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Gerakan’s new game plan

Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon calls for a return to multiracial politics during the national delegates conference

FOR now, the tough issue of whether Gerakan should leave or stay in the Barisan Nasional (BN) has been put to rest. President Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon found the perfect foil to sidestep the issue: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s promise to implement reforms in key areas before quitting in March 2009.

On 8 Oct, in a much-anticipated announcement, Abdullah said he would not contest the Umno presidency, and hence would retire from the premiership earlier than expected. But he promised reforms in the judiciary; the Anti-Corruption Agency; the Special Complaints Commission on law enforcement authorities; widening the social safety net; and healing race relations.

It was not lost on Koh that Abdullah’s promises could be used to placate the party’s grassroots who want Gerakan to leave the BN, because Abdullah’s promised reforms are similar to the ones Gerakan has called for.

Supporters of some candidates prepare to give out campaign
leaflets outside the assembly hall
Indeed, the issue of leaving the ruling coalition, despite indications that at least 60% of party grassroots would have favoured it, was hardly bandied about by delegates during the party’s national delegates conference held from 10 to 12 Oct 2008.

Third force

Calls for Gerakan to leave the mothership began after the party lost badly in the 8 March general election.

These demands reached a higher pitch after Koh’s picture was torn up by supporters of Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail at a press conference. Ahmad, now suspended from his party, had in the run-up to the 26 Aug Permatang Pauh by-election called Chinese Malaysians “immigrants”, and, despite being chastised by BN component party leaders, refused to apologise for the remark.

Though no motion was filed to debate or to pass a resolution on Gerakan’s status in the BN, party leaders did not prevent delegates from raising the matter at the closed-door debates during the conference.

To the surprise of Bukit Rahman Putra division chief Lee Hui Seng, the issue of leaving was not stridently raised.

“I was expecting this entire conference to be about whether Gerakan leaves or stays. But it was not a major issue. There were only two to three speakers who touched on it,” he tells The Nut Graph.

A delegate shows his support for outgoing Youth chief
Datuk Mah Siew Keong
Lee, who represented Selangor in the debates, also spoke about the idea of Gerakan pulling out of BN — not to join Pakatan Rakyat as suggested by some, but to remain as an independent party or a “third force” in a hypothetical three-party system.

“People have said to me I made some good points. But many said the party, at this juncture, is not ready for this,” he says.

It also seemed that outgoing Youth chief Datuk Mah Siew Keong’s proposal for a separate meeting to decide on the pullout was watered down.

Koh cleverly adopted Mah’s suggestion as part of the state-by-state tour that the newly elected central committee will embark on to explain the party’s strategies for revival.

Indeed, Koh’s opening speech as party president did not touch on the pullout issue at all. He was instead full of praises for Abdullah’s reforms, even naming the much-embattled premier “Father of Democracy”. Koh went as far as to declare a new party line: Gerakan will stay in the BN to help with reforms.

(From left) Koh, Abdullah, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Gerakan
adviser Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik singing the national anthem at the opening of the conference

Asked if the subject of leaving or staying was effectively closed, Koh said, on the sidelines of the conference: “I’m not saying it’s closed, there are bound to be different ideas as we continue discussing reform. But as far as I and the central leadership are concerned, we’ll work together with Abdullah.”

He said those who were earlier loudly calling for Gerakan to leave the BN have calmed down after hearing Abdullah’s commitment to change in his speech at the opening of the conference.

Still, even though the calls to leave the BN did not resound as loudly as expected within the conference, Gerakan delegates did take to task Umno’s arrogance and the BN’s sloth-like approach to change.

Gerakan Wanita chief Datuk Tan Lian Hoe had strong words for the likes of Umno’s Ahmad. She was also critical of her own party, observing that it had lost its courage to speak up for the people. “We are perceived to be under Umno’s thumb,” said Tan, who retained her post uncontested.

Tan Lian Hoe took Umno to task in
her speech
Race and meritocracy

Gerakan’s revival involves returning to its founding ideals of non-racial politics. The buzzword at the 2008 national delegates conference was “multiracialism”, a mouthful to say and even harder to implement.

The party’s founding in 1968 involved the participation of the three major races in the peninsula but has, over the years, become dominated by Chinese Malaysians, who make up about 80% of membership.

Before delegates went to the polls to vote in new office bearers, Koh made a spirited speech about returning the party to multiracialism as an example for the rest of the BN. He also supported another of Mah’s proposals: that after 50 years of race-based parties, the time had come for the BN to consider merging into a single, multiracial entity.

But when the election results made it apparent that the new Gerakan leadership was still overwhelmingly mono-racial, party leaders were quick to say that meritocracy had prevailed over race.

In Malaysian politics, especially in the peninsula, race versus meritocracy is a contentious and difficult issue to grapple with. Gerakan, which has championed equality for all, now finds itself having to debate and make sense of such an issue within its own ranks.

The party can be proud of the record number of non-Chinese Malaysian candidates who contested in this party elections, but it cannot feel the same about the results.

In the vice-presidents’ race, three Indian Malaysians and one Malay Malaysian ran against five Chinese Malaysians for three available posts. The winners were Mah, former Penang Youth chief Huang Cheng Guan, and incumbent vice-president Datuk Dr S Vijayaratnam.

The three new vice-presidents are (from left) Mah, Huang Cheng
Guan and S Vijayaratnam
The central committee members’ race for 18 seats was contested by 39 candidates, of which seven were Indian Malaysians. Only two of them, Selangor chief A Kohilan Pillay and Federal Territory Wanita chief Jayanthi Devi Balaguru, won.

The three Youth vice-presidents’ posts were contested by five candidates, of which two were Indian Malaysians. Neither won. In the Youth central committee race, A Kuhan, the party’s special affairs officer for Segambut, became the only Indian Malaysian in the 18-member line-up that was contested by 27 other candidates, all of whom were Chinese Malaysians.

On or off the menu

Asked to analyse the lack of multiracial representation in the new line-up, leaders say those elected were already familiar to the grassroots. This was by virtue of them being office bearers at state or division level. Some even had national platforms like Mah, who was formerly deputy minister of agriculture and agro-based industries. Kohilan now holds Mah’s former cabinet post after being appointed a senator.

“We can’t make the party multiracial by simply appointing people to leadership positions if they don’t have the experience. It still comes down to capability,” says Kohilan, who has held leadership posts in the Youth wing, and is in his second term as a party central committee member.

Meritocracy must also be considered when
filling leadership positions, says Kohilan
Non-Chinese Malaysian candidates’ chances of winning central committee posts are also made slimmer by an amendment to the party constitution that no longer allows state party chiefs from being automatically appointed to the central leadership. All must be elected now. This increases the number of candidates vying for the same number of positions. Since delegates will tend to vote for their state chiefs, who are mostly Chinese Malaysians, non-Chinese candidates have a tougher time.

State chiefs are also known to consult each other in drawing up lists of their preferred candidates which are distributed to delegates on polling day. Known as cai dan or menu, the practice benefits those who are aligned to popular groups within the party.

“This culture of ‘menus’ hampers the individual who is campaigning on their own strength. As a result of the cai dan, you have strangers winning posts because they’re on someone’s list,” says Stephen Doss, who lost in his bid for both Youth vice-president and party central committee member.

While Lee says the “menu” culture is unhealthy, he maintains that as long as the lists are not issued by the official party leadership, they are “acceptable”.

“I’ve seen a lot of cai dan. The menus come from individual states, and there is nothing wrong with that. Every state has its own preference.

Some of the cai dan or menus that were given
out to delegates before the election
“Some of the grassroots may not be familiar with the candidates, so the state chairperson will pick the candidates that his (or her) state would like chosen,” Lee explains.

He notes that Mah comfortably won a vice-president’s post because he has the support of all the states. “His name appears on every state’s cai dan. Is that wrong?” Lee asks.

Long way to go

The fact remains also that there just are not enough members of other races at the grassroots. And until that is addressed, the top leadership will not be multiracial in composition.

Koh says the party will now embark on aggressive recruitment drives; something not done in the past. “People joined Gerakan through friendship. Now we will have to actively reach out to get members of different races.

“We have to be more accommodating of other cultures in our activities which have tended to cater for the Chinese only.”

With only three non-Chinese Malaysians in its central leadership, how will Gerakan convince the rest of its BN partners that single-party multiracial politics is the way to go?

It’s a long road ahead for Gerakan before it can accomplish its mission. And just as it discovered after its promising start 40 years ago, not everyone will agree with its current renewed vision.

Many politicians still depend on the race card. Already, fresh after the call for the BN to think about merging into a single party, Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek said it would be a “humiliation to Umno.”

Gerakan can only realistically expect to have a more multiracial leadership in years to come if it stays committed in its recruitment drive. It is more than just about Gerakan’s own survival: at stake is whether Gerakan’s success can convince other BN component parties that race-based politics is no longer relevant in Malaysia.

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