This is what I wrote in my column in Malaysian Insider today.
Time for Gerakan to regain credibility
SEPT 9 — Immediately after the March 8 general election, I wrote in my blog that three options are available for Parti Gerakan which suffered a near total defeat, losing 10 of its 12 parliamentary seats and 27 of its 31 State seats, including all its seats in Penang which had been its traditional stronghold and base.
Out of the two parliamentary seats won, one is in Gerik, which is a seat “borrowed” from Umno when the PPP refused to return the Taiping seat to Gerakan. In hindsight, it was a minor blessing because if Taiping been returned to Gerakan then, it would have lost that seat too and become a one-MP party.
The three options which I proposed then were:
1. Remain in the Barisan Nasional, where its fate will be decided by whether Umno reforms or not. Gerakan’s fate will be in the hands of Umno. If Umno does not reform radically, and Gerakan is seen to be not able to push for any changes within the BN, Gerakan will probably be wiped out the next round.
2. Opt out of the BN and join Pakatan Rakyat. The caveat here is that Gerakan is too weak now and it will be in no position to bargain for better terms to join Pakatan Rakyat. In the reality of politics, do not expect PKR or DAP to give up seats for Gerakan to contest the next round.
3. It can opt out of the BN and remain independent and be a vigilant watchdog over both the BN and Pakatan Rakyat. It can act as a conscience for the people and give constructive criticism to both sides. It could play the role of the Liberals in the UK, which has thrived between two giants, the Conservatives and Labour. Come the next election, it could probably opt to join forces with either the BN or Pakatan, depending on which is defending the rights of the people. It could then bargain from a position of strength, and not from a position of weakness, during any seat negotiation.
There is, of course, a fourth option for Gerakan: which is to disband.
At that time, out of the three options that I mentioned, the third option was more acceptable since Gerakan then, despite its near complete annihilation, still had a good brand name and the goodwill of the people, especially in their base — Penang.
Subsequently, many members have raised the same points to the leadership.
In reply, the leadership argued that being out of the BN, Gerakan would never gain back its past strength and the best option was to remain in the BN and push for Umno to change.
Now, six months have passed. Let us re-examine the options.
The Permatang Pauh by-election was an eye opener. In spite of the big loss in the last general election and the acceptance of multiracial politics across ethnic lines by the people of Peninsular Malaysia, Umno politicians still used the race card in the campaign.
This has, of course, put Gerakan in a most uncomfortable position. On the one hand, it wants to go back to its non-racial ideology but on the other it has to campaign side by side with Umno and its racial rhetorics, against a party that is campaigning on non-racialism, good governance and people-orientated policies — issues which Gerakan has hoped to bring about since its inception 40 years ago in 1968.
By actively campaigning together with Umno in the by-election, it has shot itself in its foot and further alienated its traditional support base, the older generation of Penangites who had in the past voted for Gerakan. The by-election with its racial rhetorics probably did more harm to Gerakan’s credibility as a non-racial party than anything else since the present leadership took over.
The subsequent drama that has unfolded put the party in an even worse position. The hard stand taken by an Umno division leader over his speech during the by-election campaign, and the subsequent support of all other Umno state leaders for this particular division chief, has once again showed the impotence of the party in trying to influence Umno.
It has once again showed up the arrogance of members of this BN senior partner, which many commentators believe is one of the reasons for the BN losing big in the last general election.
The perception now is that even a third-tier leader of Umno carries more weight and more importance than a component party chief. If Gerakan cannot even push Umno to ask this member to apologise, how is it going to influence Umno’s policies and direction?
Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, the acting president of Gerakan, mentioned that Gerakan should not quit just because of the antics of an Umno division chairman. However, in my view, this is no longer about this man and what he said. The implication has gone beyond this person.
What is blatantly exposed by this episode is the powerlessness and helplessness of Parti Gerakan to influence the leadership of Umno. With this helplessness and powerlessness, can the party seriously think it can push for reform within the BN and play a significant role? Yes, the deputy PM has apologised on behalf of Umno. But would he have apologised if not for the fear that any loss of a component party would result in a stampede out of the BN and realise the Sept 16 crossover of MPs?
The leadership of Gerakan may want to wait and see if any change within Umno will come about. But looking at this episode and the subsequent softening stand of Umno’s top leadership towards this combative division chairman, any change in Umno would at best be cosmetic, as the perception is that the present leadership is neither strong enough nor possesses the necessary willpower to change an entrenched culture of politics of patronage and arrogance.
If Umno does not reform and Gerakan is seen as an accomplice in Umno’s brand of race politics, and with corruption and abuse of power getting from bad to worse, it would lose whatever little goodwill is remaining of its traditional support base as time goes on. By then, even if Gerakan opts out, it would be too late as it would have lost all its support base and its credibility as a non-racial party fighting for a fair and equal society.
So, the question is can the first option still be the best now? Personally, and many Gerakan members agree with me, the time has run out for the first option. If Gerakan has not been able to reform the BN with its 34 years of membership inside the BN, can it hope to achieve it within these few months or even in the next year or so?
Gerakan’s hope is to go back to its ideology and its roots. That can only mean one thing. It has to come out of this race-based coalition. The third option is the most attractive.
Looking back at its history, Gerakan was formed as a people’s movement to do away with raced-based politics and to bring about a democratic socialist way of lifting the economic standard of the people irrespective of race and religion. Most of its members joined because of this idealism. If this idealism can be achieved by another party championing the same cause, would it really matter that Gerakan would not win any more seats the next round? Should it, instead of helping to achieve this idealism, become a hindrance to other parties fighting for the same ideals?
Furthermore, on the issues of seats — even though it really does not matter whether Gerakan can get any more seats the next round, as long as it achieved its aims — if Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu could win Penang with just 300 hardcore party members and minimal resources at his disposal in 1969, then Gerakan should be able to survive at least as a party outside both coalitions, now that the party has thousands of loyal members and with much more resources at its disposal.
The question, therefore, is no longer about whether Gerakan should come out or not. Rather, it is about whether the leadership has the political will or guts to make such a move.