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The recently concluded UMNO general assembly was, more than anything else, another reminder that the grand old party of Malaysian politics has run its course. At a time when the nation is beset by serious challenges both from within and from without, all the party could manage was to tilt at windmills and agonize about imaginary threats to race and religion. No longer capable of serious policy debate and unwilling to face up to its own failures, party members fell back on apple polishing and regurgitating tiresome old canards that only heightened their own sense of siege.

Jihad against imaginary foes

Checking reason at the door, they fed on their own fears and wallowed in their own prejudices while their discredited leadership camouflaged themselves as defenders of the faith and champions of the race.

One speaker called for a jihad against the enemies of the Malays and Muslims, thundering that “we know who our enemies are and we know what is their religion.” Another warned of dark plots to bring down the monarchy. Even the prime minister indulged in this reckless racial demagoguery warning that if UMNO lost power Islam would be ridiculed, the monarchy would be disrespected, Malay institutions would be marginalized or sabotaged and the Malays cast aside, insulted, damned and left destitute in their own country.

The only hope for keeping the “DAP Chinese” (code word for racial minorities that don’t toe the UMNO line] at bay, the prime minister appeared to suggest, was for UMNO to rule for a 1000 years. How convenient!

Smoke and mirrors

All the talk about defending race and religion is, of course, simply nonsense, a smokescreen to justify the existence of a party that has long outlived its usefulness. It’s all about distracting attention away from scandal and from the party’s shockingly dismal performance as a governing party.

The reality is that UMNO needs enemies to survive and if there are none, they must be invented because UMNO is politically bankrupt. It is trapped in its own narrative of race and religion and cannot see beyond it. The only way it can now cling to power is to conflate its own survival and its own fortunes with that of the Malays.

And so it boasts of having successfully fought for Malay rights and privileges for more than 60 years but argues that the Malays are still so weak and vulnerable that they could be snuffed out at any time. It prides itself on near mastery over every lever of state power but insists that the country’s disenfranchised minorities are powerful enough to wreck the entire system. It projects itself as defender of the faith but presides over a crony system that allows the faithful to be defrauded on a massive scale. It claims to be concerned about the future of the Malay race but its policies do more to hobble them than anything else. It relishes being the backbone of a multiracial coalition but savages other ethnicities constantly.

How they have been able to get away with it for this long speaks volumes about the sorry state of our nation.

Empty rhetoric

Unsurprisingly, not a single speech during what the prime minister called the “mother of all assemblies” was worthy of any intellectual attention. Not a single speaker offered thoughtful introspection about the kind of policies needed to move the nation forward. Not a single delegate had the courage to reference the issue that US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions called, right on the eve of the assembly, “kleptocracy at its worst” and demand answers.

Instead, they seemed to revel in the vulgar spectacle of a juvenile rabble-rouser attacking a cardboard cutout with a sledgehammer. One had only to listen to the Defence Minister muse about sending troops to liberate Jerusalem to appreciate just how hopelessly out of touch with reality they are.

Political parties are, of course, known to exaggerate their own importance, downplay scandal and try to put their best foot forward especially with an election looming, but given the critical state of the nation, was it too much to expect at least a little attention to serious policy issues?

Disdainful & offensive

At the end of the day, even though the Prime Minister insisted that his party is not racist, non-Malays listening in on the assembly most likely found little reason for hope. After some 60 years of independence, after all the shared sacrifices and hard work at building this nation, we are still viewed with suspicion and disdain, an existential threat to our fellow citizens and a convenient scapegoat for UMNO’s own failures. It may be all politics to UMNO but it is deeply offensive to the rest of us.

There was a time when non-Malays were more than willing to give their support to UMNO because it was seen to be fair and mindful of the interests of all Malaysians but that day is past. For now, we can only take some comfort from the fact that the last time a regime talked about a 1000-year reign it didn’t go so well for them.

Dennis Ignatius | 13th December 2017