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Southeast Asian Affairs 2006 MALAYSIA The Challenge of Money Politics and Religious Activism K.S. Nathan 1 . UMNO, Money Politics, and the Malay Agenda In January 2005, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi began his fifteenth month in office as leader of this multi-ethnic nation of 26 million people, with a raft of issues that remained unsettled since assuming office on 1 November 2003. Abdullah was faced with pressing problems such as money politics, cronyism, budget deficits, glaring failures of several government-linked companies (GLCs), and religious intolerance. On a personal level, 2005 was a particularly difficult year for Abdullah, as his ailing wife Endon Mahmood succumbed to breast cancer in October after battling it for two years. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) General Assembly (19-23 July 2005) furnished the testing ground for Abdullah's leadership style and ability to emerge as a conciliator and problem solver for intra-UMNO politics and the general management of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). The BN is a 14-member coalition government in which two ethnic-based parties — the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) are senior partners representing numerically significant minorities in the country. The Prime Minister was conscious of the fact that he was not only UMNO President — the political party with 3.4 million Malay members — but was also the Prime Minister of a multiracial country. Abdullah squarely addressed the issue of money politics, which figured largely in the month-long run-up to the General Assembly. In his keynote speech, he remarked: "there can be no pride in winning an election through corrupt means and subsequently accepting money to bribe others".1 Adding that it would be a tragedy for the Malays if wealth was used K.S. Nathan is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. 152K.S. Mathan to barter power and power was used to sell out the race, Abdullah stressed that efforts to enhance integrity and eradicate corruption would cover both the public and private sectors, including statutory agencies and GLCs. The premier was evidently referring, in his speech, to the recent suspension of Isa Ahmad, the UMNO Vice-President and Federal Territories Minister, who secured the largest number of votes for the three vice-presidential posts in the September 2004 party elections. The party's disciplinary committee suspended Isa for six years, effectively ending his political career. A former Chief Minister of Negeri Sembilan, Isa was found guilty of bribing delegates by paying them between RM300 and RM1,000 for their votes. Yet, there is a certain measure of public disquiet over whether Isa was the sacrificial lamb in the scandal of money politics in the ruling ethnic Malay party. Although Isa's suspension was halved to three years on appeal, he was forced to resign his ministerial post in October. Was Isa the victim of a political conspiracy to remove him and to conceal the more serious disease afflicting the entire UMNO mindset of buying votes to attain high political positions in the party and government? Was Isa only the tip of the iceberg? Earlier in January, a Negeri Sembilan state executive councillor, Waad Abu Mansor, had his Court of Appeal decision overturned by the Federal Court, which sent him to jail on corruption charges. The latter even went as far as criticizing the Court of Appeal's decision in substituting fines for jail terms as this was not a sufficient deterrent to corruption and money politics.2 Although ISA's suspension was a stern reminder against indulgence in money politics, Abdullah still has a long way to go in curbing the disease. UMNO's drive, especially during Mahathir's tenure, to rapidly create a corpus of world-class Malay entrepreneurs through the political machinery of the party and the government invariably led to abuse. To achieve Vision 2020 via Malay economic empowerment. According to a specialist on Malaysia's political economy, "the government picked potential entrepreneurs and conferred on them — without open tender — concessions like licenses, contracts and privatized projects financed by loans from banks owned by the government".3 This method of racial targeting and selective patronage eventually became so entrenched and institutionalized...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1793-9135
Print ISSN
0377-5437
Pages
pp. 149-171
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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