Absolute power corrupted them absolutely

Dr V Sivapalan

Modified 12 Mar 2008, 9:28 am

The British historian and moralist Lord Acton first coined this phrase in 1887 ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men’. Nothing can be further from the truth when it came to the Umno and Barisan Nasional government prior to the just concluded elections.

Politicians - from Umno to MCA to MIC - are looking for excuses and reasons why they lost so badly in the elections. Barisan wants to form an ‘independent body’ to do a post-mortem on why it lost. Let me save them the trouble.

The simple reason why they lost was because Umno (and not BN) became so arrogant that they forgot that they were serving a multi-racial and multi-religious nation. If you read ‘Freakonomics’ by Steven D. Levitt, he says that the reasons why things happen can sometimes be traced back to one single event in the past which has a significant effect on the future.

In the 1970s and 1980s crime was rising at an alarming rate in the US especially among young people and predictions were that it would only get worse. Yet in the 1990s it started falling for no obvious reason. He found that the main reason why crime fell significantly in the 1990s could be traced back to the case of Roe vs Wade (1973) where abortion was legalised by the US Supreme Court. The rise in crime could be traced back to children born to young mothers from deprived backgrounds. Research showed that these children grow up in poor and underprivileged neighbourhoods and tend to commit crimes due to their difficult childhoods.

However, once abortion was legalised, the number of unwanted births dropped significantly from the 1970s and there were far fewer children from underprivileged backgrounds and hence less crimes by young people. It was therefore not a result of policies to reduce crime or education or even better policing that reduced crime, it was the simple act of legalising abortion.

In Malaysian politics, the undoing of BN can be traced back to their record setting win in the 2004 elections when BN won 92% of the seats in Parliament. Umno reigned supreme and it went to their heads. They now had absolute power and this corrupted them absolutely. Over the next four years, Umno ran roughshod over their coalition partners especially MCA and MIC.

The brandishing of the keris by Umno Youth leader Hishamuddin Hussein Onn was but one example of them glorifying their superiority over the other races. Holding the Umno assembly during Deepavalli was a latent action of displaying their superiority over the other races.

Overtly, Umno Vice President Mohd Ali Rustam’s statement at the PPP 2007 Assembly that the PPP could leave BN if it didn’t toe the line and that the BN didn’t need the Indian votes to win the election were a brazen example of the arrogance and superiority displayed by Umno over their so-called BN partners. This was no longer a partnership; it was a master-slave relationship. No prizes for guessing who was the master.

Other blatant examples was the wanton destruction of Hindu temples in Selangor (guess why Selangor fell to the opposition) which the glorified leader of the Indians, S Samy Vellu, could not even stop. When MIC leaders like Sothinathan and Devamani spoke up for Indian rights they were immediately reprimanded and in Sothinathan’s case suspended. Sothi returned to duty after suspension a mouse, unlike the lion that roared in Parliament.

In August 2007, MCA Youth Chief Liow Tiong Lai delivered a speech at the MCA Youth Assembly where he said, "We in MCA and MCA Youth won’t be easily bullied by others, ren bu fan wo, wo bu fan ren; ren ruo fan wo, wo bi fan ren ," he quoted the Chinese saying which loosely translates to how one who is offended would retaliate. He also said, "In the ‘BN family’, we are brothers, there is no master and slave (he obviously recognises the problem here), there is no question of who is being scared of who or whom should kowtow to whom."

Yet kowtow he did because the speech was delivered only in Mandarin, the Bahasa Malaysia version did not carry this phrase, obviously because Khairy Jamaluddin the Umno Youth Deputy President was in attendance. Was there indeed a master-slave relationship latently on display even at the MCA Youth Assembly? If not, then why not deliver the same speech in Bahasa? It was obvious to everyone that he feared his political master, his ‘Tuan’ was in attendance.

Even the appointment of Gerakan’s next Chief Minister of Penang (on the presumption that they would win) was left to the PM. How much weaker can a party be?

The absolute power given to Umno as the leading partner in Barisan by the electorate in 2004 created this arrogant attitude in Umno. They thought they were invincible, they were the masters not just politically in Barisan but they were the masters of all Malaysians. Like they say metaphorically in the US, they smoked pot and got high on their own delusions.

Once they believed they had absolute power, they got absolutely corrupted in more ways than one. They even forgot that in their darkest days in 1999 when ‘Reformasi" was in its ascendancy, it was the Chinese and Indians that saved BN and Umno from being routed at the elections. Now after 2004 they believed only in their superiority and stepped on the non-Malays at every opportunity.

MCA and MIC meant nothing, only small time community leaders running to their masters at their beck and call and doing their deeds even if it was demeaning to their communities. Any dissent was swiftly put down, dissenters were suspended, and parties were reprimanded. Was this the partnership envisioned by the founding fathers of Malaysia?

What was most surprising was that this was not the Malay way. Malays were humble and simple people. It was not the Islamic way either, as shown by PAS in Kelantan. Even as absolute rulers in Kelantan they still respected the rights of non-Malays. It certainly was not what was preached by Islam Hadhari.

So where did it all go wrong? Why did BN lose so badly? It was not about policies or the economy or about individuals. We have faced worse times economically (1997-98 comes to mind) and have had worse policies and individuals but the people especially the non-Malays still wholeheartedly supported BN.

But when they see how the arrogance and superiority of Umno puts down their MCA and MIC representatives, when non-Malay rights are eroded daily with our representatives being nothing but mouses and not lions, when our places of worship are torn down and when people who stand up for their rights are branded terrorists and locked up under the ISA that’s when the dam breaks.

One simple act of giving the BN especially Umno absolute power in 2004 made them arrogant and corrupt leaders henceforth. They now believed they were superior to everyone else and invincible. No one could question them and Malay rights were superior to non-Malay rights (which in their minds was no longer important or relevant). It was all about ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, they were the masters (Tuan) and non-Malays the slaves.

For 50 years non-Malays have always accepted that the constitution recognised Malay privileges and non-Malays never questioned that and have willingly accepted it and lived peacefully with Malays. There was never a need for the brandishing of the keris and proclaiming Ketuanan Melayu . Non-Malays never questioned that, all they wanted was for their own rights to be recognised as provided in the constitution.

This was not a question of the social contract, it was a political problem brought about by Umno leaders feeling superior because of their overwhelming victory in 2004. One event led to this but now the people have spoken. Umno is not superior and it better learn its lessons. Islam like all other religions preaches humility, yet Umno politicians were arrogant and egotistical.

All BN needs to do now is to go back to the constitution and recognise the rights of everyone. Treat everyone as equals, be humble and work with MCA and MIC as partners should work. No one is master or slave; it is a partnership. Understand everyone’s needs and be sensitive to their religions and cultures. Treat everyone well, listen to the people and give all an equal chance at life. Stop cronyism and corruption which only enriches the few at the expense of the many. Every corrupt act deprives someone else of a benefit especially the poor (Malays and non-Malays).

To the opposition which has won handsomely especially in the five states, my wish for you is simple - rule well, rule fairly and rule equitably.

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