Cracks widen in BN as Umno tackles its own woes

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional featured on an election billboard this year. BN was popular as a broad-based coalition representing all communities but support waned amid claims of corruption and rising racial te
Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional featured on an election billboard this year. BN was popular as a broad-based coalition representing all communities but support waned amid claims of corruption and rising racial tensions as Umno championed Malay supremacy.PHOTO: REUTERS

Cracks have widened in Malaysia's already fractured Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, as member party Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) threatened on Sunday (Oct 28) to leave the former ruling pact should Umno, which chairs BN, pursue an alliance with Islamist party PAS.

Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong, deputy president of the MCA, warned that Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's overtures to Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) will only lead the multi-ethnic BN - still reeling from a shock election loss in May - away from mainstream politics.

Dr Wee, MCA's only MP and leading candidate for the party's presidential contest this weekend, said: "He will be remembered as the person who brings Umno and Barisan to an end. MCA cannot, in good conscience, walk with him on this path of self-destruction."

Another MCA presidential candidate, Mr Gan Ping Sieu, also dismissed Zahid's plan to restructure and rebrand BN. "A rebranded Barisan with PAS, a political party with a theocratic objective, is a no-go for MCA," he said yesterday.

It took less than two months for former ruling coalition BN to disintegrate after its six-decade rule ended in a shock election loss on May 9. By the time Parliament reconvened in July, BN was left with only three of its 13 member parties.

HEADED FOR DESTRUCTION

He will be remembered as the person who brings Umno and Barisan to an end. MCA cannot, in good conscience, walk with him on this path of self-destruction.

DATUK SERI WEE KA SIONG, Malaysian Chinese Association's deputy president, on how Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's overtures to Parti Islam SeMalaysia will only lead the multi-ethnic BN away from mainstream politics.

All eight parties from Sabah and Sarawak exited, along with Gerakan and the People's Progressive Party (myPPP). MyPPP has since rejoined the pact.

"There is no more Barisan Nasional, only Barisan Malaya," a BN leader told The Straits Times, referring to the name used by the states in Peninsular Malaysia before they formed a federation with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963.

BN was popular with voters because it sold itself as a broad-based coalition representing all communities in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

That support gradually eroded amid claims of corruption and rising racial tensions as Umno, the dominant party in the pact, championed Malay supremacy.

Reaching out to PAS is part of Umno's efforts to build a credible opposition front.

BN components - many of which represent non-Muslim ethnic communities - have, in the past, tolerated Umno's relationship with the Islamist outfit, in order to champion the interests of the Malay-Muslim majority, but not to create a political alliance.

 
 
 

Still, parties such as MCA and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which has two MPs, are sticking with BN to survive for now.

Pacific Research Centre's principal adviser Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times: "These mosquito parties are caught in a dilemma, as they simply don't have the numbers. On one hand, they would fade further into oblivion if they come out on their own, but on the other, they will be forced to continue acceding to Umno's wishes."

The troubles at Umno are also partly to blame for BN's current sorry state of affairs.

While the Malay-centric party still emerged from the May election with 54 of 222 MPs in Parliament - then the largest number from a single party - it is still finding its feet as a member of the opposition.

Meanwhile, criminal charges against its senior members - Zahid and former president Najib Razak - and internal power struggles continue to distract its attention.

Barely four months after being elected Umno president, Zahid now faces 45 charges of graft, and could not be more distracted from the task of rebuilding BN.

It is not clear if rebuilding BN was even a priority before then, as he and other Umno leaders were busy talking up tensions within the new Pakatan Harapan government, and how Umno could return to power by teaming up with member parties in PH in a new coalition.

Meanwhile, in recent by-elections, BN parties have begun using their own logos to contest, instead of the iconic BN weighing scales symbol used at previous polls.

KRA group director of strategy Amir Fareed Rahim told The Straits Times: "BN is defunct in all but name. Zahid was too preoccupied with stabilising Umno and his own survival and didn't have time for BN. The BN leaders are only meeting each other at Parliament sittings. The BN spirit is no more."

Recent defections from Umno and BN do not augur well for the pact.

Umno is no longer the largest party in Parliament after six of its 54 MPs quit, including former trade minister Mustapa Mohamed, who announced last Friday that he was joining Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Last Wednesday, Umno's Sabah chapter, along with former BN parties in the state, formed Gabungan Bersatu Sabah, effectively erasing BN from the state.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2018, with the headline 'Cracks widen in BN as Umno tackles its own woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe