September 18, 2008
The Undoing of Gerakan
My article in the Sun which appeared today. It’s a review of Khoo Kay Peng and Neil Khor’s book, “Non-Sectarian Politics in Malaysia: The case of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia”. The review seems rather passe during exciting times such as this, but nevertheless one that is important as we try to make sense of racial vs. non-sectarian politics in the country. Let’s sit back and reflect on the ideals of Gerakan’s original leaders.
The undoing of Gerakan
A BOOK tracing the history of non-sectarian politics in Malaysia, and particularly that of Parti Gerakan (Gerakan) emerges at no better time than this, as the component party of Barisan Nasional contemplates its options post-March 2008 elections.
Non-Sectarian Politics in Malaysia: The Case of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia by Neil Khor and Khoo Kay Peng paints an appropriate context for Malaya dating back to post-1957 and the early years of independence, reflecting the realities of inter-ethnic communal living back then; thereafter speedily comparing episodes and specific incidents of elections and the life (and death) of political parties over the span of the next several decades, leading to the present.
This rather academically written set of historical notes serves as a stark reminder and lessons for Malaysia.
Immediately following March 8, numerous quarters have heralded the beginnings of what they believe as non-sectarian politics in Malaysia. Indeed, that people voted across ethnic lines, crossing traditional party barriers, was catalyst enough to provoke such a response. The idea was that a Chinese or Indian would now vote for PAS, a Malay for DAP was foretelling of a potential future electorate. Nevertheless, Khor and Khoo succinctly point out that instead, non-sectarian politics has had a long history in our country. Ideals have been enshrined in the consciousness of individuals but due to circumstances at different times, they materialised only temporarily. Cultural identity, for example, was one of the hotly debated topics in the 1960’s, and as the book points out, the Umno approach was to advocate for Malay ethnic culture to be the basis for a national culture. Gerakan instead argued that “rigidly defined Malay, Chinese and Indian identities … would harden into caricatures of themselves, instead of being allowed to fuse through social and economic interaction.”
The foundations of Gerakan’s non-sectarian approach are attributable directly to its pool of founding members. This powerful combination of Lim Chong Eu, Tan Chee Khoon, and Syed Hussein Alatas, has had no equal even up to today. These were the brilliant minds in Gerakan at its very inception that made for its equally brilliant party manifesto – one that was unequivocally principled about “national interests… superseding the interests of ethnic groups.” Syed Hussein as a Malay himself rose above radical Umno sentiments, and argued that the “provision of assistance should be based upon merit”, as opposed to giving special privileges to a racial group. It was this stubborn pursuit of national interests above sectarianism that gave rise to a successful multiracial party, at the time.
Some key lessons should be pointed out, which are peppered across the book. The authors seem to repeat these themes as timely reminders, as Malaysia goes through a period of self-reflection at present.
We are reminded that the attempt to flush race out of politics is not a new exercise. The original ideals of Gerakan, stolid, noble and spirited, the result of intellectual personalities, epitomised the wisdom that all national leaders should strive after. However, Khor and Khoo point out that the slow but rapid deterioration of Gerakan from its early glory days began when it joined the Barisan. Indeed, “the inclusion of Gerakan as a founding member of Barisan led to the withering away of its own ideology”. Instead of adhering to its own principles and ideals, it instead would proceed to bow to Umno pressure on “education, national culture … and national language” over consequent years. Further, it also abandoned its “socialist agenda and welcomed Mahathir’s capitalist economic programmes”, again lacking the gumption to stand up for its original ideals. Gerakan’s identity would suffer seriously all the way forward, and indeed this has culminated in its situation today, where March 8 dealt the worst blows – losing the state government of Penang to the DAP, and being reduced to merely two Members of Parliament. The party is at conflict internally as to steps forward – to stay or leave the Barisan.
It is tragic that a party starting out with such grandiose ideals, whose manifesto theoretically still stands today, was unable to hold steadfast to them. Instead, intimidation and the mantra “conscience of Barisan” ultimately compromised their core values. Even Lim Keng Yaik, then party president, was unable to oppose the Mahathir government when it “passed the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and ended the practice of open tenders.” Closed-door approaches to sensitive issues such as Malay supremacy and religious conversion became regular, thereby ending open debate and bringing public matters behind private walls of the Barisan.
Despite championing a Bangsa Malaysia concept, “Gerakan had become too compliant … towards Umno”. Clearly, the present component party model of the Barisan was a flawed notion to begin with. This inherent structure of ethnic-based parties is bound to fail as long as sectarian and communal interests supersede that of national importance. This self-destructive model should also be a lesson learnt for Pakatan Rakyat, whose coalition must never fail to compromise its ideological stance to win communal votes.
Gerakan has such a rich heritage to draw from, but it remains forgotten history mainly because it has been left dormant and stale without fresh revision. Where its founders enthusiastically drew up a detailed vision, the same very arduous process of articulating the meaning of nationhood, citizenship and identity must urgently be revisited as Malaysia comes to terms with a new sociopolitical landscape. That Gerakan – or any other party – is not reworking its manifesto vis-à-vis current trends marks a worrying sign for its own future. This is a lesson for any political party that maintains its comfortable status quo for too long, without challenge. The importance of enlightened leadership cannot be underestimated. Khor and Khoo highlight key leaders in the lifespan of Gerakan, some of whom were instrumental in progressing the party and others more destructive. They consider Gerakan’s leadership to have weakened in recent years, “Dr Koh (Tsu Koon)’s weak, indecisive leadership” resulting in its 2008 electoral defeat. Its inability to live up to its “non-sectarian credentials was … demolished when (it) botched up over the Hindraf issue”.
A factual, well-structured book, the authors examine key periods of Gerakan’s life: its relationship with Mahathir, the transitions of various leaders, governing Penang, and finally the lead-up to the 12th General Election. Unfortunately, the book fails to spell out available options for Gerakan going ahead from here. The answers are left very much to the reader to surmise. With the exception of poor editing, this volume otherwise provides essential reading for any party interested in the attempt to achieve non-sectarian, non-communal politics in Malaysia.
Ultimately, the book captures the dynamism and fragility of politics in Malaysia, a fabric although perfectly woven that is equally easily broken. The dream of achieving a polity entirely devoid of racial connotations is still a way ahead. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that if there was any appropriate time to seize the moment, it is now. If 2008 marks a year in which there is potential for the future of non-sectarian politics, important lessons must be drawn from the book – and adhered to.
Tricia Yeoh is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She harbours hope that non-sectarian politics will be the mainstream in her country, and challenges all to work towards this end. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .