On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Changes aplenty in the works


TAN Sri Muhyiddin Yassin made a telephone call to a Penanti Umno branch leader recently when he found out that PKR assemblyman Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin had decided to quit his state seat, paving the way for a by-election. The eager local Umno leader told the Deputy Prime Minister that he would immediately call for a meeting to discuss preparations.

But Muhyiddin instead ticked him off, saying he should be convening a meeting of all Barisan Nasional leaders. The campaigning involved Barisan leaders and not just Umno leaders, he was told.

An unprecedented move was made when MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat was invited on April 26 to open the meeting of Kimma, a Malaysian Muslim party, that is seeking to join the Barisan.

The signal was important – one of the highest ranking Barisan leaders, a non-Muslim at that, was attending the function of a political party that is regarded as friendly and supportive of the Barisan.

The conventional approach of a Muslim leader, in his songkok and baju Melayu, carrying out the responsibility was no longer the way.

Broader outlook

Last week, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed met Malaysian students in London. He had sent out an early request to the organisers – he wanted to meet Malaysians of all races, not just Malays and certainly not just pro-Umno students.

The International Trade and Industry Minister took a step further: He had a meal with a multi-racial group at a Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown.

And, of course, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak started his leadership with a walkabout in three areas in Kuala Lumpur with a predominantly Malay, Chinese or Indian population. He was pictured talking to Chinese traders in Jalan Petaling and Malay city flat dwellers in Kampung Kerinchi, and enjoying a cup of teh tarik with Indians in Brickfields.

These may be merely symbolic gestures but they are also powerful messages to the grassroots leaders of the 13 component parties of the Barisan – that no single party leader should be projecting themselves as champions of their own race.

It is no longer enough to merely talk of issues affecting their own communities. In fact, it can be self-defeating.

Rapid changes are taking place in the Barisan with the coalition fully aware that the clock is ticking away very fast.

Muhyiddin, who is Umno deputy president, talked of a transformation in Umno within the next two years.

Malaysians are used to watching images of Malay leaders sitting on the stage every time there is an Umno general assembly but they have never seen a multi-racial group of leaders talking about national issues together. This is being done weekly at the Cabinet but never at a convention where real issues are discussed for the nation to see.

But it has to be more than just form. There has to be a transformation of the mindset for this to happen. From Umno and MCA to PBS and PBB, all party leaders have to talk Malaysian.

Treating the sickness

The PKR is a new kid on the block but it has been able to glue PAS and DAP together to create a storm. There are more alarm bells for Barisan – the moderate face of PAS leader Nizar Jamaluddin has stepped into national politics. He will no longer be just a Perak leader but a national leader, taking over from the likes of the turbaned Nik Aziz and Hadi Awang.

Unless the ulamas stop the British-educated politician, who introduced himself to Chinese voters with his Chinese name, he is the man many Barisan politicians have to watch and worry about, not the ageing theologians in PAS with their firebrand rhetoric.

Like other Barisan leaders, Najib is aware that unless radical changes are carried out, it would have a drastic impact on the results of the next general election. This time, the decision has to be from the top to the bottom.

It is not good enough to recognise the reasons and not act on them. The Barisan, parti­cularly Umno, is afflicted with sickness. The leaders are aware that their main coalition partners are all over 50 years and they need treatment. But there is plenty of resistance for clinical changes.

Najib has grabbed the bull by the horns by readily tackling issues that may not be popular with conservative Malays.

He got the Cabinet to set the tone by agreeing that children of a parent who converts would retain the status of the religion when their parents married. PAS leaders have already openly attacked the policy and there certainly would be quiet grumblings from right-wing Malay groups, supporters of Umno, who feel the same.

Najib has shown that he is not just the leader of the Malays but also the Prime Minister of all Malaysians. That he has done so at the risk of losing crucial Malay votes must be commended.

On the other hand, there would also be many non-Malay voters who feel that not enough is being done and that the PM still has plenty to do before their faith in the Barisan is restored.

On the business front, Najib has scrapped the bumiputra equity quota on 27 sub-sectors ranging from health to tourism. It’s a bid to make Malaysia more competitive and a more attractive place for investors. The decision has already received plenty of goodwill in the region.

Malaysia needs to be on the pages of newspapers worldwide for the right reasons. We have to be in the good news, and news not just limited to politics.

Businessmen across the region asked incredulously why there is excessive politicking in Malaysia when energy and resources should be channelled towards facing the impact of the global financial crisis.

Malaysians are suffering from political fatigue, and forced by-elections by the opposition to make themselves look good has, in fact, led to much unhappiness within the ranks of the Pakatan Rakyat.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim wants a by-election simply because he wants to put his man in as Deputy Chief Minister I and nothing else. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has rightly fumed at the decision because it would cost taxpayers millions of ringgit. Anwar knows the PKR would win hands down because the constituency is part of his Permatang Pauh area.

The by-election means national leaders have to take time away from their responsibilities and campaign in a poll that has little political meaning for the people. A win for PKR would have no consequence to the political structure of the Penang state government while a loss to Barisan would also mean little. The best we can say is that it is democracy at work.

But for employers trying to keep their businesses intact and their workers in their jobs, Penanti is hardly on their radar screen. Ordinary salary workers filling their income tax returns worry about how much they can still keep after the deductions.

It has been a tough act. Just when the Kuala Lumpur Composite Index begins to recover, due to a combination of positive external and internal factors, we have to face the problem of A(H1N1) fever, which is a damper to the market.

Remisiers who have struggled with poor sentiments in the market are hoping we could reach 1,000 points. Certainly, some profit taking, which will affect the momentum, is expected, but there must be activity.

Some Pakatan Rakyat politicians are pouring cold water on the increased volume in trading because they realise that in middle class Malaysia, political anger recedes when there is money to be generated.

Change is taking place because the opposing political forces are competing for the votes. Najib has to get back the votes the Barisan lost in March and unless he works hard on it, more votes could be lost.

For the opposition, the more it becomes mainstream, the more it runs the risk of losing its appeal with rumblings that some of its leaders are no different. For the Prime Minister, his job is to ensure the series of good news does not run out.