THE media spotlight has turned to the DAP in recent weeks over the party’s sacking of Tee Boon Hock, Selangor executive councillor Ronnie Liu‘s special assistant. Tee had allegedly issued letters of recommendation using Liu’s official letterhead and seal to help family members secure contracts. Liu was severely reprimanded by a DAP disciplinary committee for the incident.
Meanwhile, Selangor speaker Teng Chang Khim faced disciplinary proceedings due to his “OMG, the real culprit is freed” tweet. Teng told the disciplinary committee he was tweeting about a movie character and not about Liu and Tee.
The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat how he thinks the DAP’s leadership performed in these events, and what the DAP‘s democratic health is like as a whole.
TNG: How did the DAP’s leadership perform in this recent series of events? Are the revelations surrounding Ronnie Liu merely part of an internal power struggle?
Wong Chin Huat: The DAP tried its best to do damage control by sacking Tee immediately, but the problem is more complicated. Support letters are part of Malaysian political culture. Ronnie Liu or Tee would not be the first people to have issued support letters, nor will they be the last.
Support letters may serve some pragmatic purpose, and stopping them will require alternatives; for example, a comprehensive audit on public administration. But such a move was not proposed in the rush to do damage control. To many, Tee is indeed guilty, but was also chosen as a sacrificial lamb.
Unnecessarily dragging in Teng Chang Kim, who wittily got away with his “movie tweet” explanation, made the DAP’s disciplinary committee hearing look like a badly managed public relations exercise. It also revealed that senior party leaders don’t talk to each other, which is quite an open secret.
But factionalism and power struggles are normal in politics. Power and the prospect of winning greater power will help them to close ranks or restrain their antagonism. One need not read too much into it.
What is interesting is that errant members from the DAP and other Pakatan Rakyat (PR) parties are mostly grassroots-level politicians. They are either local councillors or special assistants to lawmakers. You may blame the party leadership or lawmakers for trusting the wrong people. For me, I see it as the consequence of not having local elections.
If local elections were held, the real power would rest with people who can win the popular mandate, not those who know how to impress the senior leadership. Of course, the party may still pick the wrong candidates, as they did for parliamentary and state elections, but the pressure of facing the scrutiny of the electorate and political opponents will make them more cautious.
There have been media murmurings about the Lim Kit Siang-Lim Guan Eng leadership, and also talk of in-fighting in Perak where cousins Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham and Nga Kor Ming hold prominent positions. Are the charges of factionalism and nepotism justified? Does the DAP suffer from a lack of democracy in its leadership?
At least Lim Guan Eng has proven his worth in forming a credible team to lead the party into an unprecedented victory. This is a fact that even his critics in the party would acknowledge. If he was once seen as his father’s shadow, he is certainly more than his father’s son. For one, the junior Lim knows how to win the Malay-Muslim electorate over. He is genuinely popular among the PR’s Malay Malaysian supporters.
Similarly, Nga is sharp and articulate. He is a good orator and more well-known than his senior cousin. Likewise, Gobind Singh is now known as a politician and a lawyer in his own right, not just as the son of Karpal Singh.
Factionalism is another issue. The DAP is famous for having leaders position themselves as proxies of certain top leaders and who alienate other state or local leaders. However, factionalism only becomes an issue when the winners take everything. As long as there is enough room for different factions to survive, the losers will not be eliminated and the factionalism will not be deadly to the party.
Formally, the DAP is democratic, where members can elect their leaders up to state level. Even Lim Guan Eng and his wife, a sitting assemblyperson, once lost in the Malacca party elections. Such democratic practice, however, does not necessarily translate into the selection of candidates for the general election. In the past, candidate selection was decided by only three top leaders. The selection of “parachuters” or senior leaders’ right-hand persons over local leaders often caused a lot of resentment.
The solution to this problem is decentralisation. There should perhaps be primary elections within local branches to choose candidates. The senior leaders can still recruit young talent to run, but this cherry-picked lot will have to win grassroots support.
The DAP is often branded a Chinese chauvinist party by Umno, even though it is a non-race-based party. What makes the DAP an easy target for the chauvinist label? What hinders it from establishing itself firmly as a multiracial party, especially among Malay Malaysians?
Political parties are often defined by their opponents. The DAP exists mainly to challenge Umno’s hegemony, a role expected of the MCA, Gerakan and the MIC, which have all failed miserably.
The DAP’s chauvinist label, principally given by Umno, stems from its failure to oppose Umno and defend Malay-Muslim interests at the same time. Until 2008, it failed to show how “anti-Umno” and “pro-Malay” were reconcilable. This is ideologically a challenging task – the most successful “anti-Umno-yet-pro-Malay” position so far is the Islamist one held by PAS.
Theoretically, two other possible positions would be “Malay-left” and “Malay-liberal”, but neither of these constituencies can be easily cultivated. Even Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is not hugely successful in this sense.
For party strategist Liew Chin Tong, the DAP’s future lies in defining itself as an urban party rather than a Chinese Malaysian party. This means it will need to cultivate a pro-urban-Malay position and image. In the long run, it is the only way for the DAP to survive because the urban population is increasingly multiethnic. Thanks to the administrative power and resources in Penang, and earlier in Perak, the DAP is now slowly building its pro-Malay/Muslim credential.
It, however, faces a new challenge: the PR is now trapped in an ethno-religious division of labour that mirrors the Barisan Nasional: PAS in the Malay Malaysian heartland, PKR in mixed areas, and the DAP in urban Chinese Malaysian centres. So, some DAP leaders may be reluctant to water down its Chinese/non-Malay/non-Muslim appeal. Also, ambitious Malay Malaysians may not be keen to join the DAP because of the perceived limited opportunities. So, Liew’s far-sighted direction may not be able to materialise.
In their answers to The Nut Graph‘s MP Watch project, DAP MPs were arguably the most principled and consistent in their answers on issues of democracy. Are DAP members better trained in democratic issues compared with other political parties? If so, why?
Yes. Among the major opposition parties in West Malaysia, only the DAP and PAS have veteran oppositionists, but PAS’s language is more coated in Islamist discourse rather than a democratic one.
Inclusive democracy is a new language to even the many open-minded PAS leaders because their constituents are used to a more monolithic worldview. They worry that explicit commitment to a plural democracy – for example, over whether Malaysia should be an Islamic state – will lead to accusations of them abandoning the faith and community.
Meanwhile, many PKR leaders are new kids on the block in opposition politics or in politics, being former BN leaders or politically inactive prior to the last elections. Like PAS, an outright defence of civil rights and democratic values is something many PKR leaders have yet to learn. While this is not new for former non-governmental organisation activists in PKR, these former activists still worry that the more conservative segment of their constituency won’t buy it.
In contrast, the DAP can speak principally on most issues because both their leaders and constituents have been speaking in this language for decades.
What kind of second-echelon leaders are emerging in the DAP? Who are the young leaders that we can be hopeful about? Is the party doing enough to cultivate and develop its young leaders?
The shining second-echelon leaders emerging in the DAP share some characteristics: well-educated or professionals, articulate and media-savvy, able to cross different ethno-linguistic constituencies. Among the parliamentarians, Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong and Teo Nie Ching are the names to watch. Among the state assemblypersons, Hannah Yeoh is perhaps the most shining one. Dr Boo Cheng How in Johor Baru is another first-term lawmaker with a lot of potential and far-sightedness, but he is an old party member and is not so young.
The DAP is keen to cultivate young leaders. And the senior leadership, from Lim Kit Siang to Lim Guan Eng, is generous in giving opportunities to young blood.
However, many young talents leave when they find themselves playing the role of party dissident and attracting the hostility of loyalists. In that sense, Teng Chang Kim, Boo Cheng How and Ng Swee Lim are great assets to the DAP because they prove they are able to survive well in the party even though they are not from the party’s mainstream.
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade.
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