PARTI Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) will face its moment of truth tomorrow, 15 April 2009. The party will decide whether it will accept Selangor executive councillor (exco) Elizabeth Wong‘s offer of resignation following the distribution of intimate photos of her.
Wong has done the honourable thing by offering her party a choice about whether to retain her services or not. PKR’s choice would not only signal its electoral strategy; more importantly, it would indicate the party’s political belief on two important questions.
Wong announcing her resignation at a press conference on 17 Feb
Big Brother watches
The first question is whether PKR respects that there should be a line between the public and the private sphere.
In totalitarian societies like China during the Cultural Revolution, there was no such thing as privacy. Every aspect of everyone’s life was everyone else’s business.
There was also no such thing as private relationships. And so spouses would report to the party and the masses what was said by partners in intimacy. So would parents and children and siblings.
George Orwell painted us such a picture of totalitarian life in his masterpiece 1984, from which we learnt the phrase “Big Brother”.
Most of us would denounce living in such societies or the reality show Big Brother, where there is always a camera hovering over you. We would feel betrayed and angry if someone we love revealed intimate details of our private life to society. We would feel even more betrayed and angry if society rewards such acts by buying our unauthorised memoirs or simply spreading gossip about us.
To accept Wong’s offer to resign would be doing that exactly. If PKR accepted Wong’s resignation, it would be sending the message, loud and clear, that while ordinary citizens are entitled to privacy, public figures, especially public office bearers, are not. They are condemned to live with Big Brother or in Truman‘s world if they cannot avoid the camera or afford the protection of police and intelligence services.
Big Brother’s face looms on giant screens in the 1984 movie adaptation of Orwell’s 1984
No, this is not about being congruent or imposing a higher standard on politicians. Wong is not comparable to the likes of former Penang Deputy Chief Minister Mohd Fairus Khairuddin, the Behrang and Changkat Jering state assemblypersons, or the possible high-profile witnesses to a high-profile murder who were spared from a court appearance. Wong’s candidacy in the March 2008 elections is not a testimony to a dearth of high quality and capable young leaders in PKR or the Pakatan Rakyat.
Wong has proven her worthiness not only to Bukit Lanjan as its state assemblyperson, but also to many more bukits within Selangor as the exco in charge of environment. She is not a mediocre politician.
Neither has she been implicated in any corruption cases. Instead, she might have frustrated many who hoped that corruption would help in the approval process for some hillside projects. And of course, she does not have an aide or bodyguard implicated in a murder case or for stealing C4 explosives.
The insistence on comparing Wong with other politicians who are charged with or implicated in corruption and power abuse is akin to comparing rape survivors with criminals.
(Pic by c-louise / sxc.hu) Unfortunately, in some societies, being raped is a crime. In these societies, many would find it perfectly reasonable to point fingers at the rape survivor and ask, “Why, of all women, are you targeted?” In these societies, whipping or stoning the “bad woman” is even acceptable.
If PKR accepts Wong’s resignation, what PKR will be saying is this. Firstly, while the party does not believe in moral policing, this does not apply to public office bearers. Hence, if you run under the PKR ticket, your privacy is at your own risk.
Even a PAS Member of Parliament can appreciate that being a model of morality is not part of the job description of an elected representative. So, does PKR plan on becoming the new guardian of public morality?
Secondly, if PKR accepts Wong’s resignation in a bid to showcase its moral purity, the party is in fact welcoming attempts by just about anyone to expose their representatives’ private lives.
The last time I counted, PKR has 71 elected representatives — 31 in parliament and 40 in the state assemblies. If PKR “rewards” what was done to Wong by accepting her resignation, the party is effectively inviting detractors to target all 71 PKR representatives whose private lives will be up for grabs. Can the party be certain that none of its representatives will be the next “weak link”?
Ketuanan rakyat or parti?
The other political belief PKR would be displaying over its decision on Wong’s resignation is an old one in political theory on democracy. Who do elected representatives owe their primary loyalty to? Their own conscience, their party, or the electorate (the people)?
Wong has made clear that she has not done wrong. Indeed, it is not a crime for a consenting adult to be sexually involved with another, especially since Wong is a single woman who is also not bound by syariah laws in this country. She, however, offered her resignation to protect the party as there were concerns that her exposed private life would hurt PKR, especially in the 7 April 2009 triple by-elections.
True enough, the issue was played up for political gains in the by-elections, but the party that resorted to this tactic was heavily punished by voters.
Wong’s supporters at her service centre in Bandar Utama on 12 April, part of the Walk with Eli 2 campaign.
A lion dance troupe and the release of birds were part of the festivities. However, Wong wasn’t able
to make an appearance (Pic by Wong Chin Huat)
Wong’s constituents in Bukit Lanjan have made clear that they want her service. Mind you, they are of different ages, gender, and economic and sociocultural backgrounds. So far, we have not heard anyone calling for her to quit.
And so, the people have spoken, if you like.
Now that Wong has put her party before her own conscience, will her party put the people before itself, or more precisely, before the vested interests of certain quarters in the party?
Malaysians have no doubt that PKR believes in Ketuanan Rakyat over Ketuanan Melayu.
It will be a real test now whether Ketuanan Rakyat will also prevail over Ketuanan Parti.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes good politics can only be preserved if political parties and voters do not send the wrong signal, whether it is approving a coup or rewarding gutter politics.