Umno's recent brickbats against both Dr Koh Tsu Koon and Ong Tee Keat have shaken the foundation of the Barisan Nasional political partnership. The impact has prompted Najib Razak, the front's second-in-command, to assure the public and its partners that the BN spirit of cooperation is still intact and alive. Nonetheless, some people, especially a number of the BN leaders, are not amused.
A number of Gerakan and MCA leaders have responded publicly and angrily to the criticisms hurled at both leaders. Although the response is not unprecedented but the magnitude of the reaction against Umno's racially nuanced criticisms is not a norm either. The usual practice of the BN way is to resolve issues through an official channel which is out of bound to media representatives.
In Koh's case, the displeasure of both Gerakan and MCA leaders is stemmed from the fact that some of the Umno leaders openly attacked the chief minister of an intended neglect of the Malay community in Penang. On one hand, Umno especially its deputy Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin is trying to justify the criticism as a benevolent act to champion the interest of the Malay community. On the other hand, the non-Malay leaders are accusing some Umno leaders of a selfish act of communal heroism.
Failing in their demands to rotate the chief ministership amongst the main component parties, to place the state administration under federal control and to appoint an additional chief minister, the Umno state leadership had succeeded in grabbing the attention of the party's national leaders especially Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, his deputy and the movement's youth chief.
Abdullah, at an Umno Tanjung divisional meeting, has demanded Koh to react immediately to the marginalisation of the Malay community. Hishammuddin wanted an unconditional immediate action to be taken to address the issues faced by the Malay community. Najib wanted more executive power to be transferred to the deputy chief minister.
In the end, it was a clever bluff. Umno Penang knew that it was politically not viable to take over the chief minister post. Instead, it had wanted more government projects and development funds under the 9MP to be funnelled to its members. It succeeded in getting several political concessions from the chief minister.
Moreover, Koh, known for his consensual style of politics, has been asked to act as a chief minister of all Malaysians in the most un-Malaysian way. It is yet to be seen if the manner in which the chief minister reacted to these demands by setting up two committees to look into the development of the Malay community in Penang is effective and useful since nothing is being done to substantiate and identify the real problems.
In the last few years, similar issues of neglect were directed at the state government. First, the state of the public bus system is pathetic. The recent attempt by the state government to overhaul the bus route to avoid direct competition between the bus operators has failed miserably and irked many commuters. The state government had hoped for a loan of RM50 million from the federal government to buy more buses. The hope has evaporated in the same manner as the money saved from the reduction of oil subsidy due to global oil price hikes.
At present, the public bus system is still being run by four almost bankrupt and equally pathetic operators. The public bus system plays a key role in facilitating the mobility of the lower income group of all communities. Have the first and second finance ministers, both from Penang, responded swiftly to the SOS call from the state government? Their silence is deafening.
Second, the Tanjung Umno division chief is right to note that poor Malay families are being pushed out of Georgetown. He is right because he is only interested in looking at the problem from a communal viewpoint. The poor from all communities are being pushed out of Georgetown and some parts of the island due to higher property prices and cost of living. Once a thriving financial and business district, Georgetown has turned into a ghost town.
The state government blamed it on the lack of development funds and state-owned land to enable it to do something. The private sector blamed the state government on the lack of policy initiative and strategic direction to help reinvent Georgetown, which has not even achieved a city status.
But the Umno Tanjung division can be proud of its spanking new office at the heart of the town. The newly refurbished pre-war building may be an icing on the cake for Umno Penang but the money could have been used to help the 'marginalised' Malay instead. What have the state and federal leaders done to address the marginalisation of the poor of all communities in Georgetown?
Third, the island economy is long overdue of a need to reinvent itself. The outgoing Komag CEO TH Tan has fired a recent salvo calling for the dismantling of investPenang, an outfit to promote investment and industrial development in Penang for its failure to do a good job. He alleged that many MNCs (multinationals) are reluctant to invest more in Penang due to the difficulty of finding good SMIs (small and medium-side industries) to outsource some parts of their production.
Because of our highly centralised system, the state government is highly dependent on the federal government for economic direction and development aid. This is by no mean to suggest that the state government is totally helpless on its own. We need both a dynamic state leadership and a forthcoming federal support to move the state forward by creating more economic opportunities to be enjoyed by all communities. The 9MP earmarked for a northern economic corridor. The corridor must leverage on the industrial strength and know-how of the island for it to be meaningful and successful.
In a nutshell, it is clear that the state government by itself cannot succeed in reinventing Penang, a crucially needed step to ensure the state remains as an attractive and competitive industrial hub. The federal government, lead by a Penangite, should respond positively to the challenge of making Penang a shining pearl again. The state and federal government must address issues pertaining to access of healthcare, education, public transportation, economic opportunities, housing and public amenities of all communities especially those at the lowest strata of the society regardless of race and religion.
While Koh is criticised for his inaction, Deputy Higher Education Minister Ong Tee Keat is flayed for his over enthusiasm in undertaking issues beyond his official jurisdiction. Ong had alleged that funds for renovation of two Chinese schools in Johor were siphoned. The allegation turned out to be true. Lucky that Ong has both a strong heart and steady legs. He was chastised by Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for making an irresponsible allegation.
Subsequently, Ong was reprimanded by the cabinet and reminded by the deputy prime minister to mind his own official business. All these were done without an effort to uncover the truth, which is an utter disrespect to the people's mandate given to Ong as a member of parliament to act without fear or favour.
When asked about the double standards practiced by Umno in Koh and Ong's incidents, Najib reasoned that it was politics in the former and government in the latter. Again some of the BN leaders and most of the political analysts are not amused. Either we have read the wrong books on politics or Najib is misleading.
However, both the incidents bear some similarities. First, contrary to the deputy prime minister's statement that all's well in BN, it is clear that other component parties are being marginalised politically by Umno. The more than 50 years of socialisation and cooperation within BN has failed to institutionalise a common code of ethics which ensure a fair treatment of all members in the coalition. Umno sets, defines, changes and interprets the rules and regulations to its own whims and fancies.
Second, the incidents have created public embarrassments for both Gerakan and MCA which may have a political ramification to both parties. Bound by the BN way of solving issues, Koh is seen to have demonstrated a weak leadership in handling the criticism. The treatment he received from some of the Umno leaders, e.g. anti-Koh banner at the Umno Tanjung assembly, is considered as disrespectful of the incoming Gerakan president. The damage to Koh's political stature is unsure but this incident is definitely not a welcoming prelude to his stewardship of Gerakan.
Meanwhile, Ong was the immediate past MCA Youth chief and a contemporary of Hishammuddin. He is the current party vice-president. The treatment he received for commenting against the abuse and misappropriation of public funds has generated furore amongst some segments of the society especially the Chinese community. Moreover, Chinese education is seen as a domain under the MCA's care. The half-hearted support Ong received from his party is seen as an unwillingness of the party's leadership to antagonise Umno. The ramification: refer to the first point.
Finally, these two incidents have amplified racism in the country. Nation building and the creation of a truly Bangsa Malaysia is still a work in progress or regress? The indication has suddenly become very clear - racial politics is here to stay for a long while despite the promises of Vision 2020.
The prime minister has to work harder to convince Malaysians that he is in control and that he is the master of his own destiny to become a prime minister of all Malaysians. The people still believe that he is sincere. An immediate first step he needs to take is to weed out the racial bigots from his administration and his party.