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Universiti Malaya's fall in Times Higher Education Supplement (Thes) ranking, the dip in FDI (foreign direct investment) and a drop of five places in Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2006 (from 39th to 44th place) are snapshots of the country's general decline and the losing battle for international competitiveness in face of the challenges of globalisation.

Instead of addressing these critical issues, including corruption, some delegates at the recent Umno general assembly delivered fiery racist and seditious speeches, coupled with insensitive keris-wielding at the bogeyman in the form of the non-Malay community and three senior leaders of BN component parties.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak admitted that some speakers had gone overboard, saying they were inexperienced when debating sensitive racial issues. However, he cautioned those angered by these speeches not to assume that what one or two delegates said represented the stand of Umno. This stance shows that the top leadership is still in a state of denial.

In the first place, the delegates in question could hardly be described as inexperienced. Media reports says that Umno Youth exco member Azimi Daim, who said when tension rises, 'the blood of Malay warriors will run in our veins' is a veteran of Umno assemblies. The Umno Youth chief, who unsheathed, waved and kissed the keris, could hardly be described as inexperienced. And Perlis delegate Hashim Suboh, who asked the Umno Youth chief when he was going to use it (the keris) was also no newcomer.

And the delegate Mohamed Rahmat who warned 'Please don't test the Malays; they know amok. We don't want to reach that level' was a former Barisan Nasional and Umno secretary-general and by no stretch can be described as inexperienced. In fact, all were very experienced when debating sensitive racial issues.

If what one or two delegates said did not represent the stand of Umno, how does one account for the loud and pervasive applause whenever such racist, seditious statements were made?

If they were just exceptional deviants, why are they not hauled up or reprimanded by Najib (as party whip) or the disciplinary body of the party for making these incendiary statements especially when the party president had specifically directed at a closed-door council session on Nov 13 that delegates should be careful not to hurt the feelings of BN component party members when championing issues?

Instead of disciplining party miscreants, the first thing that came to mind was to stop live telecasts of future Umno general assemblies which may be construed as a tacit licence for the continuance of such behaviour away from public glare. The proper action is to discipline them and continue the live telecasts as a deterrent so that no one would dare to repeat such behaviour in public the next general assembly around.

BN leadership is in a state of denial because it does not realise how much damage this playing of racial card has done to its image as a government for all Malaysians for the imminent general elections.

The racial card that worked in the past may not be efficacious now when it has been portrayed as a camouflage to benefit not the ordinary Malays but privileged Umnoputras and their cronies as a class. Had this message come only from ex-Asli executive director Dr Lim Teck Ghee, when he spoke of how the NEP's implementation had created intra-Malay cleavages, it may not have been believed.

But this message also came from two prominent Malay leaders - one is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who has for past one year, in his current tiff with present premier, spoken his mind on corruption and cronyism. The other influential Malay leader is Anwar Ibrahim who has come forth to clearly state, and I quote, '... the vast majority of Malays now begin to understand that the New Economic Policy is now becoming a gimmick for those in power in Umno to virtually rob wealth opportunities for themselves, their families and their cronies'.

So it is not just a question of these incendiary racial speeches alienating non-Malays in general and Chinese voters in particular but also the question of whether they (these statements), as a time tested and tried method to whip up general Malay voter support, has become obsolescent in light of what the two prominent Malay leaders themselves said.

No one knows at this moment the extent to which the traditional Malay voting base may be affected by two prominent Malay leaders jointly criticising Umno or its leadership and how the confluence of such powerful detractors will change the equation of Malay support for the government.

If the results of recent Sarawak election are anything to go by, these developments, coupled with the general deterioration of the general economy, rising corruption and inflation will militate against the BN in the coming general election especially if the DAP should deem it fit to collaborate and combine with the Anwar-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) by reason of the common platform against the abuses of the NEP.

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