On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The old ways no longer work

EVERY product has a shelf life and any manufacturer will know that he has to re-brand and re-package the product every few years to make it attractive and competitive.

He also has to understand the demands of his loyal customers and at the same time meet the changing taste of new buyers, especially the young set, to keep the company relevant and profitable.

That’s a basic sales principle in every company. The same principle would be applicable in political parties.

Just take a look at established parties like the Congress Party of India, the Kuomintang Party of Taiwan, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, to name a few. Even the Labour and Conservative parties of England.

They have made serious efforts to revamp their structure and identity, sometimes painfully, after electoral defeats.

In the case of the 37-year-old Barisan Nasional, there are now calls to allow direct membership into the ruling coalition instead of members having to join one of the 13 coalition parties.

The Barisan, formed in 1973, is the successor to the Alliance, formed to fight for the country’s independence. But in 2008, the Barisan was dealt a severe blow by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat.

The shock general election results, regarded as a political tsunami, have led to numerous calls to revamp the coalition before the next general election.

The old way obviously no longer works and it cannot be business as usual. While many believe change is the only way, many leaders have found it hard to change, with some even resisting change.

Many stubbornly cling on to the old methods, believing the votes would be returned and all would be fine. In the short term perhaps, but a long-term solution is needed because even if some Barisan leaders refuse to change, the electorate has changed.

The world has changed, so has Malaysia. A younger set of voters who have no history with the Alliance and Barisan are not going to be very sentimental.

That is the reality. The voters have changed and in many instances retired off many politicians who refuse to fade away gracefully. There are still some of these old guards around who cannot read the political signs.

The leaders of the main Barisan component parties have generally supported the direct membership proposal although some have adopted a cautious approach.

Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Hisham­muddin Tun Hussein has been given the task to study the proposal.

The direct membership proposal would certainly rejuvenate the Barisan, particularly in bringing fresh talent to the coalition.

There are many who support the Barisan, especially its non-communal approach, but have reservations joining the main partners, which are communal-based parties, even if they operate on a basis of consensus and accommodation. Sometimes, it is the dialect or language usage that affects their decisions.

It’s the same with the opposition parties like the PKR and the DAP, which are dominated by one race.

There have been grumbles that well-qualified people have found it difficult to be admitted into key Barisan component parties because of delaying tactics by grassroots leaders at branch or division levels.

The direct membership into the Barisan would eliminate such obstacles for those who have faith in the ruling coalition.

But the hesitation from component parties could stem from a practical consideration – these direct members, with no affiliates to any components, could outnumber them in future.

One aspect that must be considered though is who these direct members would report to, as would be the case in any organisation; there has to be a set of rules and regulations to follow.

For example, how would the Barisan leadership discipline a direct member who is out of line as the existing supreme council members may not even be the right people since they would not be the direct member’s peers.

Another point to consider is whether they have a constitutional right for elections among themselves and if there is a need, how would they be defined?

But every proposal, no matter how noble and well-intended, would lead to a set of problems. That is the challenge but the direct membership proposal should not be dismissed.

It is good that Hishammuddin, a young leader, has been given the responsibility to draw up the possibilities.

Like it or not, the country is shaping into a two-party system. Both the Barisan and the Pakatan would be drawing up their strategies to meet this new political scenario.

The Barisan is actually ahead of the Pakatan – which is now grappling with the difficulties of parties which are ideologically poles apart working together – in putting together a coalition.

The Barisan could start off with a network of movements and non-governmental organisations. They may have different interests and agenda but if they can be brought in to work with the Barisan, that would be a major coup.

A national convention of these supporters who do not belong to any party is a start to building on the strength of these organisations. It could unearth fresh talents that the Barisan would need to sharpen its image. Endorsements from these NGOs, including community-based groups, are essential during elections.

These non-affiliates could even be appointed to some positions in government, as the PAP in Singapore has done with nominated Members of Parliament comprising professionals and non-governmental organisation leaders.

The Barisan should not be looking for yes-men and yes-women but people with credibility if it is serious in rejuvenating itself.

But the changes in the Barisan have to be done gradually for them to be accepted. The decision must not involve just the heavyweights of the party but also those involved in the running of the key parties.