COMMENT Malaysians generally have had enough of politicians. What they crave is real leadership. Over the last 20 years or so, their distrust of their representatives has been growing but their aspiration for true democracy has never waned.
The opposition gains in the 2008 general election – the so-called political tsunami – did sweep in a breath of fresh air, but it has since turned stale.
What went right in 2008? How did the Pakatan Rakyat coalition succeed so dramatically and why did Barisan Nasional receive the blunt end of the electoral sledgehammer?
Many have attributed the tsunami to the charm of the youngest Pakatan component, PKR. They say that the message it hammered out – “reform is my goal” – was in complete harmony with the Malaysian dream.
So what does “being PKR” entail?
Let us go back 12 years.
“It all began on a Sunday evening, Sept 20, when the authorities stationed baton-wielding riot police outside Anwar Ibrahim’s residence.
“Two police helicopters hovered overhead, bathing the area with powerful searchlights. Then, at around 9pm, balaclava-clad men with bulletproof vests and submachine guns broke down the front door and stormed into the house where Anwar, 51, was conducting a press conference.
“The raiders, who belonged to the elite Special Action Force, manhandled some of the journalists and confiscated their notebooks and tape recorders before throwing the hacks out of the house.
“The arresting officer told Anwar he was being detained under the charge of unnatural sexual acts. Anwar was taken to a maximum-security prison outside Kuala Lumpur.”
This report, filed for Asiaweek, summed up the dramatic events of the day of reckoning for Anwar, currently PKR’s de facto leader.
Any magic left?
Anwar’s arrest came a day before the Commonwealth Games closed and not before the sacked deputy prime minister was able to address thousands of people – 60,000, according to disgraced top cop Abdul Rahim Noor – from a roof of the National Mosque. After the speech, he led the crowd in a march to Merdeka Square, and the chant “reformasi” reverberated across Kuala Lumpur.
“Reformasi” became the rallying cry of pro-democracy activists throughout Anwar’s incarceration and beyond.
It continues to be the mantra of PKR.
But many in the public have begun to wonder whether the word – or Anwar himself – has any magic left.
Indeed, will PKR itself survive the next general election or fade away and be remembered only as a fairy tale or parable?
PKR’s ongoing internal elections have turned out to be a ruthless affair, according to many critics within and without the party. They are at a loss to explain why the elections do not reflect the qualities and standards for which the party claims to be fighting.
The leadership has made no serious attempt to counter allegations of fraud and other irregularities. All we get are unconvincing denials.
To many observers, PKR’s direct elections have turned into an absurd drama instead of a demonstration of true democracy in action. The protagonists in all the contesting sides have failed to show enough patience and imagination to resolve problems fairly and squarely.
The party’s top leaders say criticisms about the conduct of the elections are unwarranted, but there seems little attempt to civilly and considerately investigate the various allegations originating at ground level.
Some party insiders say PKR’s drawbacks lie in the horrible reality that a few upper crust leaders are like leopards that cannot change their spots. This is a reference to their old Umno mindset.
The public is asking whether PKR is genuinely seeking reform in public policy.
A manifestation of vanity
In a common manifesto with other opposition parties, entitled “Towards a Just Malaysia”, it criticised the ruling power for “not respecting the differing views of others; instead they are vilified including with fabricated accusations.”
It said that in Barisan Nasional “blind loyalty to the leadership is expected, even when the leadership is wrong, and the principles and practice of public accountability are ignored”. In the process, it added, public institutions are undermined.
In the public mind, most of those words can now be applied to PKR as well.
Indeed, evil comes in many guises in the political arena, regardless of the political divide.
Pretty much of party electioneering and power play are carried out away from the public eye.
The on-going PKR elections have done much to blur the lines between its promises and the realities on the ground.
The party, no doubt, can give the excuse that the election, being an experiment in the one-man-one-vote system, is massive and slow. But the public is less interested in the suspense than in transparency and fairness.
How this election process links to the reformasi mantra is critically important.
PKR is expected to keep its promise to be an institution that identifies with and belongs to all Malaysians sharing a will and determination to bring positive changes to the nation.
It should not be a personalised party. It should not be a property belonging to and controlled by a hierarchy of cronies loyal to any particular individual or individuals.
It is politically indecent for any leader to impose upon others his biases and prejudices and to practise favouritism so that his cronies can dominate the power play.
Bearing all these in mind, we can say that PKR’s direct elections are merely a manifestation of vanity. It wanted to the first party to use the system, but it has failed to do it justice.
Mad, bad and sad
Allegations of political point scoring, character assassination, irregular and unjust practices have marred the party’s image and undermined its call for reform.
As far as ordinary supporters are concerned, the only adjectives that can adequately describe the state of affairs in PKR are “mad, bad and sad”.
Many are indeed mad and sad that the leadership appears to have destroyed itself and become bad by throwing away the golden opportunity that voters handed to it in the 2008 tsunami.
In short, Malaysians are still crying out for effective leadership.
Malaysians rallying to new causes may have to resort to a third force. With traditional models of political participation running out of steam, perhaps new forms of expression and political engagement can emerge, freed from shabby, sleazy and corrupt leaders.
Stanley Koh is a veteran political observer. He was the former chief of MCA's research unit.