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PPBM vice-president Rashid Rahman’s call for contracts to be given to PPBM division chiefs and the enthusiastic response it elicited throws a spotlight on two particularly odious aspects of Malaysian politics – the idea that you can buy your way to power and the idea that members of the ruling party have a right to “receive their returns for serving the party,” (as one PPBM leader put it).

It takes money, of course, to compete in elections, but in democracies, political parties win by selling a vision, a political agenda to voters. If the vision is appealing enough, voters will not only vote for the party but support the party with their time and resources.

The power of vision

Pakatan’s victory at the May 9th polls is an excellent example of the power of vision. Pakatan won not because it outspent UMNO-BN or was able to buy off division chiefs; it won because it offered the people a compelling vision for the future. It was vision that inspired hundreds of thousands of Malaysians to give of their time and money to support Pakatan candidates.

Pakatan voters thronged ceramahs, townhall meetings and campaign rallies not because they were paid an attendance fee or offered free transport and food (like so many UMNO-BN voters] but because they bought into the vision of Pakatan. In the end, the vision of a new Malaysia became an unstoppable force, a force powerful enough to bring down a party that thought it could buy its way to power once again.

The DAP formula

In many ways, this was the DAP’s secret of success. In the long decades when it was in the wilderness, with no hope of ever winning power, enough people believed in and shared the party’s vision, and consequently gave of their time and money to keep the party going. The DAP didn’t depend on big donors and certainly didn’t have access to contracts to fund their election campaigns; it was their vision, and the support it generated, that kept the DAP going even in its darkest days.

It was tough, of course. Everyone had to make sacrifices; some even had to endure jail time. Vision often exacts a high cost from those who would be its standard bearers. Many of the bright young DAP leaders who today hold office in the Pakatan government gave up lucrative jobs in the private sector to serve the party with no expectation of ever enjoying governmental positions. Their only reward was the satisfaction of knowing they were doing what they thought was their patriotic duty.

The UMNO-BN approach

Contrast that attitude and spirit with that of UMNO-BN. If once there was vision, it was long gone by the time GE14 came around. All that was left was greed, self-aggrandizement and a determination to hold on to power by hook or by crook. At every level, there was an expectation of reward, not sacrifice.

Unsurprisingly, almost every UMNO-BN minister ended up millionaires (if not billionaires) many times over. If the truth about the wealth they scandalously amassed is ever made public, there would, undoubtedly, be demands to put on hold plans to abolish the death penalty until every last one of them had their day at gallows.

The more they came to depend on money politics to survive, the less they depended on vision. Well is it said that without vision people perish.

Stripped of access to easy money, UMNO is now slowing imploding as its members look for opportunities for self-aggrandizement elsewhere. There’s no talk within the party about “blood, sweat and tears” (to quote Churchill) for the long struggle ahead or the articulation of a compelling vision for the nation; it’s all about quick fixes and quiet deals to get back to power by hook or by crook.

Whither PPBM?

It’s a salutary lesson that PPBM, in particular, must heed because so much of its DNA is hewn from UMNO.

At the recently concluded PPBM general assembly, for example, discussions about winning “by hook or by crook” appeared to overshadow vision and public service. Division chiefs seemed more interested in what they could get instead of what they could do to serve the people. It was telling that one leader was quoted as saying that “division heads who do not get any funding from the party cannot organise programmes and will lose the interest and passion of members.” If the passion of party members is fuelled by handouts rather than the vision of building a better Malaysia, our faith in PPBM is entirely misplaced.

At the end of the day, PPBM must decide whether it wants to be UMNO in disguise or it wants to be a party of vision and exemplary public service. If it doesn’t decisively exorcize the demon of money politics once and for all, it will be destroyed by it as UMNO-BN was.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 14th January 2019]

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