CALLOUS as it sounds, Teoh Beng Hock‘s death is just what Pakatan Rakyat (PR) needs at the moment to re-galvanise public support at a time when the alliance has been experiencing interparty fighting.
Teoh’s death at the Selangor Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) headquarters on 16 July 2009, after being interrogated in investigations of PR assemblypersons, should be mourned. And critical questions must be asked of the MACC.
Indeed, there may even be truth that his death is the consequence of selective investigation and harassment of the PR through the use of Barisan Nasional (BN) state institutions. Be that as it may, however, the incident should not overshadow the tough questions PR must ask itself 16 months after its victory at the 2008 polls.
Can the PR really be a viable coalition? What caused the near collapse of the Kedah PR after the DAP threatened a pull-out there? Why does Penang seem a perpetual hotbed of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) discontent against the DAP-led state government?
What about criminal allegations involving a PR Selangor executive councillor (exco), brought by a fellow PR elected representative? Why is PR washing its own dirty linen in public and giving ammunition to the BN? Don’t they realise that a disunited PR could make an undemocratic BN look good?
Prior to this, it seemed easier to say that if anything were to break up the PKR-PAS-DAP alliance, it would be their opposite ideologies of Islamic state and secularism. But after 16 months as the government in Kedah, Penang and Selangor, the indications are that ideology alone isn’t causing the cracks. Rather, the three parties are now grappling with the realities of human nature: rivalry, politicking, and personal gain.
Take the PAS-Umno unity talks proposal. What may have started off on an ideological platform — to advance Islam — can be arguably described as a quest for personal power, given the insistence of PAS’s top two leaders in pushing the idea despite protests from party members and coalition partners.
Aminah Abdullah In Penang, Penanti by-election independent candidate Aminah Abdullah gave an insight to the problems of inaction and abuse in her former party, PKR. As a pioneer, she had also lamented about PKR’s problems, which she claimed the leadership did little about. The events that led to the by-election are also informative of political tensions in the state between the DAP and PKR.
Walking the talk
DAP central executive committee member Liew Chin Tong observes that the PR as a whole is coming to terms with walking the talk on the new politics of equality. Having sold the idea to the public, the PR now has to translate it into its internal operations and relationships.
“Do we want to reaffirm our faith in new politics? Or embrace the old way of Umno politics of asking for rewards because we think it’s our due after contributing to the party?” the Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament tells The Nut Graph in an interview.
It would be disheartening for the public if the PR, tasting ruling power for the first time in some states, were to behave no differently than BN parties in jostling for position and perceived dues.
Indeed, it was only a matter of time before one party’s dominance within the PR-led states began to have an impact on other coalition partners. This was perhaps most noticeable in Kedah, where the PAS state government caused grief with its 50% housing quota for bumiputera. The sole DAP representative‘s long-standing unhappiness culminated with the demolition of a pig abattoir, which led to the near-collapse of the state’s political alliance when he threatened to leave the PR.
Khoo Kay Peng“The PR’s focus for the general election was short-term — to beat the BN. But for the long term, they haven’t figured out how to govern. It seems as if it hasn’t sunk in that they are now a governing regime in some states, and should start acting like one,” independent political analyst Khoo Kay Peng tells The Nut Graph.
Mechanism for grouses
Few of PR’s problems are ideology-based, suggests Khoo. If different ideologies were really a barrier, the three parties would have never come together.
“The three leaders — (the DAP’s Lim) Kit Siang, (PAS’s Datuk Seri Abdul) Hadi (Awang), and (PKR’s Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim) — are all realists. At the national level, Pakatan is solid because they have a common enemy in the BN,” he says.
But such solidarity doesn’t seem to extend further down the ranks. What the PR needs, says Khoo, is a mechanism to resolve internal differences at all levels.
“The PR has the presidential council as a mechanism at the top level and its state meetings, but the effects don’t seem to be felt among exco members and in the state legislative assemblies of PR states. It’s not to say that problems should be swept under the carpet, but public spats must stop so that the PR can focus on governing,” adds Khoo.
In Selangor, which appears to be one PR state that is governing reasonably well, according to a recent Merdeka Center for Opinion Research poll, allegations of impropriety and criminal links have surfaced.
PKR’s Wangsa Maju Member of Parliament Wee Choo Keong recently triggered an outburst from DAP exco members Ronnie Liu and Teresa Kok with his revelation of a Selangor exco member with links to underworld figures. Wee has only revealed the identity of the exco concerned to the police, who are investigating his claims.
In an interview with The Nut Graph, Wee says he did raise the matter within the PR through casual conversation, and went public with it because he felt it had to be addressed urgently.
Wee Choo Keong “Are you saying that if I know of a problem, I should just hide it so that Pakatan looks good? Are we only going to address this problem just before the next general election? You think Barisan doesn’t know and is not going to bring up this problem in the elections? Wouldn’t it be better for us to solve it now?” Wee argues.
PKR’s Seri Setia assemblyperson Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad tells The Nut Graph that Wee’s exposé was “a little inappropriate”, but agrees that there is need for a better internal mechanism to keep PR reps in check.
Buck up, clean up
There is a larger context, however, based on speculation about internal dissatisfaction and rivalry within Selangor PKR. Fingers were pointed at Azmin Ali, a PKR vice-president, after he suggested in the state assembly that the exco line-up be reshuffled. It is said that Azmin has ambitions to replace Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim as menteri besar. Azmin, of course, denies any such ambitions.
However, Nik Nazmi, an aide to Khalid, defends Azmin’s call for an exco reshuffle. “As leader of the PR backbenchers, he’s entitled to say that. The dewan is the place to discuss state affairs and was the right place for him to say it. We don’t want a rubber stamp legislative assembly. And the MB has been open about the criticism.”
Having repeatedly said that open dissent is healthy and is what makes the PR different from the BN, is the PR now in a mess of its own doing by not strengthening its internal mechanisms? Has it failed to weed out the less-than-clean among them, and succumbed to the temptations that come with power? Or is the BN really engineering the whole thing through its use of the MACC?
Teoh’s death has now cast a sinister shadow over the whole situation. And it would be a pity if what it takes is a death to jolt both sides of the political divide: the PR, to stop deflecting and to buck up, and the BN, to reform and clean up.