On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Listen to the voice of reason

He may not be an eloquent speaker but it was surely one of Abdullah's best speeches. 

The Prime Minister could have played to the gallery to boost his popularity, in the wake of a challenge against his leadership, with rhetoric on the Malay Agenda.  

But he did not, remembering that he is the leader of all communities. 

And he rightly lowered down the political temperature in this winding-up speech on Friday by declaring that Umno must speak for all. 

More important, he said Umno must never forget the rights of the other races as stipulated in the Constitution. 

Umno leaders, especially elected representatives, must also never forget that their victory at the general election is not from the support of one race.  

In close contests, particularly in predominantly Malay constituencies, they need the deciding votes of the non-Muslims. 

It is the same for MCA and Gerakan leaders. They can demand Chinese rights loudly but they must never take for granted the Umno leaders who deliver the Malay votes for them. 

It is this arrangement that has worked so well for Barisan Nasional because the leaders understand that they need each other. 

It is easy to label the DAP or PAS as being extremists but such elements do exist within Barisan component parties as well. They are probably more damaging than the opposition. 

Criticism and unhappiness on sensitive issues have always been discussed within the BN forum but when the floodgates are opened with direct attacks on fellow BN leaders, it would be more difficult to contain. 

Component party leaders, under pressure from their members and voters, may feel compelled to speak up to show their political bravery but this can only bring short-term gains.  

The long-term damage is far greater because there is always a price to pay for hurtful words. 

Likewise, the keris-rattling and posturing on Malay dominance at the assembly is disturbing.  

It cannot be denied that many non-Malays are concerned. 

A statement by Malacca delegate Hasnoor Sidang Hussein, who reportedly reminded party members that the time had come for Malays to act against those who undermined Malay rights, was clearly seditious. 

So was talk about unsheathing the keris, which is now being openly debated over the Internet.  

What would young Malaysians think of their future?  

Pak Lah has opened up the democratic space and exercised greater tolerance for dissent, but there must be self-restraint and ground rules. 

The advice given before the assembly by Pak Lah and his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak that delegates should not hurt the feelings of other races seems to have fallen on deaf ears among some Umno delegates. 

Kedah delegate Tajul Urus Mohd Zain, in his attempt to defend Port Klang Assemblyman Datuk Zakaria Deros, came out with figures of illegal places of worship with claims of an agenda against the Selangor strongman. 

Not only was there a racial slant, he conveniently forgot to mention that Zakaria did not bother to pay his assessment fees amounting to over RM46,800 for the last 12 years. Only recently did he finally pay up. 

How many Malaysians, including Umno members, would be able to get away with that? 

Tajul Urus said that "certain people had used the Zakaria issue to tarnish the image of Umno" – which seems an odd way to defend Zakaria. 

Delegates should also research better for the assembly because some speakers quoted wrong facts and figures. 

One delegate criticised those who spread the rumours alleging a baptism ceremony of Malays at a church but went on to repeat the figure of 200,000 Malays said to have become apostates.  

That figure, which is an imaginary number, has long been disputed. 

Ayer Itam Wanita delegate Rahimah Idris criticised the wives of ministers for their dressing, citing a minister's wife who wore a skirt at her ex-husband's funeral.  

We are not sure whom she was referring to, but there is no such image in our photo archives. 

Surely there were more urgent and serious matters to discuss at the general assembly of our country's dominant party. 

It is easy to demand for slices of the economic cake, but it would have been good to hear from the delegates how the country's economic policies and strategies could be strengthened and improved. 

There is too much head-to-head competition in an economy that is already slow, and it has seemingly led to what is called a struggle over a shrinking profit pool. 

In Pak Lah's words: "Bumiputras are unhappy that targets have not been reached while non-bumiputras are restless because they perceive that a time extension might mean they will not achieve equality." 

He clearly understands that Malaysia is not built by the blood, sweat and tears of one race but by all Malaysians.  

The Malays should not be made to feel insecure and, certainly, the Chinese and Indians are no longer immigrants but citizens with equal rights. 

There is a need to move away from the "them versus us" mentality because, as what has been described as the Blue Ocean Strategy, everyone should work together to look for uncontested market space and to make competition irrelevant. 

For example, the country's demography has changed tremendously with Malays making up over 60% while the Chinese population has shrunk. More and more hotels and restaurants now serve halal food because they see the expansion of a Malay middle-class, which is good for the country. 

Likewise, Chinese-owned direct-selling companies have focused their attention on Malay customers.  

It is here where the Malays and Chinese can forge true business partnership. 

With the shift towards West Asia, it helps to have Muslim partners and executives for non-Malay companies. 

There is no need for Malays to be uptight when Chinese companies insist on Chinese-speaking workers for trading with mainlanders.  

It may seem like discrimination but it is also against many English and Malay-educated Chinese. 

The investments of Malaysian companies overseas brought home RM1.4bil in 2005 from RM400mil in 1999. 

The bottom line, as Pak Lah said, is that in a flattening world Malaysians – regardless of race – need to improve in order to become marketable and adaptable in a globalised world.  

Malaysians should have a wider perspective of economic issues as trade barriers and protectionist rules are dismantled. 

It is clear from this Umno general assembly that the Prime Minister is very much in control. Make no mistake about it.