PKR’s sixth congress in Kota Baru
PARTI Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is the future, its president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail declared at the party’s 2009 congress held at the end of May in Kota Baru. But if that were so, the congress showed little direction as to how PKR would lead the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in that future.
The party’s sixth congress focused more on how to convince voters to topple the Barisan Nasional (BN) government in the next general election. Strengthen the party, curb defections, and improve governance and the economy of PKR’s showpiece state, Selangor. As to how it would rule the country with multiethnic policies and meritocracy, or restore the credibility of public institutions like the judiciary, there were little more than broad statements.
PKR leaders at the congress missed the chance to elaborate on its governance plans, notes political observer and academic Prof Dr James Chin of Monash University Sunway. While leaders may have convincingly explained the crisis of defections to delegates, they seemed not to have grasped a creeping issue: the tendency towards patronage.
Contradiction of values
For a party that espouses multiracialism, transparency, meritocracy and needs-based assistance, it’s a contradiction when some delegates boldly call for appointments, jobs and contracts for party members. It suggests that some members have yet to fully understand the broad principles PKR says it upholds, and how these apply to internal governance.
Syed Husin Ali While not all PKR defectors left because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved, a few of them did leave under such circumstances, no matter the other reasons they cited. This much was admitted by Wan Azizah and her deputy Dr Syed Husin Ali.
Whether PKR’s defectors were induced, or whether they left because their demands weren’t met, both are two sides of the same coin. It is the expectation that political parties should care for their own kind through favours.
This was partly reflected in the criticisms against Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim during the congress. Since 2008, Khalid’s efforts to run a clean administration have frustrated those who no longer stand to gain from the old formula of easy handouts. Politically, he has upset Selangor PKR division heads.
At the same time, state executive decisions are not implemented by the civil service. Problems in low-cost housing ownership and allegations against state-owned Kumpulan Semesta Sdn Bhd (KSSB), which was set up to curb illegal sand mining, are some examples.
Delegates and leaders called on Khalid to make amends quickly in the time remaining before the next general election, aptly noting that PKR cannot depend on anti-Umno sentiments.
While improving Selangor’s administration and economy is indeed crucial to winning votes, PKR should also begin educating members against a patronage mentality.
Political analyst and academician Dr Ong Kian Ming notes that the bulk of complaints were targeted at Khalid, as were calls for contracts for party members, because Selangor is the only state PKR controls, and the richest one, too.
Wan Azizah and her husband, PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, backed Khalid and said he would remain as Selangor menteri besar because he was principled and transparent. However, the party leadership could have done more to drive home the message to delegates as to why party largesse is principally wrong. It wouldn’t be an easy thing to explain, but it could be what sets the party apart from its main BN rival, Umno.
Some may argue that such practice exists in every political party. On another level, the problem of patronage politics is linked to party financing. Typically, those who benefit from the state or party’s largesse are to contribute financially to their patron. But PKR as a young party, a mere decade old, has a better chance of creating its own culture, and a healthier one at that.
Biting the bullet
In a broader sense, tackling mindset change about patronage is reflective of PKR’s challenge to increase support from Malay Malaysians.
“The handout mentality is still there because it’s common in the larger Malay [Malaysian] psyche. PAS members tend to be the exception to this norm,” Ong tells The Nut Graph.
OngSo if PKR were to be less “shy”, it could bite the bullet and use Selangor as its laboratory to implement more meritocratic policies. As a party with a multiracial identity, it now needs to show proof, especially to Malay Malaysians, that a needs-based welfare system can work.
PKR could address declining Malay Malaysian support with class-based policies instead of using a race-based approach. Political analyst and The Nut Graph columnist Wong Chin Huat, as quoted in an Edge Financial Daily article, is therefore against the special congress proposed by PKR Youth to deal with Malay Malaysian concerns.
Wong has also written in The Nut Graph that PR states should start a means testing scheme so that aid is given only to those who are genuinely poor.
If PKR were willing to go all out to test its espoused principles in Selangor, it could potentially weed out more bad apples who expect rewards. The party is, after all, still in the “consolidation process”, and its troubles should be seen in that light, Chin adds.
However, PKR still seems to be in the habit of dwelling more on external challenges. For example, Wan Azizah cited as threats Umno’s racial posturing and mainstream media propaganda.
“Talking and convincing people just to win elections is not enough. The party should be moving on to demonstrate how it will govern,” Chin tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
It’s easy to think of PKR as the party for disgruntled Umno drop-outs, and thus assume that these members carry over the practice of largesse for loyalty. Ong doesn’t think it’s so much this Umno style of politics that’s affecting PKR, but rather, the process of growing members and institutionalising best practices. PKR is still a newer party compared with the DAP and PAS.
“I wouldn’t paint the whole party with such a broad brush [that its members subscribe to a patronage culture], but I see it as a party in the midst of shaping its culture,” Ong notes.
That said, not tackling the handout mindset is unhealthy, especially given the values PKR espouses.
Anwar (File pic)
The disappointment, then, is that neither Anwar nor other leaders took the opportunity to address this particular aspect of internal change. Is the practice of patronage so part of Malaysian politics that it doesn’t strike PKR leaders as a glaring contradiction to the party’s values?
Instead, Anwar chose to be a tease, dangling a still unfulfilled promise to expose evidence that party defectors had been offered millions in cash plus contracts to leave PKR.
In Khalid there at least seems to be an effort to pursue a clean and transparent government. For the sake of PKR’s future, hopefully, there are other party members who truly believe in the same things.
The Nut Graph needs your support