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Gerakan’s fight

Central committee nominees pose for photos after nominations closed on 4 Oct 2008. Seated are (from left)
Koh Tsu Koon, Chia Kwang Chye and national election supervisory committee secretary Chin Fook Weng

DESPITE being the Barisan Nasional (BN) component party that suffered the most dismally in the 8 March 2008 elections, the life has not gone out of Gerakan. Indeed, judging from the 4 Oct nominations for the party polls, Gerakan’s spirit for renewal is showing encouraging vital signs. 

In the scheduled 11 Oct elections for the party’s national central committee, a record 10 candidates will vie for three vice-presidential seats, while another 40 candidates will contest for 18 central committee members’ posts.

It’s a crowded battlefield indeed, but for a party that sunk into depression after its pathetic performance in the March general election, the more candidates for party positions, the merrier.

Leaders say it’s a sign the fighting spirit is back among party grassroots. It’s also evidence that the membership is responding to calls to revive Gerakan’s founding ideals and make the party relevant to Malaysians again.

Perak Gerakan chief Datuk Chang Ko Youn, who is one of two contestants for the deputy president’s post, says he is “amazed” by the large number of candidates (see below), considering the low morale after the general election.

Chang Ko Youn (left) and Ma Woei Chyi are in a direct fight for
the deputy presidency

“It’s a good sign despite the party having nothing now in terms of ministerial posts, and even though we only two Members of Parliament.

“It is also the most difficult time for Gerakan as we are at a crossroads, yet there are members who want to come forward,” says Chang, 51, who is also an incumbent vice-president.

He will face former Federal Territory Youth chief Ma Woei Chyi, 37, in a straight fight for the deputy presidency which was vacated by Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon when he became acting president on 8 April 2007.


Apart from the record high number of candidates contesting for party positions, another record is being set for this party polls. Eleven, or 22%, of the 50 vice-presidential and central committee candidates are not Chinese Malaysians.

Asharuddin Ahmad, the sole Malay Malaysian candidate for
the vice-president’s post
And for the first time ever since the 1970s, a Malay Malaysian — Selangor Gerakan committee member Dr Asharuddin Ahmad — is in the race for a vice-president’s post.

The party senses that post-8 March, multiracial politics seems to be gaining currency among the electorate. The clearest proof that racially centred sectarian politics is losing its appeal was when outrage erupted over the remarks by Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail. In the run-up to the 26 Aug Permatang Pauh by-election, Ahmad had called Chinese Malaysians “immigrants” without equal rights.

Gerakan also realises that its multiracial ideology has remained just that. The party has little to show for its ideology in the national leadership. Only vice-president Datuk Dr S Vijayaratnam, who is defending his post, is a non-Chinese Malaysian in a party that has over 20% members who are not Chinese Malaysian.

Other non-Chinese Malaysian office holders are Senator A Kohilan Pillay, the first Indian Malaysian Selangor chief; Federal Territory Wanita chief Jayanthi Devi Balaguru; and Selangor Wanita chief Asmah Alias — but these are not national level positions.

A Kohilan Pillay, the first Indian Malaysian
Selangor chief
“We can’t fool people anymore by saying we’re multiracial when it’s not reflected in our composition. Gerakan has been comfortable for too long in the [Barisan Nasional] coalition.

“There was always this fear that attracting Malays to the party would anger Umno, or recruiting Indians would anger the MIC. The approach has always been very cautious,” says Youth central committee member Stephen Doss, who is contesting both the Youth vice-president’s post and a seat on the national central committee.

The president’s post

Despite these encouraging signs at revivalism, Gerakan is definitely not out of the woods just yet.

For example, if there was such an interest in contests, how did Koh win the president’s post unopposed? The protégé of former party president and now adviser Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik said his unchallenged win was a sign the party was giving him a chance, “since I have only been acting president for one-and-a-half years.”

Unlike the baying for leaders’ blood in Umno and the MCA after the BN’s losses on 8 March, Koh’s position in Gerakan seems to have remained relatively secure. While Koh is thankful for the chance to prove himself despite the party’s losses, political analyst Khoo Kay Peng has a different point of view. He says the fact that Koh has retained his position unopposed is “symptomatic of Gerakan’s lack of dynamism and leadership options.”

“It’s expected that Koh would win uncontested because there seems to be a lack of interest among other leaders to head the party. Having contests for the top post is a good measure of the level of desire to reform, especially with the ‘hot’ issue about whether the party should leave the BN,” Khoo tells The Nut Graph.

Koh Tsu Koon and secretary-general Chia Kwang Chye celebrate Koh’s win as president unopposed

Koh says he will address “many aspects of reform” in his president’s speech at the party’s national delegates conference (NDC) on 11 Oct. While a motion to leave the BN has not been filed for the national delegates conference to pass, party secretary-general Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye has said delegates may still raise it for discussion.

Still, pulling out to go solo is risky. Most BN component party chiefs would fear travelling such treacherous ground, save for the maverick Sabah Progressive Party, which has the benefit of different political dynamics in the East Malaysian state.

Koh probably had this on his mind when he told reporters about his uncontested win: “This is a very heavy responsibility, not a glory”.

A year to change

Whether to stay in the BN or to leave is a thorny issue. For now, the consensus seems to be for a separate forum, such as an extraordinary general meeting (EGM), to address the issue.

While emotions on the ground are strong about Gerakan’s need to break away, the top leadership is said to have privately admitted that the party cannot survive on its own outside the BN.

“People are just plain angry with what is happening in the country after the general election, but we can’t go on emotions. We really have to analyse the implications,” says Gerakan Wanita chief Datuk Tan Lian Hoe, who retained her post uncontested.

Tan Keng Liang: One year for the party to change
Youth chief contestant Tan Keng Liang has proposed calling for an EGM to reach a decision within one year from the party’s national delegates conference.

“Leaving should be considered in the event that the BN is unable to protect the rights of all Malaysians. Umno and the BN have one year to change. It also means one year for Gerakan to do something proactive,” the incumbent Kedah Youth chief says.

He suggests the party hold nationwide forums before the EGM. “Those who want Gerakan to leave the BN must state their reasons why and propose solutions. Those who want the party to stay must spearhead change in the coalition to make it accepted by the people again.”

Tan’s opponent for the top Youth post, national Youth deputy chief Lim Si Pin, says a referendum should be conducted to determine the number of those who want the party to pull out.

While Koh himself has said that about 60% of party members support leaving the BN, Si Pin, who is Keng Yaik’s son, says decisions should be based on a proper survey.

“The idea of pulling out may be a general feeling but not an accurate picture. I don’t believe that the party is ready to leave the BN at this point when our organisational structure is still weak, and we’re still not seeing 100% commitment from all party members.

The party is not strong enough to leave
the BN yet, says Lim Si Pin

“At any major meeting, whether it’s a party election or NDC, the turnout is between 60% and 70% of all delegates. If attending a once-a-year meeting is so difficult, why talk about whether to leave the BN or stay? If members cannot show commitment, just how strong is the party?” argues Si Pin.

Other leaders note that ground sentiment varies from state to state, with the mood for pulling out stronger in opposition-led states where Gerakan suffered badly in the general election. Members in BN-led Johor, where Gerakan holds the Simpang Renggam parliamentary constituency, are less keen to leave the ruling coalition.

Deputy president candidate Chang agrees that an EGM is needed to deal with the matter separate from other issues at the national conference.

“The NDC should not let the party elections or the pullout overshadow bigger issues we are currently facing, such as the state of our economy,” he says, noting that since the general election, there has been too little governance of the country and too much politicking. “Our energies should instead be focused on facing an economic crisis.”

These challenges look set to occupy Gerakan’s attention for the next few months. With so much to do to get back on its feet, it’ll be a while yet before the party is likely to leave the BN.

In the meantime, party members can expect robust elections and discussion at the upcoming national delegates conference. If nothing else, that may at least set the tone for the party’s revitalisation.

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