THE words come often, and ruthlessly so: Irrelevant. A waste of time. A joke.
These are currently used to describe Gerakan, and its members know it. Once, it claimed its place as the “Voice of Reason” within the Barisan Nasional (BN). But since the 2008 general election, the party has seen its fortunes and influence so battered, naysayers say they no longer have a voice at all.
Has Gerakan truly become irrelevant, and are these its dying days?
Fallen angels unite
Gerakan members acknowledge the sense of loss within the party and the contempt frequently hurled at it. But they maintain that calling it a dying party is unreasonable.
“You must understand the Gerakan grassroots. When they are being crushed and attacked, they become more united. Fallen angels stick together,” Dr Asharuddin Ahmad, head of Gerakan’s unity bureau, says in a phone interview.
He is not the only one using war-like quotes that seem to demonstrate that there are those in Gerakan who are not ready to bury their 41-year-old party.
Ng Yeen Seen, deputy director-general of Gerakan think-tank Sedar Institute, said party members are in the midst of “training to fight in the next competition”, referring to the next general election which must be held by 2013.
“How do you measure relevance? Is it your picture on the front page, news of you fighting within your party, issuing press statements, or is it doing your work diligently on the ground, [carrying out your] duties within your capabilities? What exactly is the benchmark in Malaysia, especially in politics?” she asks.
Ng (Courtesy of Ng Yeen Seen)Ng admits that the morale and motivation within the party is lower than before. But, she says, this is understandable, considering the party’s heavy losses in the last general election. The party went from 10 to just two parliamentary seats in 2008. More importantly, it lost its crown jewel: Penang. It thus lost its only cabinet post, although Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak threw the party a lifeline by appointing party president Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon as minister in charge of ministerial and administrative performance.
Former Gerakan members are not so convinced about the party’s bearing. Datuk Dominic J Puthucheary, for example, says the party has no power and influence at all. The former Member of Parliament for Nibong Tebal argues that Gerakan is only relevant because it is a party within the BN.
Puthucheary claims that the party’s multiracial stance is also just a façade. “I had thought I could change things inside, but all Indian [Malaysians] are just tokens there,” he tells The Nut Graph over the phone.
Others who have left Gerakan concur with the opinion. Former Federal Territory Gerakan assistant secretary KK Supramaniam says the party of more than 70% Chinese Malaysian membership is “obsessed” about its position in the BN in relation to the MCA.
“It seems like they are just contesting against the MCA; it was and is their only enemy until today. They have not looked at the bigger picture. I kept on asking why could we not just run our own system, and do our own thing, but in the end I finally gave up,” he says.
Former Wanita chief Datuk Rhina Bhar also cited racial bias in the leadership when she quit the party that she had been a member of for 30 years.
Tan Kee Kwong (Source: wp.icu.
gov.my)Asharuddin, however, dismisses racial bias being a problem, citing his own position within the party. He notes that there are other non-Chinese Malaysians currently in leadership roles, such as vice-president A Kohilan Pillay and fellow central committee member Jayanthi Devi Balaguru.
Tan joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) last year after Gerakan suspended his membership over his acceptance of a Pakatan Rakyat government appointment, which he thought unfair. Toh, who is well respected within and outside of the party, left to concentrate on his work with non-governmental organisations.
Toh resigned during the Permatang Pauh by-election after he voiced support for PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. His resignation served to demonstrate that there were Gerakan members who felt strongly about the party’s sense of purpose outside the BN.
Indeed, after the 2008 general election, there were ideological discussions about whether the party should leave the BN or merge with other parties. Still, David Ang, who is one of the youth wing’s vice-presidents, says the party’s adherence to multiracial unity and integrity is unshaken.
“I think we have to ask politicians what is their personal agenda? It seems like when they lose their seats or positions, then they go to another party. This indicates a very strong personal agenda to me,” he says.
Ang thinks that this could be a rejuvenating period for the party, which he says might have suffered from the complications of growing bigger throughout the years. “Yes, we were a very small party in the 1960s and were easier to organise. Maybe we have derailed into other things as the years went by. If we have lost our direction, then strengthening the party is now very important,” he argues.
He, Ng and Asharuddin are adamant that what is important right now is that Gerakan members are working on the ground away from the limelight, and are committed to internal restructuring. This, they believe, will nurture sincere and talented young leaders within the party.
Arsharuddin Lacklustre leadership?
They also dismiss talk that Koh is a lacklustre leader, saying that disagreements and dissatisfaction within the party regarding leadership does not equate to disapproval towards the party president. “No matter what, the grassroots support him, and that is why he won uncontested,” says Asharuddin.
But without the platform of being an elected representative to affect policy change within government, what is Gerakan doing to make a difference? Asharuddin says the party is continuing to service people in their constituencies with the help of co-ordinators.
But Ng points out that the party has few opportunities for press coverage, with no media publication behind them. She also says the party doesn’t have enough of a training ground for younger leaders.
Despite the fighting spirit, especially among younger members, there is also acknowledgement that there must be greater soul searching, reform and restructuring within the party. Workshops to discuss a plan of action are scheduled for the end of November, as are efforts to discover capable young leaders.
But these aside, will the public know of its work on the ground, no matter how good? What if it all comes to naught during the next general election? Posed with this question, the battle-worthy expressions resurface. “We are used to this,” Ng says. “We will just have to manoeuvre within our limitations and continue to work harder, and never give up.”
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