The analogy of 1970
A bloodless coup d’etat in Perak, a ban on Harakah and Suara Keadilan, police breaking up pre-election ceramahs with brute force, and legal cases brought by the Barisan Nasional government against opposition members set the background for the impending transition of power from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Behind the collective Umno psyche, it is a belief that its current predicament is akin to that of post-1969 election, and its incoming leader Najib is to save the party – similar to that of his father the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
Najib told the New Straits Times that “there may be some similarities during the time my late father took over (as prime minister) in 1970 as it was after the May 13 incident, and there were political uncertainties in Selangor, Perak and Penang.”
Umno and its operatives hope that Najib will lead them like his father did, salvaging Umno and its allies from near defeat in 1969 to massive victories in the 1974 election.
Official propaganda on the May 13th incident usually characterises the general election on 10th May 1969 as the one that non-Malay voted for the Opposition while the Malays for the Alliance, resulting in a racial backlash.
But data shows that compared to the 1964 general election, Malay support for the Opposition increased from 15 percent to 25 percent while non-Malay support stayed at the same level between the two elections. Opposition increased its share of parliamentary seats in the Peninsula from 17 to 37, out of 104.
Umno’s election casualty in 1969 included Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Emergency was declared and parliamentary democracy suspended. Three days after the May 13th incident, Tun Razak was appointed by the King to head the National Operations Council, which was then the de facto government.
The lame duck Tunku Abdul Rahman remained as the Prime Minister, only to relinquish the post reluctantly in September 1970.
The intervening years between 1969 and 1974 saw the use of emergency powers, massive arrests of opposition figures under the ISA, curtailment of parliamentary freedoms through a series of constitutional amendments at the resumption of parliament in February 1971.
But not only were there sticks but carrots were ditched out too. Opposition elected representatives were enticed to join the government while coalition governments were formed in Penang, Kelantan, Ipoh city, with Gerakan, Pas and PPP respectively, culminating into an expanded pact BN in 1974.
Just before the 1974 general election, Malaysia became the first non-communist Southeast Asian country to establish diplomatic ties with communist China.
The most effective campaign poster for BN in Chinese areas was a photo of Tun Razak greeting Chairman Mao in Beijing.
The grand coalition BN won a landslide as there was no serious opposition party after Pas was co-opted. DAP was the only important opposition party.
Now Umno hopes that Najib can do a Tun Razak to reverse Umno’s electoral fortunes by the next election.
The only problem for Umno is that repeating history a second time would be a farce. Umno will soon have to wake up and smell the 2009 coffee, not the one brewed in 1970.
The ruling party no longer has full control over the flow of information as the population is now better educated and gap between rural and urban narrows.
More importantly, Najib does not have his father’s credibility among the Malays; he merely lives on the Tun Razak brand for the last three decades or so.
During his long tenure as deputy prime minister, Tun Razak handled the portfolio of national and rural development masterfully and built a lasting legacy to this day. Many Malays, especially the elderly Felda and Felcra settlers, feel that they owe Tun Razak their lives.
But Najib was born and bred with a silver spoon.
Succeeding his father’s seat at the age of 23 in 1976 (significantly, two years before Abdullah Badawi entered politics), Najib built a vast network of relationships in every corner of the establishment from the royalty to the grassroots Umno divisions, as well as a superb factional financial war chest and machinery.
Yet he has not a single positive signature policy initiative in his name, apart from the passing of a moderate Education Act 1996.
The National Service programme under his watch is of questionable achievement while questionable defence deals continue to haunt him, not to mention other scandals.
The myth of 1970 has another dimension. Tun Razak’s greatest political success was in persuading Umno’s arch enemy Pas to join his grand coalition, without which the success of BN in the 1974 general election was remotely possible. PAS however was forced out from BN and its power base Kelantan in November 1977.
Now in 2009, some PAS leaders such as its influential spiritual leader Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat are still bitter about the experience.
For them, the grabbing of power in Perak in February orchestrated by Najib strengthens their case against any peace deal with UMNO. To them, joining any grand design of Umno is a recipe of disaster.
Furthermore, the Umno hegemony through its Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy clarion call has alienated many non-Malay supporters including those within the BN coalition.
In this age and time, it will be difficult for Najib to win support through politics of fear and communalism in his attempt to revive the glory of his father’s grand coalition of the 1970’s.