The rejuvenation of constitutional democracy
MP SPEAKS I have no doubt this book, 'The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party', will be worth reading, given that the four contributors are academicians renowned for their socio-political analyses and commentaries.
It is, I dare say, a "must-read" for anyone interested in the current state of our political affairs and in how Umno has evolved from the days of Dato’ Onn Jaafar and come to be what it is today.
This event provides me the platform to answer the often asked question regarding my continuing to be an Umno member. Let me say this: I am a politician and I have always been a member of Umno.
Detractors will draw public attention to Semangat 46. They will conveniently forget to tell you that my followers and friends from Umno never left Umno but were blocked from re-uniting with the others in the period following the post-Umno debacle of 1987. Among those friends were the Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra and Tun Hussein Onn.
In the aftermath of Umno being declared “an unlawful society” in 1987, Umno Baru was born. But Umno Baru is not Umno. Its culture differs from the spirit of the Umno of 1946. You will recall that the High Court had declared Umno “an unlawful society” because of the incidence of 30 or more unregistered branches had sent delegates to the 1987 general assembly and voted in that year’s election of the party’s office bearers.
Within a fortnight of that judgment, Umno Baru was born. This was followed by the transferring of the assets of the unlawful Umno to Umno Baru. With the benefit of hindsight, much heartache could perhaps have been saved if the High Court had perhaps ordered the regularisation of the unregistered branches and new election be held.
Upon reflection, it is tempting to conclude that the strength of the party’s leaders of the day had played a part in their accepting the judgment, and without appealing against it. But make no mistake: Umno Baru is not Umno.
Therefore, the choice of Semangat 46 for a name when I went on to found a new political party at the Tunku’s behest to regroup when the dust had settled following that “unlawful society” declaration. The name encapsulated the spirit of the party formed by Dato’ Onn in 1946 and the tenacity of the Tunku in presenting a united front with two other race-based parties and the Malay Rulers to negotiate the country’s independence. The name also reflects the loyalty that I have always had for the party since joining it in 1962, at the age of 25.
In the process, I had gone on to serve the party as a divisional head, a position I still hold today. I was variously the party’s treasurer and one of the three elected vice-presidents. In the legislative arena, I had been an assemblyman for the Legislative Assembly of my state. Today I am still an MP, having first entered Parliament in 1974.
After having been a loyal servant to Umno for half-a-century and four years, it makes more sense for me to remain so and be useful to the party for the good of Malaysia. However, I will not allow this to interfere with my position as a member of the Dewan Rakyat.
As an MP, I represent my voters, the people whose interest I had sworn to protect through the Parliamentary Member’s Oath. At the same time, I also have a duty to the nation to uphold the constitution. This is what the oath taken in the Dewan Rakyat is all about.
Undoubtedly, my duty to the nation in upholding the Federal Constitution comes first, as it must be for Umno. For the party to be relevant, Umno must accept this and stay true to the supremacy of the constitution. It therefore follows, for instance, that national policies must be addressed and decisions made by the Dewan Rakyat, in the first instance, and not pre-empted by, say, the party’s supreme council.
It bears reminding that we do not exist without the constitution. This includes the position of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, which is provided for under Article 32; Supreme Head of the Federation, and his Consort. The supremacy of the constitution also negates the notion of regional loyalty that had been bandied about lately.
Position of Conference of Rulers
It would seem that regionalism has crept in because of the eroding respect for the central government due to the its seeming loss of legitimacy. Those clamouring for it do not take into account the role of the constitution in binding us together. We must not forget this; for, if we do, we will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
I would also like to revisit the position of the Conference of Rulers. Although provided for under the constitution, it exists more in spirit, without a properly structured body such as having an independent budget and a comprehensive administrative structure. This is a pity as the Rulers were an integral part of the Merdeka talks and, therefore, a party to bringing the constitution into force and the country, the then Federation of Malaya, together.
The point is that the Conference of Rulers could have functioned as a collective constitutional force, in addition to the three branches of government, for the good of the people and the country. Should governance stall and the Rulers were the source of our constitution. It stands
to reason for the country to go back to the Conference of Rulers if the constitution, purposely or otherwise, is shunted aside.
It would not be a stretch to say that the supremacy of the constitution and constitutional democracy took a beating when privatisation topped the national agenda and Malaysia Inc came to be. The resulting damage can be seen today.
The privatised corporate power became the defining factor in moving the country ahead and, in the process, make a mockery of the sanctity and supremacy of our constitution. What we need to realise is that the country is not a corporation. We cannot conflate the two; for this would place corporate power above the constitution and the people. The problem and controversy surrounding the 1MDB issue is a classic example of this conflation.
At the level where things matter most in seeing to the basic needs of the masses, the Malaysia Inc concept has deprived the people of several of these needs. In effect, it creates more inequality.
The ills from Malaysia Inc
Increasing income and determining its minimum level is not addressed and the people are deprived of good but affordable health facilities. This is compounded by inadequate space in public hospital, overworked doctors and support staff, and increasingly expensive medicine, among others.
The right to good education is denied because of the declining standard of public education. Much too much reliance is put on private education, which the man in the street can ill afford. These then, are some of the ills resulting from the implementation of Malaysia Inc.
Let me also draw your attention to the title of the book. Whether the answer to the question posed by its title is in the negative or otherwise will depend on the strength or weakness in the practice of the leadership qualities of being principled, ethical and honest with integrity.
I might add that it is normal for political parties to practise these ideals. In this way, they gain popularity, get accepted by the masses and win political power. Which is well and good; for, the purpose of politics is to win power and continue to do so.
Unfortunately, there have been instances when political parties lost sight of their reason for being, because of their continuous control of power. This led such parties to abuse the power mandated upon them by the electorate.
The upshot is that they would get bogged down by, what I term as the arrogance of political incumbency. And before they knew it, they got kicked out of office. In this part of the world, two political parties forming their national governments had suffered such a debacle. In fairness to them, they learnt well from those experiences and returned to power subsequently.
Umno must take note of what had happened to the LDP of Japan and Congress Party of India, lest it suffers the same fate as these two giants of Asian politics. In trying to avoid such a loss, Umno needs to remain relevant and in doing so, the party must follow parameters acceptable to practising democracies. Most importantly, its struggle must be seen as being above board and within the law. It must not be accused of resorting to and justifying the practice of dirty, underhanded politics.
To my mind, however, politics – as a process of governance – is neither clean nor dirty. But its practitioners are something else. There are politicians and there are politicians. And like any other group of people, there are rotten apples in politics. It is the politician, then, if at all, who is dirty. This is not to say that there are no clean and honest politicians and political leaders.
A fish rotting from the head
Members must be wary of their political leaders. In this regard, I would draw their attention to the saying about a fish rotting from the head, in reference to leaders and leadership. This, quite often, signals the start of nepotism and cronyism. These ultimately develop into corruption. Left unaddressed, it could crystallise into a part of the way a political party does things, which is what culture is. Inevitably, this culture of corruption will be copied by society.
We must avoid this. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the members to force an impetus that would help to start the cleansing of the party. Our history has shown that the silent but potent force of the members had helped to push the leadership of the day to oppose the Malayan Union.
It was this strength that later helped to unite the three race-based parties and the Malay Rulers, through their representatives, for a common approach during the 1956 London Merdeka talks. The time is now opportune for the members to put their collective foot down and tell the party leaders to lift their boot strap and move the country on in the manner envisaged by the founding fathers.
This is a critical matter as Umno’s future depends on the members. The members must regulate and discipline the leaders. Should there be a need, they must rein the leaders in. Of course, the people – in the privacy of the polling booth – will have the last say.
Having said that, there is a need for us to acknowledge the reality. And that is, Umno has contributed a lot to governance and government, and, economic and social development. As a party, it stands for the ideals of democracy, fairness and equality. It has always been so.
If it is seen to be wavering, the members need to find out the cause. For this, they could start at the top with the leaders. After all, and as mentioned earlier, a fish rots from the head. But all is not lost; there is at least one way to fix the head of a fish rotting.
Let us revisit the first part of the book’s title – ‘The End of UMNO?’ Politics, democratic politics that is, is an activity that requires a minimum of two parties acting and reacting against each other. In this case, if the Opposition continues to be disarrayed and disunited into splinters, it will implode.
The party has let down the rakyat badly
But, what about Umno? As I see it, the party has let down the rakyat badly. It does not, now, work in the interest of the country. Now Umno protects the interest of its leaders. It used to be a strong political power, providing the centrifugal force and acting as the centre to pull the plurality of our society together and push up our diversity into a cohesive Malaysian unit.
Now, Umno has lost that centre and this, if you will, is the crux of the crisis that is facing us today. This loss is crucial because, in the absence of a truly Malaysian culture acting as a binding force to hold the country together, it is that centre, that centrifugal force, which should have played the role of the binding force.
This reality is compounded by the two seemingly weakened branches of government; that is, the Judiciary, which was emasculated by the Executive, and the Parliament that does not quite function as a Parliament in a constitutional democracy.
It is time Umno cleaned its act and, together with its partners, adopts the sort of strategies for it to remain relevant. Among other things, these should include:
• The upholding of constitutional democracy and the separation of powers as a fundamental principle;
• The equality of citizenship as provided for in the Federal Constitution as one of its objectives;
• An economic and political policy to not discriminate against any citizen;
• Adhering to the objectives of public service and refraining from business involvement, and ensuring the separation of business from politics;
• Upholding and respecting the independence of the Judiciary and judicial process;
• Adhering to the highest standards of conduct for the party’s election system and ensuring that elections are free of corrupt practices;
• Ensuring that political dialogues and statements do not create racial or religious animosity;
• An undertaking not to use racial and communal agitation for political ends;
• Removing and eradicating barriers in the party that hinder national unity and Malaysian identity; and
• Upholding the Federal and State Constitutions and their democratic intent and spirit, the Rule of Law, the fundamentalliberties as enshrined in Part II of the Malaysian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
TENGKU RAZALEIGH HAMZAH, an Umno veteran, is the MP for Gua Musang. This address was made during his launch of the book, ‘The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party’, edited by Bridget Welsh, in Kuala Lumpur today.