Friday, May 17, 2013

Emasculation: BN as a coalition brand

To me, blogging has always been about putting wayward and happenstance thoughts out into the open.

If I have more serious thoughts, I would reduce them into academic papers and have them published as I have in certain academic and professional journals.

This entry is about wayward and happenstance thoughts.

The formation of the Alliance Party comprising UMNO, MCA and MIC was an astute strategy to address a fragmented market of voters in the 1950s and 1960s.

Equally so, the formation of the even larger Barisan Nasional coalition was, in many ways, a response to the needs and demands of an even more fragmented market of voters in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

The new millennium was dramatic for the BN largely due to the formal retirement of Dr M. 

Dr M was the embodiment of and, may well be the last of the paternalistic political leaders Malaysia will ever see. In the immediate euphoria of the post-Mahathir era, BN's successor leadership reaped the benefits and outpouring of goodwill towards the BN brand. BN's landslide win in 2004 was comprehensive and cut across every conceivable section of the Malaysian electorate.

If ever there was an example of a collective high, 2004 was it for Malaysian politics. The stuffy air in an enclosed room was replaced by the fresh air of greater political freedom.

What happened then? 

There is enough good political analyses already published that accurately document and contain sound inferences about why that groundswell of goodwill toward BN in 2004 was lost in 2008. 

This entry is about GE 2013 from the narrow perspective of BN as a political brand and, more to the point, why only the main sub-brand of UMNO attracted its traditional loyal following while the other component sub-brands suffered badly.

Why did the voters not embrace the BN brand when presented with non-UMNO sub-brands?

There are many factors, of course. There is the factor of the urban voters. There is the issue of racial groupings. Perhaps, we can add the possibility of personality, religion, campaign messages and strategy and many other factors. This is fertile ground for much socio-politica analysis.

I choose to look at only one possible factor. Emasculation.

Yes. You got it right. Emasculation.

The loss of power and, for want of a better word, masculinity.

Castration. Cutting off the cojones. Weakening. Deprivation of vigour.

These words describe the non-UMNO components of the BN.

This, to my mind, was a major factor that explains why non-UMNO BN components fared badly.

In the mid-1990s, I was, like the rest of the world, enthralled by Tiger Woods and his amazing skills and his will to win. He wore the Nike brand.

Everyone wanted to be like Tiger. Hell, I wanted to be like Tiger. How do I get to feel like I can be like Tiger? 

I bought the brands that Tiger wore. I bought Nike.

And, what, you may ask, has this Tiger-fixation episode got to do with the failure of the non-UMNO BN components?

Those of us who are either of a certain vintage or, who are conscientious armchair students of Malaysian history, may recall the deep personal bonds of friendship between the leaders of UMNO, MCA and MIC in the 1950s and 1960s. They would hang out, spin yarns, gulp down brandy and enjoy jocular banter. It was a true fraternity of the political elite.

Voters felt that if there was any issue that needed to be resolved these leaders would do so in a congenial setting and discuss matters with civility.

There was still evidence of this in the 1970s.

It disappeared in the 1980s.

BN went from a partnership of friends and transformed into a large corporation of strangers.

There is a light theory that it didn't help matters that Dr M never played golf. So, one could never catch up with him for casual chit chats with him in various states of undress in the dressing room. He was only accessible in controlled settings. That may be just golfers' bias. But, then again...

Anyway, the point that I am hazarding is that the electorate is neither blind nor deaf nor dumb. 

It can see the glaring contrast between the power and the glory that UMNO's leaders embody and the emasculated parochialism, insularity and pettiness that successive non-UMNO BN leaders has embodied.

Juxtapose that with the constant joint appearances of the Pakatan Rakyat leaders from PKR, PAS and DAP and their distinctive combined party logos in the shirts worn by the Pakatan Rakyat leaders and  the flags flown.

The contrast in imagery was that leaders from the non-UMNO BN components needed to "make an appointment" to have access to power, while Pakatan Rakyat leaders could just look each other up without any formal arrangements.

This is what I mean about the emasculation chanelled by non-UMNO BN components.

The marketing message of Pakatan Rakyat was, even for neutrals, sublime, exciting and seductive.

Who doesn't want a multiracial leadership and national unity? Who doesn't want leaders with power or, at least, real access to power?

Who doesn't respond to positive vibes that channels Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" oratory?

In contrast, voters were entreated with non-UMNO BN components like the MCA leaders pleading with the electorate not to give them "an egg" (meaning "zero"). Worse still, voters were abused with  self-indulgent and poor karaoke singing and forced to take home DVDs of candidates singing.

All of us want leaders who can hold themselves as a prism through which we can identify the best things that we wish for ourselves, our children and our community. We want leaders who can mirror our desires and aspirations.

The UMNO-BN leaders were obviously able to channel all that.

The non-UMNO BN leaders were not able to. Instead, they channeled a sense of emasculation and self-indulgence. This is not something the electorate want to see or feel when it examines the slate of political candidates.

This, to my mind, is the challenge for BN as a coalition brand. I admit that it is a simplistic entry; superficial even. That is why it is only a blog post and, not an academic paper.

The challenge is at many, many levels. Each BN component needs an internal overhaul. 

Someone made an observation to me recently, that the MCA's party constitution is so skewed to favour the incumbents that there is almost no way for any maverick to move the delegates to challenge the incumbents. So, it becomes a cesspool where elite factions fight each other without allowing young leaders to enter.

In fairness, the same accusation can be hurled at the Pakatan Rakyat components.

So, the difference may be in the area of the attitude of the leaders. 

For some reason, the Pakatan Rakyat is able to attract bright and young political talent and fast-track them into the electoral fray.

In contrast, BN components appear to be hierarchical, bureaucratic, staid, slow, ponderous, troglodytic and unimaginative.

Is this just a perception? 

Judging from the harsh feedback from the electorate in GE13, BN components have got a lot of soul-searching and structural reconstruction to embark on.

Leaders like Saifuddin Abdullah may well have hit the nail on the head in renewing the call for direct memberships into BN.

Voters need to feel like they are voting for candidates who have real power.

BN leaders may say, what is the point of voting for Pakatan Rakyat candidates who are not in government? Where got power, like that?

But, they would be wrong.

A good wakil rakyat will get the job done or, be seen to try to get the job done. That, to the voter, may be good enough...for now; someone to lend an ear; someone to lend a shoulder to lean on; someone to cry out about your plight; someone to represent your frustration; someone who can stand up for you.

So, please get to work!

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