The General Election of 1999 saw UMNO being whitewashed in Kelantan and Trengganu, losing the 2 states to PAS. In Kelantan, UMNO had a dismal run where it only managed to secure just 1 parliamentary seat out of 14 and 2 state seats out of a total of 43. In Trengganu, UMNO led Barisan Nasional to only 4 state seats out of a total 32. All 8 parliamentary seats in Trengganu went to the opposition. The full result is here.
Held just after the calamitous Anwar Ibrahim's unceremonious sacking from his Deputy Premiership, his subsequent ISA detention, black eye incident and the infamous mattress-and-sodomy-at-a-condominium-which-did-not-exist trial, the 10th general election saw the Malay electoral citizenry being split in a fashion not seen before.
The split in UMNO and the backlash from the Anwar episode, coupled with the 1997 currency crisis badly affected the Barsian Nasional's performance. This was evident when KeAdilan, a party which was formed by the "Anwaristas" and contesting for the first time in a general election even managed to secure 5 parliamentary seats and 4 state seats. Overall, UMNO secured only 72 parliamentary seats, reduced from the 94 seats it had from the previous general election.
The real gainer however was PAS. Capitalising on the UMNO split caused by the Anwar issue, PAS went for the jugular in this election. In the Anwar issue, PAS had evidence that UMNO was only about one man, namely, Dr Mahathir. In the currency crisis, PAS had a financial mismanagement issue. And to top it up, PAS had its perennial political love dolls providing endless political wet dreams to all its supporters. And that was the promise of an Islamic state.
As a result, PAS secured 27 parliamentary seats as opposed to its dismal 8 seats secured in the previous general election. In addition, it retained its rule in Kelantan and added Trengganu to its trophy cabinet.
While PAS and KeAdilan (as a newcomer) made considerable inroads in the political landscape of Malaysia in 1999, DAP was stagnant. It retained its 10 parliamentary seats but saw its leader, Lim Kit Siang, losing his seat. It would appear that the loose "alliance" that DAP had with PAS during that election had isolated and frightened off many of its supporters. Lim Kit Siang described the result as “a catastrophic defeat with our traditional non-Malay and Chinese supporters abandoning the party”.
As a result DAP lost its standing as the major opposition party to PAS. To rub salt in the gaping wound, Lim Kit Siang lost his seat.
The stage was thus set for a Malay showdown. Malaysia was not going to be the same, ever, again.
The lost of support from the traditional UMNO stronghold - the Malay heartland - was a blow to UMNO, the Barisan Nasional and especially to Dr Mahathir. This jolted UMNO in general and Dr Mahathir in particular.
There were two options left to UMNO. It could discard the racial tone evident in the 1999 general election and work together with its main partners in the Barisan Nasional - the MCA and MIC - to forge a united Malaysia and focus on its economics policies to rebuilt Malaysia's badly hit economy and financial standing after the 1997 crisis and continue its march towards vision 2020. Or it could concentrate on the shifting paradigm of the Malay political power base by trying to reconquer the Malay heartland support as well as widening its appeal to a wider Malay working class.
It has been proven time and time again that when push comes to shove, an entity would always go back to its root in order to regroup. UMNO was no different.It chose the second option.
The obvious question was how was UMNO going to regain lost ground? The answer was even more obvious than the question itself.
I remember it was Lim Kit Siang who first wrote about it. Immediately after the 1999 election, he spoke of the "danger" which was lurking post 1999 general election:
“The danger of the historic electoral setback for UMNO in the 1999 general election and the emergence of PAS as the dominant Opposition in Parliament with 27 seats and a very marginalised DAP with ten seats is that Parliament in the next five years will principally become the battleground between UMNO and PAS for the hearts and minds of the Malays in the Malay heartland, resulting in a spiral of Islamisation policies - threatening a democratic secular Malaysia and sidelining all other great issues of the Malaysian people.
“There are four circumstances where such a spiral of competitive Islamisation policies between UMNO and PAS to take the centre stage of Malaysian politics in the next five years could be avoided:
UMNO refusing to compete with PAS on the Islamic terrain, which is unlikely as its sole agenda in the next five years is not only to win back lost Malay heartland to PAS, but to ensure that there is no further encroachment of UMNO support in the next election leading to the loss of state governments in Perlis, Kedah and Pahang.
A courageous and principled MCA, Gerakan and MIC in the Barisan Nasional which could stop any UMNO lurch towards greater Islamisation policies, which nobody can ever hope based on the ingrained subservience of MCA, Gerakan and MIC to UMNO hegemony.
A strong DAP to block such Islamisation policies, which is not possible with the marginalisation of the DAP in Parliament and Malaysian politics as a result of the election result.
PAS refraining from responding to any UMNO political actions to up the ante in the battle for the Malay heartland by resorting to Islamisation policies, which is not very optimistic.
”As these four circumstances do not seem likely to exist, Malaysia is set on a very uncertain and perilous future.”
He was correct on two counts, namely, the Islamisation counteraction by UMNO and the limpness of MCA, Gerakan and MIC to stop that process. And he was in for a big surprise on the other two counts.
It was obvious that UMNO saw PAS' political advances in the 1999 general election as a sign of the Malay's acceptance of PAS' idea of - and perhaps a desire for -an Islamic state. It therefore decided to discard its neo-liberal credential within itself and plunged head on into what it thought was appealing to the Malay masses, the Islamisation of Malaysia. To do that, UMNO had to out-Islamise PAS. UMNO must be more Islam-centric.
Lim Kit Siang was spot on.
The "Malay showdown" was not about a struggle within the Malay working class shoving each other for a bigger share of the economics pie or education opportunities. It was also not about the struggle for social justice, freedom of expression and universal rights. Nor was it about equal opportunities, a just and equitable spread of resources and empowerment. Rather, it was about the neo-religious-fundamentalists-nationalists UMNO versus the traditional left winged Islamist (I am using the word "Islamist", as opposed to "Islamic" deliberately) and PAS trying to out-Islam each other.
By 29th September 2001, none other than Dr Mahathir himself declared in an UMNO General Assembly that:
“UMNO wishes to state loudly that Malaysia is an Islamic country. This is based on the opinion of ulamaks who had clarified what constituted as Islamic country. If Malaysia is not an Islamic country because it does not implement the hudud, then there are no Islamic countries in the world.
If UMNO says that Malaysia is an Islamic country, it is because in an Islamic country non-Muslims have specific rights. This is in line with the teachings of Islam. There is no compulsion in Islam. And Islam does not like chaos that may come about if Islamic laws are enforced on non-Muslims" (source: Malaysiakini report, 29th September 2001)
There was even an added twist to the Islamisation drama in Malaysia. And this is due to the odd compulsory marriage between the legal Malays, as defined by the Federal Constitution, - as opposed to the genetic biological Malays - and Islam as a faith itself.
This brought about a political convenience to UMNO and its ilk. Why not kill 2 birds - and many others - with just one proverbial stone? In the equation of Malay-ness to Muslim-ness, and vice-versa, UMNO found a convenient way of gaining support within the Malay mind set, whether real or on the surface, by espousing Ketuanan Melayu and denouncing any questioning of the position of Islam as seditious, an affront to the powers of the Rulers and even a threat to national security (as evident by the illegal detention of Raja Petra Kamaruddin under the ISA for allegedly "insulting Islam").
The Malays, albeit not all of them, ate the Islamisation bread crumbs straight from UMNO's palm. Hence the proliferation of Islamic this and Islamic that in Malaysia. To give a substantive credence to the Islamic state claim made by Dr Mahathir, a parallel Syariah High Court and Appellate court system was even established, giving them immense powers to police morals and religiosity among the suffering Muslims in Malaysia.
This mixture of racialist-nationalist-Islamist stance formed a potent counteraction to PAS' Islamic-hudud state aspiration.
The real losers were however not PAS. They were the peace loving Malaysians in general and in particular the urban as well as the open minded Malays of the working class who saw their freedom and liberty being eroded by a double edged sword. They are quite obviously not Malay enough and/or Muslim enough.
The hardliners' nationalist-Islam-centric policy was given a different dimension and approach during Tun Abdullah's time as the PM. He propounded Islam Hadhari, a set of Islamic driven rules which he thought would assimilate - and hence consolidate UMNO's Islamist agenda - the Islamist-fundamentalist hard line position with progressive thinking. This was given large propaganda by the state controlled mass media.
Regardless of the apparent softening and progressive nature of the Islamic images portrayed by Islam Hadhari, the Islamist-fundamentalist stance continued quite relentlessly at the ground level. For instance, after Abdul Malik Mydin swam for more than 17 hours across the English Channel, questions were raised in Parliament by UMNO parliamentarians on how Abdul Malik could have prayed while doing so! (source: Lim Kit Siang's article). That was obviously an effort to out-Islam PAS in the Parliament.
Similarly, when Malaysia's first astronaut (to borrow the Government's terminology) was preparing to go to space, it was thought important that a guideline should be announced by the ulamaks on how he could pray in space.
Such was the inclination to display the government's Islamic credential in opposition of PAS' brand of Islamic-hudud ideology.
In football, Manchester United is famous for absorbing attacks after attacks before making a swift counter attack (which would normally involve just 4 or 5 passes) which results in a beautiful goal. Why am I talking about football suddenly?
The bigger picture in politics is of course to win election and to govern the State. That is the goal. Unfortunately for UMNO, all this focus on out-Islamising PAS had taken off their attention from other real, and more tangible, grievances of the people. Blatant corruptions, hikes in petrol prices, abuses of powers, police brutality, inconsistent implementation of various policies, and general wrongdoings were issues which the people observed and kept in their heart. To top it up, the widening accessibility to real news via the Internet had made the people, particularly the younger generation, more aware of the social and political landscape of Malaysia.
The people grew more and more critical of the government. When BERSIH organised a rally to protest against unfair elections, 60000 people came out on the streets to brave acid-laced water and baton wielding FRU. When the Linggam tape surfaced, 3000 lawyers walked to the PM department demanding justice.
Anwar Ibrahim, who was just released from the prison by the Federal Court, was working overtime to create a viable alliance between PKR, DAP and of all the parties, PAS. This loose alliance consisting of a motley crew of political parties with different ideologies, approaches and even mannerism managed to unseat the Barisan Nasional in 5 states and took away the much coveted two-third majority from the BN in the Parliament in March 2008.
That was a typical Manchester United counter-attack I was talking about. While UMNO was busy attacking on the Islamist-fundamentalist front, they left their rear open (no pun intended please) and they paid a heavy price. They conceded a political goal against the run of play via an unforeseen counter attack.
And this is where Lim Kit Siang was wrong. He said in his statement above that he was not very optimistic that PAS would not respond to UMNO's Islam-centric counteraction. It was obvious that UMNO had thought the same too.
As it transpired, PAS was, and still is, a smarter political animal than UMNO - or Lim Kit Siang - would care to acknowledge. Recent post-Tun-Abdullah events would show that PAS could redefine pragmatism when necessity demands.
In forging an alliance with PKR and DAP in the Pakatan Rakyat (now, Pakatan Rakyat Malaysia), PAS had to ostensibly ditch its Islamic-hudud state aspiration. UMNO thought that this was PAS' - and hence the PR's - Achilles heels.
UMNO then began a series of surreptitious moves to de-stabilise PAS and the PR by approaching the ulamaks faction within PAS and making very public statements about a unity government between UMNO and PAS. By doing this it was clear that UMNO was running impatient with the pathetic infighting within MCA and the even more pathetic inability of MIC to ditch Samy Vellu from its leadership despite the loud and very clear signal from UMNO that he was not wanted.
In a way, this move was a calculated one. It gave a clear signal to MCA and MIC of UMNO's willingness to go it alone without them. It also could split PAS into two factions, the hard liners Islamic-hudud state ulamaks faction (Hassan Ali, Hadi Awang et al) versus the moderate-progressive-liberalist faction (Khalid Samad, Tok Guru Nik Aziz et al). And had PAS bitten this Malay unity cum Islamist-fundamentalist gesture by UMNO, it would also spell the end of the PR.
However, as was stated earlier, PAS was, and still is, a much smarter political animal than it was thought to be. PAS rode the internal bickering through the perseverance and leadership of Tok Guru Nik Aziz and stuck with its alliance to the PR (now PRM).
Meanwhile, UMNO's Islam-centric posturing continued in recent time. Despite the 1 Malaysia sloganeering by the Prime Minister, UMNO has continued, through its leadership and grass root warlords, to cavort with Islamist elements, or what they perceive as Islamist elements.
Thus we saw when some Malay Muslims carried a severed and bloodied cow head to protest against a planned relocation of a Hindu temple to their area, UMNO's top gun met and heard them and even came up with statements saying that their actions were "understandable".
We also saw when Kartika was sentenced to 6 stroke of caning for drinking alcohol in public, UMNO just shut its mouth while the Prime Minister managed to muster an advise that Kartika should appeal against the sentence. The Home Ministry, which initially said that the authorities were ill-equipped to perform such sentencing later changed its story after a demonstration of the caning in the Minister's office. As it is, Kartika is yet to be caned. Nobody knows the real reason for this legal procrastination.
(Readers should contrast these boneless act of quiet acquiescence with what Dr Mahathir did before. I remember when some religious authorities raided a beauty pageant and arrested a Malay participant, Dr Mahathir quickly made a statement condemning that action and nicely putting the religious authorities to their rightful place! If there was a thing which I admire about Dr Mahathir, it is his ability to whack anybody for anything which he disliked. )
The Islam-centric stance came to a head when the High Court declared that the Herald newspaper may use the word "Allah" in its publication and declared the Home Ministry's banning of the usage of the word by the Herald was illegal and void.
UMNO took a real risk in protesting against that High Court decision. It risked international condemnation. It risked a backlash from Sabah and Sarawak (which are the source of 56 parliamentary seat altogether). It risked isolating the non-Muslims. But it took all these risk and protested against the decision.
Again, PAS showed its pragmatist credence by taking an open minded and more liberal stance than UMNO. Khalid Samat spearheaded and encapsulated PAS' stance in that matter by imploring acceptance by Muslims of the non-Muslims' proper usage of the word "Allah".
UMNO paid more than what it bargained for when its apparent cavorting of the more fundamentalist elements within the Malay society - as evident by UMNO's initial willingness to allow the mosque demonstrations - resulted in churches being torched and burnt. These incidents threatened to blow into a full scale hate war when some opportunistic youths tried to burn suraus.
This however does not stop the UMNO driven government from allowing the latest display of Islam-centric actions. Three Malay Muslim women were recently sentenced to caning for illicit sex and were duly caned in secret. Contrary to the usual predisposition of the mainstream mass media to go into hysterical mode (or in Minister Rais' words, to "change mode") every time there is some news involving sex, especially at the Syariah Courts, (reflecting the society's predisposition towards anything which has to do with sex), the MSM did not carry a single report of these events until after the events! And even then, they chose an opportune time to carry the "news" in the middle of the Chinese New Year festivities!
This had caused outrage. MCA, UMNO's loyal partner all these while had condemned the caning. But within UMNO, even its own lady leader, the Women, Family and Community Development Minister, Senator Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil supported the caning. She is now even planning a convention of sorts on the matter.
Meanwhile, the racialist-nationalist-fundamentalist stance has taken a wider road. The establishment - with a not so hidden support by UMNO - of the ultra-Malay-Muslim right-wing nationalist movement called PERKASA has brought a greater dimension to the Islamist agenda of UMNO. Although on paper, PERKASA's leader, Ibrahim Ali, is an independent MP, UMNO's apparent acquiescence to PERKASA's extreme right-wing aspirations, despite the Prime Minister's 1 Malaysia sloganeering, is all too obvious. This is amply evident when PERKASA was even invited to speak at UMNO-organised ceramahs.
It is of course within the collective wisdom of UMNO's top leadership to continue trying to out-Islamise PAS to win Malay support. And we, the lay people, will never be able to appreciate such wisdom from the outside of the UMNO tall building.
Whether such move would bear fruits in the coming 2013 General Election in the face of greater awareness among the voters and at the risk of isolating whatever support it may still have among the non-Muslims remains to be seen.
Only time will tell whether UMNO's focus on Islam-centric moves will bring them closer to winning the Malay heartland support instead of focusing on the real and tangible issues at hand, such as:
- corruptions such as the PKFZ saga
- abuses of power
- inconsistent implementation of the law by the authorities, such as the arrest of 5 lawyers trying to see their clients and the 90 students in front of Sogo as opposed to allowing 300 people to demonstarte outside the Australian Embassy
- police brutalities (Kugan comes to mind)
- Teoh Beng Hock's death
- the Perak fiasco
- sodomy 2
- incompetence - the jet engines episode and the submarine which fails to submerge
- the upcoming GST, petrol price hike and probably electricity tariff hike
- the fate of our economy in the face of lukewarm foreign direct investments, massive capital outflow and declining Petronas' income
However, the clear fact which has arisen from Malaysia's murky political swamps thus far is that PAS is not playing the fool's game and it's support remains intact.
It is ironic that in 2010, PAS has reversed its hard line image to a progressive driven Islamic party in the face of UMNO's relentless Islam-centric efforts.
In 2010 Malaysia, it would appear that PAS and UMNO has rebooted and in drawing their respective political lines, they have exchanged their respective political role.