Perhaps setting the tone will be the speech made by outgoing MCA president Ong Ka Ting during the party’s election over the weekend. Ka Ting shocked the nation with what was probably his most critical speech ever when he took Umno to task for its insistence on dominating over its BN peers.
“The power sharing slogan is often used but it is deemed lip service,” Ong said in his swan song speech to MCA members and guests that included Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Najib and other BN leaders.
Athough Abdullah later denied that Umno disregarded and bullied its partners, he also point-blankly rejected calls from Ka Ting that day and from Gerakan president Koh Tsu Koon the week before to review the oppressive Internal Security Act.
Originally intended to be used against terrorists, the ISA has been invoked by government leaders to imprison civilians including political foes without trial and for indefinite periods.
Last Friday, 26-year old Suaram activist Cheng Lee Whee was arrested under section 28 of the ISA for spreading false information after lodging a police report accusing the police of abuse of power in the controversial eviction of a squatter colony in Johor.
Although section 28 is regarded as less severe in that it does not empower the police to detain Cheng without trial, civil groups and political observers have condemned the move as intimidating and high-handed.
Cheng, who insists she did nothing wrong, was released late Saturday evening and ordered to report to court on Nov 1.
“It looks as though Prime Minister Abdullah and Umno are not learning lessons from the past,” political analyst Khoo Kay Peng told Malaysiakini. “They just don’t get it, not even after the March 8 general election.“
“Umno wants to be the ‘taikoh’ (big brother). They don’t want to be questioned. Each time, there is trouble, they will go back to their authoritarian, Malay supremacy ways of the past.”
Playing the racial card
Race-based or divide-and-rule communal politics has been practised by the Umno-led BN since the country’s independence from British rule in 1957.
Although, long diagnosed as the main cause for the increase in racial polarisation, Umno and its leaders - including Najib’s father Abdul Razak, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and even Abdullah - have variously persisted in its use to maintain favour with the Malay community.
This despite growing calls from the MCA, Gerakan and the MIC to adopt a more multi-racial approach in the face of rising voter disgust with the outdated strategy.
The trio now blame race-based politics for their poor performance at national polls held earlier this year when Malaysians voted in their first meaningful opposition - giving the Pakatan Rakyat led by Anwar Ibrahim five of the country’s 13 states.
“The forces within the BN are contrary by nature. How can Umno share power with BN partners when such a move goes against the grain that Malay interests are paramount and must be consolidated,” said Khoo.
Yet despite the tougher stance taken by the MCA and Gerakan, political observers feared their new-found courage might be fleeting and predicted that chances were high they would go back into their shell once party polls were concluded.
“Let’s see how the MCA and Gerakan react this week, especially after the PM has made it clear that the ISA will not be reviewed. Will they stand up to him and push for concrete steps to get the Act abolished, or will just they hum-haw and pretend they didn’t hear as in they always have done in the past,” said a political observer.
A surprise special statement issued by the Conference of Rulers warning Malaysians not to question the special rights of the Malays, among other things, is also expected to be dissected by civil groups and think-tanks seeking clues on the socio-economic direction of the country and its implications for investors - both local and foreign.
“I respect the wise words from the Rulers. That should be our struggle - to defend the rights of all races,” said ex-MCA secretary general Ong Ka Chuan, who was defeated by ex-health minister Chua Soi Lek for party deputy presidency on Saturday.
Ka Chuan and his brother Ka Ting have been blamed for not standing up to Umno and losing party the respect of the community.
Also high on the list of anticipated news is deputy premier Najib, who was hit by a double-whammy of scandals last week. While his supporters say the rumours will not impact his campaign to be Umno president and the country’s next prime minister, Malaysians are watching to see how he distances himself from the allegations.
The first was the revival of a spate of allegations linking him to a Mongolian woman murdered here in 2006. Although Najib has denied ever having a sexual relationship with the 28-year old Altantuya Shariibuu, a website posting of a series of SMS messages purportedly sent by him to a lawyer involved in the case has reminded the nation of the controversial episode.
The second was a questionable, high-cost helicopter deal alleged to be sanctioned during his time in the defence ministry.
According to a whistleblower from a competing bidding firm, the government agreed to buy 12 units of Cougar EC-725 choppers worth about RM2.3 billion from Eurocopter, although there was a cheaper alternative from Canadian-based Kelowna Flightcraft. Kelowna had offered to supply 12 helicopters of similar specifications for only RM898 million.
The uproar has pressured Abdullah, who took over the defence ministry last month, to promise to look into the matter. Najib has said he will give the Dewan Rakyat a detailed explanation soon.
Umno and Hindraf
The chase for Umno nominations will continue to take centre stage this month until Nov 9.
Najib has so far garnered 52 nominations to contest the Umno presidency due to be vacated by Abdullah.His only challenger Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has still to break the egg.
While the deputy premier looks set to romp home uncontested at party election slated for March next year, attention has swung to the Youth chief aspirant Khairy Jamaluddin.
MCA youth delegate Ting Tai Fook accused Khairy of fanning racial feelings and urged the government to arrest the 32-year old son-in-law of Abdullah under ISA.
The banning of Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) - while anticipated but nevetheless still shooked the Indian community - is expected to generate a fresh backlash of reaction as community leaders regroup to find their way forward this week.
“Hindraf was banned because it was a sore that wouldn’t go away. It was banned because it reflected the worst of the Barisan and Umno’s misguided policies that caused unfairness and corrupt practices that left one ethnic group far behind the rest,” said Ramon Navaratnam, president of Transparency International Malaysia.