APRIL 26,2009 – There has been a lot of negative attention on the Parti Keadilan Rakyat lately. We have come under scrutiny over the recent events in Perak, Kedah and now Penang. As young leaders who have faith in the party’s vision and future, we believe that it’s important to reflect on what we have achieved and examine the challenges ahead.
Keadilan is a young party, the result of a 2003 merger between Parti Keadilan Nasional, founded in 1999 and Parti Rakyat Malaysia, founded in 1955. It came about in part due to the Reformasi movement that emerged following the dismissal and incarceration of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. The movement, as laid out in the Permatang Pauh Declaration, was built on the idea of upholding the dignity of man and the need for the continuous betterment of society.
Both of us became involved in the party when the Reformasi broke out, though under different circumstances.
Izzah, who was a 17-year old university student then, was forced into the public eye as she was Anwar’s eldest daughter. Nazmi, who was a year younger and still in school, was reflecting on how the forces that were unleashed could somehow offer something new to Malaysian politics that had atrophied under Dr. Mahathir. As Izzah travelled the country giving ceramahs not only to defend her father’s innocence but also increasingly to articulate the meaning and significance of the Reformasi movement to ordinary Malaysians, Nazmi attempted to explore the possibility and meaning of a new politics for the younger generation as a writer in the alternative media.
We became acquainted in 2001, as part of a group of young Malaysian professionals finding ways as to how we could contribute to change in our country. In spite of the party’s small presence then, we were all excited and idealistic to be part of the cause to lay the foundations of a truly progressive Malaysian political party.
Three years later, the party was dealt a blow when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi hijacked our message of reform and won an overwhelming victory in polls conducted under dubious circumstances. The party was left with a solitary Parliamentary seat. Soon however, Anwar was released and engaged in a conversation with those inside and outside the party. He charted a more multiracial agenda, against the advice of many. Some were clearly discomfited by this development, and left the party. They either could not accept the shift or felt that no matter how idealistically attractive this paradigm movement was, it spelt political disaster.
But like many young members of the party, we felt that this was the right path to take, the logical extension of Reformasi. Nazmi, in particular decided to take the next step by working for Anwar after completing his studies. We were joined by experienced professionals such as Ibrahim Yaacob and Din Merican, along with talented young Malaysians such as Harvard graduate and blogger Nathaniel Tan as well as UTM student leader and Silicon Valley engineer Sim Tze Tzin.
As the 12th General Elections loomed, both of us along with Sim and Ibrahim were considered as possible candidates for seats. We were reluctant at first, but as many others refused to run under Keadilan’s banner-feeling that the party would surely be defeated- we decided to do it. Izzah was 27, and Nazmi, 26, making us among the youngest candidates in the elections.
It occurred to us from very early on that the young Opposition candidates should work together. Together with our colleagues like Tony Pua and Hannah Yeoh from DAP, we campaigned hard in each other’s constituency, drawing inspiration from the courage and conviction of ordinary Malaysians who wanted change. It was truly people’s power – Makkal Sakti – that defied the odds and trumped cynicism. We were fortunate to win our respective seats and be a part of the now legendary story of the 8th of March.
Keadilan as a result increased its Parliamentary presence from one to 31 seats. Not only that, four states along the West Coast fell to a coalition of PKR, DAP and PAS that eventually became the Pakatan Rakyat. What was more impressive and significant was that a multiracial band of MPs and state assemblypersons won on Keadilan’s ticket, making Keadilan the most successful experiment in multiracial politics in Malaysia to-date.
But the reality of victory also dawned upon us as the euphoria of the 8th of March faded away. We had to meet the manifold expectations of our constituents who voted us in. We had to ensure that the voices of the people were heard in the legislatures and corridors of power.
Nazmi and many other state assemblypersons in the five states had the added responsibility of actually governing, trying to make a 50-year establishment embrace reform and progress.
We immediately saw the limits of operating within the confinements of a governmental system that had become dominated by the executive branch. The people of Kuala Lumpur as a Federal Territory remain dependant to the autonomous and powerful KL City Hall. With no say on budget allocations and choice of Mayor, improvements in housing allocation, delivery and services remain marginal at best. They, unlike their counterparts elsewhere do not have the right to vote for a State Assembly. That is why the movement towards holding local council elections – that can and will start in Pakatan Rakyat states – must persist.
Being wakil rakyats meant that we could no longer confine ourselves to criticising from the sidelines, but actually delivering on our promises to the voters. This involved meeting our constituents that brought their problems to us continuously at all hours. This touched and exposed us to the challenges they, the ordinary men and women of Malaysia have to face each and every day and how we have to do everything within our power to help them better their lives.
We also began to realise that change is unavoidable, especially in our own parties. All political parties evolve, and this process is more often that not tumultuous. In the US for example, the Republicans were the party that freed the slaves under Abraham Lincoln. Now, the Democrats, who opposed Lincoln’s reforms in the 19th century nominated Barack Obama as their Presidential candidate in 2008, who as we know is the country’s first African-American Commander-in-Chief. Nothing is constant in politics, least of all political parties.
In Malaysia, Umno, which was once a party of teachers and village officials, is now a party of racial demagogues and crony-capitalists.
On the other hand, DAP and PAS that used to represent a narrow range of constituencies have become more open and inclusive than ever before. The example of Bukit Gantang and the many mixed constituencies that returned a Pakatan representative last year is testament to this.
The growing momentum for change is bearing down not only on Umno and the Barisan Nasional but also on Pakatan Rakyat. The former responding to this challenge by dithering and relying on the most dishonest sort of triangulation. The latter is, though the path has not always been smooth, is heeding the call.
Keadilan grew from a small coalition of people that came together during Reformasi to a Malaysian political party that is based on hope, progress and a new brand of politics.
Just over a year ago before the elections, when we campaigned across the country, many were surprised that Keadilan still existed.
When we walked up the rusty elevators in Kampung Kerinchi and Desa Mentari, we had to convince ordinary Malaysians that we could offer a genuine alternative to the government.
When we called up our contacts and acquaintances to help out, we became used to both polite and direct rejections. The path we took was certainly not the path of least resistance, but it was the choice of our conviction.
Today, Malaysians from all walks of life, including Malay doctors, Indian college students and Chinese businessmen come together in good faith in our divisions.
We have committed Christians and pious Muslims in our committees. All are eager to hoist the party flag that the people hardly recognised before.
We have unsung heroes like Muslim activist Mohamed Ali Ghazali, small businessmen S. Meng Yee and Vinod Sharma, all working behind the scenes, doing their bit for the party without any thought or expectation of reward. Our victory has made it easier now to get people come and join Keadilan, but we still have to make sure that they understand the struggle and sacrifices that the road ahead demands.
We spoke about renewable energy, economic co-operation, climate change, refugees, urban planning and public transport in Parliament and the State Assembly, but all of this was swept under the radar of the controlled mainstream media.
Our young Pakatan colleagues, including Yusmadi Yusoff in Parliament as well as Amirudin Shari and Gan Pei Nei in the Selangor State Assembly have all made an impact in their speeches that impressed everyone in the legislature. In our constituencies we have set up free health clinics, voluntary tuition centres and crime fighting campaigns by empowering the community. Yet, the mainstream media prefers to focus on sensationalised stories rather than substantive news.
Obviously, any growing organisation will have its ups and downs. Just as we should be credited for our successes, it is just as important that we must be accountable for our shortfalls.
We cannot deflect our own undoing. Some are clearly our own weaknesses, but others reflect the lack of human capital and institutional structure that is a problem across the Malaysian political spectrum. As we continue to build Keadilan and Pakatan Rakyat as a party of the future, be prepared for more ups and downs.
But we are a democratic and open organisation, and we always prefer to resolve our difficulties in the open rather than under the cloak-and-dagger of spin.
The important thing is that in spite of all the difficulties we have faced, we continue to attract the best and brightest Malaysians to push for an inclusive political party, a party that upholds our main objective of establishing a just society and a democratic, progressive and united country.
We have, stated above done a lot for the people, but we do not for one second expect them to be satisfied with just this. We do not ask for support or gratitude in return, but simply that Malaysians continue the spirit of the 8th of March and pressure the Federal Government to increase our civil liberties and political freedoms.
Malaysia’s leaders need to always listen and learn from the people, and this is something that we, the young leaders of Keadilan and Pakatan pledge to do.
The service and dedication that we have rendered to the people will continue as long as we hold office and beyond. We consider this to be the true meaning of ‘putting the people first’. We will do this even in our own house.
Keadilan is in the process of revamping our constitution to ensure that the party is able to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. We want to empower to our grassroots. Our Youth and Women’s wings too, are engaged in massive training exercises from Perlis to Sabah to build the party’s human capital for the long-term. We have sought to improve our election machinery to complement the experience of our partners in Pakatan Rakyat.
We are also open to the idea of more far-reaching reforms to devolve power to the ordinary members of the party, including having party primaries for national leadership positions or even for to select Parliamentary, State Assembly and Local Council candidates.
We can institutionalise debate as part of the campaigning for party positions. We can go further in ensuring that one of the objectives of our Women’s wing is to make the idea of having at least 30 per cent of our leaders and election candidates as women a reality.
We understand that some Malaysians might get tired with all the drama that has transpired thus far. Some might be losing patience with us. But the choice is clear between the potential of Keadilan and Pakatan Rakyat driven by the young compared to the BN’s tired false power-sharing model where the shadow of the past looms large.
Keadilan will continue to fight for change. The first battle is to fight to change ourselves for the better.