(Stationary pic by ba1969 / sxc.hu)
DISCIPLINE within political parties has been in the spotlight recently. In the headlines was PAS’s suspension of its Shah Alam Member of Parliament (MP) Khalid Samad. And then there is Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s trio of male Malay Malaysian leaders — Zulkifli Noordin, Datuk Seri Zahrain Mohamed Hashim and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim — all being hauled up before the party’s disciplinary committee. PKR’s disciplinary problems also escalated with Nibong Tebal MP Tan Tee Beng calling for deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali to quit.
The issue with PKR is particularly complex. With PAS at least, the party’s strict power hierarchy could explain why Khalid was suspended after he challenged Datuk Dr Hasan Ali, who is Selangor PAS chief. Hasan, meanwhile, was only let off with a warning, even though the disciplinary body found both men guilty of violating the party’s constitution.
With PKR, however, internal dissenters often claim freedom of expression as their excuse for speaking up against the party’s leadership.
Notwithstanding their arguments about free speech, the public are understandably baffled by PKR’s logic when it comes to disciplining its members. What exactly constitutes a breach of discipline in the leading parliamentary opposition party?
A quick glance at the chronology of events reveals PKR’s inconsistency. On 9 Aug 2008, Zulkifli participated in a 300-strong protest against a Bar Council forum on issues arising from conversions to Islam. Police did not stop the protesters, but instead ordered the forum organisers to stop.
Zulkifli NoordinOn 7 Sept, the party issued Zulkifli a show-cause letter, but he remained unapologetic about his role in the protest. On 29 Oct, Syed Husin, who is also the party’s disciplinary committee head, said the party would act against Zulkifli in November. On 1 Dec, Syed Husin said the committee had concluded its investigations, but would escalate Zulkifli’s case to the party’s political bureau, headed by party adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
However, on 5 March 2009, Syed Husin told the press that Zulkifli’s case had been “settled internally”, even though he provided no evidence that any action had been taken. Zulkifli, meanwhile, continued making public statements on matters related to Islam, and tried to move parliamentary motions to Islamise the Federal Constitution. Still no action was taken against the Kulim-Bandar Baru Member of Parliament.
Then, on 23 Jan 2010, it was reported that Zulkifli had lodged a police report against PAS’s Khalid for sedition. Khalid had previously said a Selangor state enactment barring non-Muslims from using the word “Allah” was outdated. Within three days, PKR secretary-general Saifuddin Nasution announced that the political bureau would refer Zulkifli to the disciplinary committee.
The discrepancy between the 2008/09 investigation and the January 2010 disciplinary investigation against Zulkifli is quite stark. For publicly threatening a civil forum’s right to be held and heard, it took four whole months for the disciplinary committee to decide to even escalate the case to the political bureau. And from the time of Zulkifli’s protest at the Bar Council, it took seven months for the party to announce, without proof, that “action” had been taken. Indeed, if the media hadn’t continued to follow up on the status of the disciplinary action, PKR would likely have kept silent on the matter.
But in Zulkifli’s attack on a fellow Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leader, it took less than a week for PKR to decide that he needed to be disciplined. It is hard not to conclude that PKR is more concerned when its members threaten fellow PR leaders rather than when the public at large is threatened.
Lim Guan Eng PKR’s logic
The case with Penang’s Zahrain seems to confirm this logic. On 29 Jan 2010, Zahrain attacked Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is also DAP secretary-general. Zahrain called Lim “a dictator, a chauvinist and communist-minded”. Barely a week later, on 1 Feb, Anwar said Zahrain would have to face the disciplinary committee.
But it is the decision to haul political bureau member Zaid before the disciplinary committee that has raised eyebrows. Apparently, Zaid’s sin was in lamenting the party’s inaction against Zulkifli and calling for Zulkifli to be sacked. Zaid did not challenge non-PKR PR leaders the way Zahrain or Zulkifli did. Neither did he pressure for the freedom of expression of any civil group to be silenced the way Zulkifli did vis-à-vis the Bar Council forum.
It can be argued that, well, this is PKR’s disciplinary logic, and both the public and its members need to respect it. It could be that the party respects its individual members’ freedom of opinion and expression even if it contradicts what the party says it stands for. But it will not tolerate attacks or challenges against individuals.
There are still problems with this logic, however. Respecting freedom of expression is one thing, but party leaders who use this to justify a challenge on citizens’ fundamental liberties need to be probed further.
In Zulkifli’s Bar Council protest, it was a group of non-governmental organisations and party leaders, claiming to speak for Muslims, which called for the forum to be halted. The protest was therefore part of a larger ideological programme, one that seeks to entrench a particular interpretation of Islam into public policies, perhaps even at the expense of constitutional guarantees of citizens’ liberties.
Surely for PKR, which claims to be democratic and diverse, this contradicts the party’s ideology. Surely, then, such an act should have been equally significant as a disciplinary issue as sudden outbursts against other PR leaders.
There are many different permutations of how parties discipline their members. Some, like the Australian Labor Party, are very rigorous about who members can or cannot associate with, or how members can or cannot vote if they are elected to Parliament. Others, like the Socialist Party of the USA, are multi-tendency and allow members to publicly disagree with party policy. However, the party is clear that although it accepts a diversity of socialist views, its membership is still not open to liberals. The point is that at least a certain kind of logic has to prevail in how a party manages internal discipline.
Granted, PKR has its own problems now with party adviser Anwar facing a trial of epic proportions. But this should not be an excuse — PKR still needs to be clearer to the public about its logic of internal discipline and also its internal checks and balances. After all, if a political party’s internal governance is a predictor of how it intends to govern the country, Malaysians have no reason to believe that PKR can soon be a credible ruling party.