclerotic governing modus operandi after its GE12 setback in 2008. It sensed, and it tapped into a deeply-held and widespread feeling — and in that way showed — that the connecting line or “drive-shaft” provided between government and people, between state and society, by the nation’s electoral system was fatally damaged and broken. That it could produce winners but no longer winners enjoying modern electorally-based democratic credibility and legitimacy.

Pushed ever harder and more dubiously to run elections that yielded Umno/BN as the winner, the electoral system had become increasingly, and eventually by 2018 totally, unable to deliver, from the results of the Election Commission’s all too artful work, an Umno-led government enjoying any plausible legitimacy.

Bersih unleashed a powerful civil society movement, a popular revolt in the name of society itself against a political structure and order that had become insensitive to and heedless of “the common interest of all members of society” that finds its idealised expression in the political equality of every vote, the opinion of every citizen, as a matter of democratic principle.

But the Bersih movement was not a self-starter, it did not create and unleash itself from nowhere, unaided. It was the product, through the Elections and Democracy in Malaysia book (Mavis Puthucheary & Norani Othman, eds., 2008) and project, of hard intellectual work informed by clear political thinking.

Civil society activism is itself dependent upon kinds of political consciousness and analysis, of explicitly political action and praxis, that exceed the horizons of civil society thinking. The political realm and the indispensability of political thinking cannot be denied; they cannot be wished away in a sentimentalising fog about civil society as a self-sufficient and comprehensive panacea for all social and political problems.

Home to roost: Election ‘finessing’ and legitimacy deficit

It was the ruling bloc’s growing legitimacy deficit, a political deficit and defect, that Bersih recognised and exposed. The more Umno/BN did — as it clearly felt it had to — to make sure it won, and kept winning, national elections, the more it destroyed its own democratic legitimacy.

It was this weakness — that Bersih saw and gnawed at, and which the Election Commission tried so desperately and recklessly and unconscionably to overcome — that doomed Najib’s Umno/BN to defeat. It was a fatal weakness that neither money nor control of the massive state apparatus could fix; and the more that Najib and his people tried to fix it, the more the “fixes” to which they had dubious and despairing recourse discredited and doomed them.

Najib’s government fell prey to a shortcoming that was clear to any proper, intellectually grounded political analysis of its situation; but it was a weakness to which Najib and his generals had wilfully and wantonly blinded themselves.

What happened in Malaysia in 2018 bears comparison with Poland in 1980-1981 and the Philippines in early 1986. What happened at GE14 was not just a standard political occurrence, a routine hand-over of state power from one political group or force to another of hitherto comparable standing. It was an eruption of society, or major parts of it, against the state and the fierce grip upon it of its hitherto dominating forces, of a long-entrenched but ever more narrowly-based ruling bloc.

It was another case study in what happens when, after years of hubris and abuse, a government and regime’s ruling legitimacy is exhausted. Once that is lost, all is lost. Nothing of great value from its long years in power remains.

Such defeats are bleak and lonely. Often, it is said, victory has many authors but defeat is an orphan; here, in Najib, Umno/BN’s defeat has, if not a father then a woeful supervising midwife. What does the legacy of Tun Razak, as mediated through Najib, leave behind?

Again, as Herzen remarked, the disappearance of exhausted and unlamented old forms of social order leaves behind not a grieving heir but a pregnant widow. We must now wait to see what the character of new child born from this political death will be.

It might be a merpatih, a soaring lark of Malay cultural, intellectual and spiritual emancipation. But it could prove — especially if PAS is the new child’s attending, and intrusive, midwife — a monster. Which? And who will decide?

* An excerpt from: ‘Umno: Looking Back, Going Forward’ (an epilogue to “Umno: Then, Now and Always?”) in the new, expanded, post-GE14 edition of ‘The End of Umno? Essays on Malaysia’s Former Dominant Party’ (SIRD/Gerakbudya, Petaling Jaya, 2018).

** Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

*** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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