Patron-client nexus in politics

The Star: March 7, 2008
THE mixed fortunes of two bloggers – Ooi Chuan Aun (Jeff Ooi) and Badrul Hisham Shaharin (Chegu Bard) – who are contesting in the general election, tell many a tale.
Both have gone online to solicit funds for their election campaign and the response they got were poles apart.
Jeff Ooi who will be contesting the Jelutong parliamentary seat on a DAP ticket collected more than RM100,000 to date while Chegu Bard managed just over RM20,000.
It can be argued that Jeff Ooi received a better response, as he is a big name among the blogging community compared with Chegu Bard.
But others argued that Chegu Bard, vying for the Rembau parliamentary seat against the Prime Minister’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin should be getting bigger support.
Yet, a blogger who is close to both the contestants pointed out that the manner the funds are stacking up for the two are almost a reflection of the nation’s political reality.
He said the voters in Jelutong, the majority of them Chinese, were very proactive in their political participation while Rembau’s, the majority being Malays, tend to be retroactive.
It may be true but more than that is the fact that Malay voters are unfamiliar with the idea of contributing to candidates during an election. The concept they understand is the other way round.
All these years, be it in general elections or by-elections, Malay voters have learnt to expect something, goodies, promises of more goodies and in many instances, cash.
As such, to expect them to be the ones giving is asking a bit too much of them.
Of course it can be argued that PAS have been on donation drives in all their ceramah and have received substantial contributions from their supporters. But their supporters are driven by the party’s Islamic label, almost parallel to an ideological struggle.
The problem for Chegu Bard is that he is from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), much perceived as a splinter of Umno or that it has evolved to be an urban-based party with middle-class characteristics. The Malays may support their cause but not to the extent of contributing cash.
Much as PKR is styling itself as a multi-racial entity, most of its Malay supporters are former Umno fans. No doubt, there are new Malays, young, fresh and idealistic coming from a middle-class background but they have yet to become an integral part of the party.
Its supporters, especially those from rural constituencies were also former Umno members or supporters and their expectations of a political party have not changed much from the days when they were voting for Umno.
The 1999 general election cannot be used as a yardstick of the Malay voting psyche as it was at a period of major emotional convulsion that was devoid of rationale and instead displaced by anger or even rage.
Post-1999 has seen the anger and emotional factors subside and the Malay voting equation returned to what it was – a political duality represented by Umno and PAS.
For the Malay political parties, especially Umno, the patron-client co-existence ensured a captive audience.
But it has not always been like that, even for Umno supporters. In the early days, when Umno started taking the lead in the fight for independence, the supporters parted with their gold and jewellery to finance party leaders in their quest to break away from the imperial shackles.
But today, the Malay voters seem to be trapped in the patron-client environment.
For as long as Umno can continue to provide the patronage, the dependent Malay voters would continue to be a captive audience.
Of course there are the resentful middle-class Malays who have broken from their dependency on Umno. These Malays may have attained their fortune from the Malay policies espoused and realised by Umno.
However, their resentment arose from their awareness, perceived or real, that what they had benefited from the privileges were peanuts compared with what the Umno men and leaders had reaped.
To make matters worse , the middle-class Malays would never find any satisfaction from their achievements, as they are forever being chided or questioned by their non-Malay friends for their privileges.
To add insult to injury, some of the present-day Umno stalwarts seem unable to articulate the wisdom of the policies and at times, having abused the privileges, end up being the very source of embarrassment for the policies.
In some ways, the patron-client relations is quite feudal – as long as the candidate gets re-elected, the voters are taken care of and it works very well in the more rural areas where the needs of the constituents are still wanting.
As long as this is in place, any attempts to inject an ideological struggle to the political equation would not go far.
And the feudal nature has not only been a barrier for an ideological injection to the party but has resulted in some instances during nomination when certain candidates from Umno replaced their disgraced kin. It was done with impunity and could only have been done nonchalantly by a feudal mind.
It is such acts that have not endeared Umno with certain segments of the Malay middle-class that are quite confused in deciding their political affiliation.
For them, PAS and its hard-line Islamic credentials is not exactly an attractive alternative while PKR, which in itself seems confused in determining its agenda, has yet to be truly appealing.
While Jeff Ooi attempts to convince the voters that he is their man for Jelutong, Chegu Bard and other Malay opposition candidates have to decide how they are offering themselves to their electorate – as a representative or a patron?
Or maybe as a bigger patron?