Most of our politicians are not seeking to inject hope or even competence into public life but seem focused on politics of fear.
Nine months ago when Malaysia was readying itself for its 12th general election, I wrote about the “transformational” contest taking place in the United States and its impact on our own polls.
I remember comparing our own lacklustre racial politics with the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama face-off for the Democratic presidential nomination, an African-American man and a woman – challenging two taboos at once.
When Democrat Obama emerged as his party’s candidate; his extraordinary personal narrative – the son of a Kenyan civil servant and an anthropologist from Kansas with (in his own words) “a funny-sounding name” – upturned the Washington establishment.
Now, this mixed-race, elite-educated lawyer and senator appears poised to bring renewal and hope to a country mired in two unfinished wars and an economic meltdown.
Miraculously, Obama appears to have secured much of the support of middle America. At the same time he’s also managed to engage both minorities (especially African- Americans and Hispanics) and the younger generation.
However, this fact appears to have escaped Republican nominee John McCain and his strategists. Unlike Obama, McCain is peddling fear: fear of the unknown and the foreign.
Rather than confront a rapidly imploding economy, the Republicans have run a sleazy, scare-mongering campaign, highlighting Obama’s “foreignness” at every opportunity.
Furthermore, McCain’s selection of “hockey mum” Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor, as his running mate has been a disastrously polarising move. Her limited personal achievements matched by her hawkish, insular world views have undermined confidence in McCain’s judgment.
Obama has risen above the ugly attacks. As he addresses the real issues facing his electorate he has displayed class and fortitude.
He has confirmed the wider world’s perception that his election would not only be a victory for African-Americans but for the United States as a whole as it restores its battered integrity.
Still, the final decision is in the hands of ordinary Americans as the world holds its breath.
Let’s return to Malaysia now.
The situation is sadly very different. Unlike Obama, most of our politicians are not seeking to inject hope or even competence into public life. They are focused on stoking fear and distrust.
MP Zulkifli Noordin’s extremist speech in Parliament has made a mockery of PKR’s attempts to embody multi-racialism.
But the greatest disappointment has been with Umno.
The ruling party (much like the Republicans) has evidently chosen to respond to electoral defeat by becoming more conservative and stoking the community’s fears at every step.
In doing so, Umno leaders appear not to have realised how much corruption, inefficiency and racism have actually turned off Malaysian voters of all races, including the Malays. Money politics remains endemic. Indeed, the head of the Umno’s disciplinary board Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen has been forced to admit that “money politics in Umno is rampant”.
The party’s ongoing rejection of genuine talent in favour of those with wealth and family connections is also driving away young Malay professionals.
Those who could do so much to revitalise Umno are in fact flocking to the more meritocratic Opposi-tion.
If you don’t believe me, go and watch our Parliament in action. Once you’ve done so, tell me which side has the more professional and competent MPs and which side makes you wince with embarrassment?
Amazingly, Umno seems to feel that the mere removal of party president and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will transform the party’s fortunes.
This change of leadership, coupled with a return to a Mahathir-era authoritarianism has been touted as the only way forward.
At the same time I cannot understand how former Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo can be a serious candidate to head Umno Youth. Surely, it is inconceivable that a leader who had lost his state to the Opposition should be allowed to contest for a top post, not to mention receive popular support at that.
Umno activists – the all-powerful divisional leaders – may well be at the core of the party’s manifold problems. Their influence and stature seems to have no co-relation to their ability to win votes in a general election. Surely, the division chiefs from constituencies where Umno lost in the March polls should be replaced.
Many of the leaders proffered by the party are also very similar to Sarah Palin in that they lack national standing, competence or experience.
Having seen a leader of Obama’s calibre, Malaysians shouldn’t have to make do with the provincial and second-rate.
The damaged Barisan also needs to be revived and it is uncertain whether the incoming leadership can do this either.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who has secured the presidency of Umno, has shown that he is aware of the need for the party to rebuild its Barisan ties when he said “the time has come to look beyond and realise that if you want to remain in power, you have to appeal to a wider audience, and a wider audience includes all sections of people, including non-Umno members and non-Malays”.
But the fact that he was forced to backtrack from his remarks about liberalising the NEP (as did Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, his possible deputy) shows that this process cannot be effected on a top-down level.
I want to end by returning to the US presidential election one last time.
Accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party, Obama was quoted as telling his supporters that “this election has never been about me. It’s been about you”.
“Change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.”
Let us hope that the members of Umno can take this to heart when the time comes for them to elect their leaders.