Umno's headache over Ahmad's suspension
Saturday, 20 September 2008 08:00am
©New Straits Times (Used by permission)by Sheridan MahaveraWHAT is more disturbing about Umno leader Datuk Ahmad Ismail's statement that the Chinese are squatters and undeserving of equal rights is that many Umno members agreed with his rendition of history, and felt that the former Bukit Bendera Umno division chief did not deserve censure.Umno's handling of the episode, finally suspending Ahmad for three years after he declined to apologise and further humiliated Umno's ally, Gerakan acting president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, has had an unintended effect. He may be "Ahmad the racist" to non-Malays, but to many of the Umno grassroots, he is "Ahmad the hero".
The rank and file may not agree with the exact words Ahmad used at that ceramah during the Permatang Pauh by-election, but they concurred with the sentiment behind them.
There is a disconnect between the party's official stance towards leaders like Ahmad, its conciliatory attitude towards its Barisan Nasional partners, and how its rank and file see him as a victim for expressing sentiments that they share.The party's divisional assemblies in October are expected to hear speeches under the rubric of "they should not question Malay rights".It wouldn't be surprising to hear racially-charged speeches by the grassroots after glittering opening ceremonies where Umno's top leaders exhort members to respect, tolerate and even help the other communities.How Umno reconciles this yawning difference between what the grassroots think and its top leaders believe, will determine what kind of coalition it leads into the next election.On the one hand, there is the party philosophy of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and its legion of supporters in branches throughout the country. On the other hand are the demands of its BN partners such as the MCA and Gerakan, who claim that the concept cost them seats in the last elections.At the core of the dilemma is whether Umno's raison d'etre, to look after the Malay community and to preserve its dominance in an even more competitive world, is still relevant to Malaysians who have no memory of 1969.Merdeka Centre programme director Ibrahim Suffian said race and its effects on political and economic power was one of the prime determinants in the last elections."From the feedback we received, the Chinese and Indians felt that their community's interests were not being looked after by the ruling party.
"In fact, their impression was that the more the BN talked about Malay rights and privileges, the less interest there was to look into the interests of non-Malays."Umno grassroots members, who consider Ahmad a hero, are also cognisant of the need to examine why "ketuanan Melayu" has become so contentious."There should be a census of some kind to find out why even Malays now do not think ketuanan Melayu is important," said a Kedah Umno division official who feels Ahmad was wronged.For them, "ketuanan Melayu" is not a problem and there is no need to apologise when talking about it."The only problem was that Ahmad went overboard, but how he was punished was unacceptable," said the official."First, they call a BN supreme council meeting, and then there is the Umno supreme council meeting where Ahmad's sentence is passed. It's as if Umno is taking instructions from BN and that should not be the case."A similar backlash has spread through many Umno-affiliated blogs and postings warning non-Malays not to question Malay special privileges.But not every branch member has seen red over the affair. A branch youth leader from Johor feels that Ahmad should not have been so arrogant as to disregard the Chinese community's contributions to the country."We can have ketuanan Melayu but we must also support the alliance among the races that brought about Merdeka in the first place. We must remember the contributions of people like Tun Tan Cheng Lock," the youth leader said.He also thinks it is more of a sticking point with Umno members in the peninsula's northern states than in the rest of the country.A Penang Umno leader revealed some local context behind Ahmad's feud with Koh, the former Penang chief minister.Ahmad was at the centre of a land dispute in Bukit Bendera involving a Malay kampung, land developers and Koh's Penang administration that had dragged on until Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had to step in.The dispute fuelled long-running claims by Penang Umno that the Penang Gerakan government's policies were discriminatory towards Malays on the island.Still, other Umno leaders think Ahmad's Permatang Pauh speech cannot be forgiven as he was, after all, a middle-ranking Umno leader who was supposed to represent the party to the voting public."What is wrong is wrong," said Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, one of the handful of party leaders to have publicly chastised Ahmad."(Ahmad) should be mindful of what he says as how it is interpreted is important. He is not a history teacher, he is a politician. He has done a disservice to Umno and it was right that he be punished."Nazri admits that the sentiments underlining Ahmad's comments are also felt by members in his division of Padang Rengas, though they may not be as volatile as in Penang."The only way to bridge that divide, he says, is to be brave and "to tell the truth"."What he did really caused us problems," Nazri says. "I am considered an ultra-Melayu by my members. But just because I am an ultra-Melayu does not mean that I hate other races. In fact, I am fair to other races."Umno is a friend of its partners in BN and we do not ditch our friends. Even though they lost seats, the cabinet representation for Gerakan and MCA was not reduced."The future of Malaysian politics, and by extension its race relations, was cast on March 8," Nazri says."After 2008, you cannot use racial sentiments anymore. The country has moved on, but people like Ahmad have not. It's time they did."