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PKR’s growing pains?

Pacifier with PKR logo superimposed
Is PKR having teething problems? (pacifier © yenhoon /

THE Bagan Pinang by-election on 11 Oct 2009 initially looked like it was going to be a three-cornered fight. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s former Teluk Kemang  branch leader Shahruddin Abdul Hamid tried to submit his nomination on 3 Oct 2009, but it was rejected by the Election Commission because his seconder was not a local.

A couple of days later, Shahruddin announced his support for Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate, Tan Sri Isa Samad. On 8 Oct, Shahruddin tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview that he had joined Umno.

Isa (centre) wins Bagan Pinang by-election

The analysis about the nine by-election results including Bagan Pinang’s aside, what else are we learning from these polls?

For one, it seems as though a pattern is developing with PKR members during by-election season. For example, in the Bukit Selambau by-election in April 2009, a good number of the 13 “independent” candidates were disgruntled grassroots PKR leaders. And then in the Penanti by-election in April, former local PKR leader Aminah Abdullah grabbed headlines when she promised to “expose” corruption and abuse of power within PKR as part of her campaign.

What gives? No other peninsula-based party seems to have these sorts of problems that PKR does. In fact, the level of disgruntlement among these former PKR leaders can get quite vicious. But what really is the problem?

Is it that PKR is a relative newcomer to the political scene in Malaysia, and these are merely teething problems? Could it be an attempt at sabotaging the party? If so, is the sabotage internally driven or externally plotted?

Elements of sabotage

Chong (pic courtesy of Jonson

PKR communications director Jonson Chong says that there is definitely sabotage at play, and it originates outside the party. “It is an abuse of the democratic process — every time there is a by-election, the BN will try to entice one of our (PKR’s) people or others from Pakatan Rakyat (PR),” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

PKR vice-president R Sivarasa agrees. He tells The Nut Graph, “If the sabotage were internally driven, you would see this sort of thing happening constantly, and not just during by-elections.”

“For example, look at the MCA with its ongoing infighting,” he says in a phone interview. “That’s the signature of an internally-driven conflict.”

It appears that Sivarasa and Chong have hit the nail on the head. When The Nut Graph asks Shahruddin what motivated him to leave PKR, he says, “At the local level, the PKR tree is shady, it fruits abundantly, but its roots are brittle.” When asked to decipher this cryptic message, Shahruddin says instead, “I wanted to contest here (in Bagan Pinang), but I was told that if I wanted to contest I had to resign, so I resigned.” And then he says he was invited to join Umno, and thought why not, since he already knew Isa.

But when quizzed further about why he was leaving a party that is multiracial and talks about clean governance to join a race-based party that is tainted with corruption, Shahruddin is at a loss for an answer. “I wasn’t in PKR for that long. I only joined after 2004. Before that I was an Umno member for more than 20 years.”

Apparently, Shahruddin left Umno in 2004 after Isa contested in the general election and won the Jempol parliamentary seat. Isa was then appointed Federal Territories minister and that’s when trouble began in the local Umno division. “There were tussles for positions,” says Shahruddin, by way of explaining why he left Umno for PKR.

Growing pains

Sivarasa (file pic)

But Sivarasa says that this is not something he is overly concerned about. He points towards the DAP, which had its own headaches with leaders crossing over to the BN in the 1970s. Chong agrees that such dynamics are an “unfortunate fact about new organisations”.

Therefore, Sivarasa says there is no need for the party to have a screening process for new members. “We are signing up around 10,000 new members every month. Some will eventually say they don’t buy into the party and leave. But more people are joining every day.”

Sivarasa says his alarm bells would go off only if the party’s national congress adopted “some weird position” that altered the party’s direction. “But if tomorrow a branch or a division walks out on the party, they are just a speck in the party’s membership.”

But does this not mean that the party will face a ticking time bomb every time a by-election is announced? Chong does not discount the fact, and says, “Hopefully by the next party elections (in 2010), we should have consolidated the party leadership and cleaned up unfortunate elements.”

Immediate impacts

Fariz Musa (file pic)

PKR Youth deputy chief Fariz Musa tells The Nut Graph that such shenanigans do affect cohesion within the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). “PR solidarity was really tight and strong before this in Bagan Pinang. But when Shahruddin initially announced that he wanted to contest under PKR, it created some amount of distrust between PAS and PKR,” he admits in a phone interview.

“But ultimately, Shahruddin’s failure to file his nomination impacted upon Umno itself, meaning that Umno failed to split the vote here (with a third candidate contesting),” he says. Although with Isa’s thumping victory at the polls, the argument that Umno wanted to split the votes seems a little bit shaky. In fact, having a third candidate may have helped the PR lose with a smaller majority to the BN in Bagan Pinang.

Still, that doesn’t remove the fact that if past trends are anything to go by, every time a by-election crops up, PKR will have to brace itself for an internal surprise.

What complicates things even more is that PKR itself traces its origins to Parti KeADILan Nasional — a party formed around  former Umno deputy president and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It is constantly attracting ex-Umno, and by extension other ex-BN, leaders to its fold.

The flux of members joining and then defecting could just be part of the growing pains of a young party. But they also seem tied to the party’s own history and the nature of BN and PR politics in Malaysia. The question is, will this make or break PKR? favicon

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3 Responses to “PKR’s growing pains?”

  1. I’m a newcomer, joined PKR after PRU 12 at Tg Malim Division (Div). Before this I was a PAS supporter at PAS Selayang Div. My Div Chief was YB Jamalluddin Mohd Radzi, ADUN Behrang who declared as Independent ADUN at end of year 2008, [the same one who helped] topple the Perak PR Government.

    I joined PKR because there was an offer for a graduate to be nominated as councillor at Majlis Daerah Tg Malim. I’ve no problem working in MDTM because I was an ex- accountant in RMAF. I was supposed to be nominated as the Senior Counsellor (SC), but unfortunately objected by a jealous PAS Councillor, a lawyer. In the end no SC was nominated. The Div Committee Members have no complaints (against me as a councillor) because I was amongst a few of the graduates in this Div. I worked hard for party activities and YB had given his blessing to do party activities. Almost every month we create social activities to the public. Only the Ketua AMK looking me as his adversary for Div leadership.

    Div became complicated when YB declared himself as independent ADUN. As the Perak PR government toppled, I resigned as a councillor. The Deputy took over and my relationship with him is OK. He wanted to nominate me as Vice Chief. Then the situation became complicated with jealousy and disagreement from Committee Members. They mentioned that I was too fast to be nominated as Vice Chief. Committee Members were already inactive but didn’t give way for me to do party activities. They were filled with envy but had no idea and funds to do party activities.

    Then the Deputy left the party and joined YB Jamalludin. I would like to show how complicated the problems existing in this Div are:

    1. Leadership problems, incapable Committee Members.
    2. No funds for the party because previously all party activities sponsored by YB Jamalludin, a rich contractor.
    3. For the last 10 years no training and activities were given to the Committee Members, they were elected only as figureheads.
    4. How difficult for a newcomer to join the leadership which are mainly filled with incapable and jealous management.

    There are now 26 Branches with 2,800 members and all of them are now inactive because no activities have been made after YB Jamalludin left the party. Today I have to stay at home waiting for the next party election.

  2. karim tarmizi says:

    PKR is undergoing a process of metarmophosis for a new party where members are searching for clear directions and mission to fight for. Unfortunately any new organisation will be influxed by all sorts of personalities with numerous combinations and permutations of ambitions. It is expected. To complicate the issue, such ambitions may not necessarily be consonant with the party’s ambitions, if any are clearly articulated.

    Trouble will brew right from leadership at the branch up to the top as we have seen lately. The spate of resignations prior to by-elections is a symptom of the problem at the ground. Then we have the clash of the titans (Zaid vs Azmin, Azmin v Ezam, Rahman v Azmin, Mudzafar v DSAI , Tian Chua v Siranam, Azmin v Khalid Ibrahim , the Elizabeth Wong case etc.) are also symptoms of everyone finding a position, consolidating a position or creating a position at the top.

    All that is being preached about transparency, intergrity, rule of law etc., by such leaders are just comments and rhetoric of opportunists looking for space in the new political set up. Some of them are those who have made their hay during their sunshine days when they were with Umno. Are they saying they are rich because of some divine help when they were in the thick and thin of Umno? Some of them were the biggest patronisers and beneficiaries of the then privatisation and affirmative action programs. Aren’t they in PKR today perhaps because they have been disenfranchised or lost the battle in Umno?

    So it is not a surprise, the current flowing through PKR is riddled with alternate and variable voltages. Sometimes it hurts and sometime it is enough to be a reminder. Unless the party can ween itself of all these opportunists, hangers on from the real fighters and committed members and leaders, the situation will persist – rumblings and tremors from time to time. But occassionally the tremors will shake the ground. The party may disintegrate.

    What is needed is therefore a leadership without any hangovers from their past opportunistic relationships, affilitiations and political connections. The least to be done is that the current opportunists own up to their own past hypocrisy or opportunism. At least the leopard can be spotted and its movement and behaviour can be monitored. Or else the same music will be sung again and again.

    To me a proven sincere vehicle is available for all be it Malay [Malaysians] or non-Muslims. PAS is there with a consolidated and clearly articulated cause for justice and fair play for every citizen. Its leadership are untainted, unlike some PKR leaders. Forget about about the petty beer and Beyonce issues. What is the big picture required for the country – PAS has it. Why waste time and bickering on a PAKATAN manifesto, why waste our time on Zaid’s effort of a common ground to be drafted. They will not have a common ground.

    Use PAS as the vehicle. The opposition should rally under PAS. The party has formulated how the country is to be run and managed. Why not?

    The answer to that is everyone still wants to fight for their respective racial cause or be seen to fight for one. But disguise it in all sorts of rhetorics such Malaysian Malaysia, Malaysia for everyone etc. The fact is all Pakatan parties’ core values is still fighting for the respective racial groupings disguised cleverly in some juicy rhetoric.

    Rally around PAS. That is the solution because PAS is grounded with universal values to take care of everyone.

  3. Ann Lee says:

    Since when has bargain-hunting been such a bad thing for politicians? Anyone who expects all politicians to be visionary guardians of exemplary morality is barking up the wrong tree. Their chief business, as the quote rightly goes, is the art of compromise.

    Both Chong and Siva are good politicians, loyal to their party. So they term members jumping just prior to a by-election as due to “sabotage” from outside sources (even “an abuse of the democratic process”!) and that a branch or division that walks away is only a “speck” in the party’s membership. Chong chooses not to consider that regular politicians, like regular people, are entitled to change their minds. Siva suggests that loss of members is not a big deal, whereas for most parties and their leaders, it usually is.

    Both seem to refer to the young age of the party as the main reason for their members disagreeing or defecting. But is it? Chong and Siva are merely fire-fighting here; there is a bigger issue that Chong, as the communications director for PKR, surely knows.

    Both Chong and Siva, like adept politicians, blame the media. But the “signature” difference between the MCA squabbles and PKR squabbles is that there is, in fact, no difference – i.e. a great deal of media coverage has been made of MCA’s dirty laundry. So it is not true that only PKR gets the “negative press”. Let not blaming the media become the crutch for PKR the way it has so often been for Kelantan MB Nik Aziz when he has tried to defend some arcane and appalling pronouncement about women. (“I was misquoted”, “BN-owned media”, etc etc.)

    Rather than hit out at the usual suspects (BN, BN, BN), or let loose words like “sabotage” and “abuse” (that fast lose their edge when used so willy-nilly), what PKR needs to articulate is a compelling vision or theme to galvanise its own members and the general public; take our attention away from internal squabbles since we must expect these to occur, apparently only for the time being. Give us all something to dream about! It is a signature failing of PKR if it does not come up with something soon: a theme that expressly gives “1Malaysia” a run for its money. Surely PKR will come round to it. Hopefully, there are no useless cynics in the party who think a slogan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. (Obama’s “Yes We Can” was first written on a napkin.)

    Like the jumpiness that happens before a by-election, PKR will have to make the leap soon, before the next general election, to create specific policies that can then be summarised in a stand that is clear, imaginative, and substantive.

    It is refreshing to hear about 10,000 new members a month. But they need to be retained with a reason-for-being that is empowering and compelling, not just the same old BN-bashing. (Especially as every BN-bash is arguably also a bash of the voter who has kept them in power.)

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