It should be an exercise in party unity

THE SAGA INVOLVING ANWAR Ibrahim is certain to weaken UMNO, though the full impact can only be accurately assessed after the verdict on his trial. UMNO cannot be unaffected by the recent rise of dissent and the public show of anger and disapproval - which are unprecedented in the history of the country. The economic uncertainty and the attendant difficulties that go with it complicate matters further. Indeed, UMNO faces a formidable task in maintaining its hold on its existing parliamentary seats if general elections are called. Barisan Nasional, the governing coalition that is dominated by UMNO, may even lose power in certain states.

UMNO possesses the strength to overcome these difficulties. It is not inconceivable for an economic recovery to take place before the next elections. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has also proven many times over that he has both the capacity and tenacity to overcome obstacles and challenges which many others perceive as insurmountable. He may well bring Malaysia back to recovery faster than his critics would like. But beyond the economy, there are other pressing issues UMNO needs to address and, in doing so, determine the kind of leader who will replace the PM when he does call it a day.

Malaysia has a large segment of young voters with ideals. They talk of justice and expect fairness in the way things are done. They want greater freedom to express themselves. They want the authorities to be more tolerant of opposing views. This is not a new imported phenomenon nor something fashionable, but a deeply cherished ideal held by many young people since time immemorial. Also, affluence generates an environment of openness and a propensity to be critical. The middle class want more transparency in the affairs of government, and leaders with the kind of integrity that can withstand scrutiny. Laws and institutions must be seen to protect and defend the people, and must be relevant to the needs of the time. A more accessible and gentler leadership is required for the new millennium. Nation-building is more than just economics and superstructures.

The choice of the successor should be dictated by who will best be able to consolidate the party and win the general elections resoundingly. The candidates' rankings in UMNO should not be a critical consideration. There is a need to show forgiveness and understanding to those who march to a different beat - so long as they subscribe to the party's core values. A purge is not an option. The successor must have the capacity to bring together diverse viewpoints, and the magnanimity to forgive and forget - perhaps someone seen to be uninvolved in the controversy surrounding Anwar.

This man must have the stature and esteem to lend credibility to the idea that the party is not averse to change. He must have the competence and practical experience to carry on the economic policies that have brought Malaysia much prosperity. There is no point quarreling incessantly over the helm. Like Plato's parable of the ship's captain, UMNO should realize that the genuine navigator can only be fit to command the ship by studying the skies, seas, winds and the changing seasons of the year.

- By Zaid Ibrahim, a party branch leader in Kelantan

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