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Instead of using the occasion to speak to an anxious nation worried about its future or demonstrate that it has the will and the capacity to rise to greatness again, delegates took the low road to bigotry and parochialism.

Party conferences often provide an insight into the soul of a political party – its mindset, its ideas, its mood, its convictions, the quality of its leaders. For many Malaysians, the insights that the recently concluded UMNO General Assembly provided was profoundly disturbing.

Instead of using the occasion to speak to an anxious nation worried about its future or demonstrate that it has the will and the capacity to rise to greatness again, delegates took the low road to bigotry and parochialism.

In so doing, they reminded the nation yet again that theirs is a party with no real solutions, no great ideals, no enduring principles and no inspiring leadership. 

Unchecked racism

In a nation brought up to believe in diversity and multiculturalism, even if only nominally, it was shocking to see so much unchecked racism on display.

One delegate, for example, fumed that a Chinese is heading a government-linked company. “GLCs belong to us, but why are we giving them (top positions) away to other races,” she asked. (Interestingly, she made no mention about the non-Malay who helms 1MDB.)

Another delegate lamented that the Transport Ministry is currently headed by a non-Malay and equated that with a loss of opportunities for Malays.

Yet another referenced Indian attacks in the 11th century, alleged Chinese collusion with the Portuguese in the 16th century, and Thai attacks in the 18th century to stress that Indians, Chinese and Thais should not be ungrateful for being allowed to live in Malaysia despite their earlier treachery.

And there were threats of collective punishment too. The Chinese were warned that there could be serious consequences, including the closure of Chinese schools, if they continued to reject UMNO-BN. Penangites, for their part, were cautioned that their international airport might be moved out of the state if they continued to support the opposition.

The most risible of all, however, was the claim that non-Muslims oppose hudud because they want to keep the Malay-Muslim community in a sinful state, weaken them and eventually take over the country. I wonder if that particular delegate understood the implications of his own statement – that somehow, despite the oft-repeated claim that Malaysia is already an internationally respected Islamic state, Muslims here are still “living in sin.”

Meanwhile, one fawning senior delegate went so far as to even proclaim that the party leader has been chosen by God, that he has some sort of divine mandate to rule. Coincidentally, it came on the same day that the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who claimed to be God’s “preferred candidate” lost his re-election bid. Inscrutable are the ways of the Almighty indeed.

And then there was the Redshirts leader – race-baiter extraordinaire – receiving the adulations of admiring delegates. Clearly, he is a hero to the UMNO crowd despite their protestations to the contrary, and that too speaks volumes of the prevailing sentiment in UMNO.

Reckless, dangerous and injurious

UMNO apologists would, of course, have us believe that these racist sentiments and statements were merely the ramblings of a few overly-excited members or that such rhetoric was intended only for internal consumption, to fire up the troops, to promote greater cohesion within the party.

If that was the objective, it was reckless, dangerous and deeply offensive – a sign of just how desperate they are.

Besides, racism is racism, after all, no matter how it is packaged or practised. Any party that seeks to unite its members or seeks to justify its uniqueness or claims a special right to rule by demonizing other racial groups is a racist party that ought to be condemned by all Malaysians.

In any case, the party leadership, far from disassociating itself from the bigotry that surfaced at the assembly, appears to have set the very tone for it.

The DAP (which as Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs pointed out, with some justification, is merely a code word for Chinese) was singled out and pilloried as anti-Malay, anti-Islam, anti-monarchy and anti-constitution. In addition, it was argued that if the DAP came to power, Malay institutions like MARA, FELDA, RISDA and FELCRA would be dismantled while Malay fishermen, farmers and smallholders would be abandoned.

Worse still was the highly inflammatory claim that Islam itself would be ridiculed if the DAP came to power. It was pure fearmongering and race-baiting, calculated to sow religious discord and hate.

It didn’t seem to matter much that none of the above allegations have any merit. It didn’t matter that other Malay-led parties like PKR, PAS, Amanah and Bersatu are also deeply critical of UMNO and just as determined to defeat it at the next elections. And it didn’t matter that the DAP by itself has about the same chance as a snowball in hell of taking over the country.

A national embarassment

By singling out only the DAP the way they did, UMNO leaders cast Malaysian politics as an existential struggle between Malays and Chinese. In such a scenario, there can be little room for compromise, for give and take. It promotes a zero-sum game of politics. It divides the nation into warring camps perpetually at each other’s throats. And it reinforces racial and religious bigotry as the dominant narrative.

Moreover, it scorns the many decent Malaysians of all ethnicities who cherish their diversity, who live, practice their faith and work together in peace. Unsurprisingly, many, Malays included, were simply and rightly embarrassed by what transpired at the general assembly.

Some reports also suggest that more thoughtful UMNO members were themselves disappointed at the paucity of serious policy debate and disappointed by the tone set by the party leadership.

For these reasons, UMNO’s focus on scaremongering and race-baiting might well prove to be counterproductive in the long run. By recklessly playing up racial issues, the party has lost credibility. By ignoring the critical issues facing the nation, it has drawn yet further scrutiny to its own dismal record in power.

Its up to the opposition now

After this general assembly, UMNO would be hard pressed to convince the nation that it has not turned its back on racial and religious diversity in favour of purely sectarian politics.

BN parties, already struggling to remain relevant, have also been dealt a fatal blow. Non-Malays in particular will find it difficult to trust political parties that are associated with the very party that despises and denigrates them as an existential threat, as interlopers and enemies of the faith.

Malaysia’s future as a secular multiracial democracy now rests with the leaders of PKR, DAP, Bersatu and Amanah.

If they cannot forge at this critical juncture in the life of our nation a united opposition with at least a minimal platform that respects racial and religious diversity, that upholds the constitution, that promises good governance and respect for the rights of all, then we are well and truly damned.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 12 December 2016]