By Izmil Amri
My name is Ong Kian Ming. I was born in 1975 in Tung Shin Hospital (which I would later revisit during Bersih 2.0) and grew up in Petaling Jaya. I studied in La Salle school, also the alma mater of (Seri Setia PKR Rep) Nik Nazmi and also (DAP Secretary General) Lim Guan Eng.
After Form Three, I received a scholarship to continue my education in Singapore. After four years there, I went to the UK for my undergraduate degree in economics at the London School of Economics and Masters at Cambridge University.
After that, I returned to Malaysia and worked as a management consultant in Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for two years. My work took me to Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Eventually, I decided to leave the corporate world to focus on academic and political research. That’s how my passion in politics started.
After leaving BCG, I worked with an MCA think tank called Institute of Strategic and Policy Analysis (INSAP) for one and a half years. Then, I was attached to the Parti Gerakan Malaysia think tank Socio Economic Development and Research Institute (SEDAR).
At that time, I was not a member of any political party. I worked as a researcher because I was very interested with policy-making and wanted to be a part of the process.
I started to do a lot of research about electoral reform. I joined a project funded by Friedrich-Naumann-Siftung under Institut Kajian Malaysia dan Antarabangsa (IKMAS), at the National University of Malaysia (UKM).
I also wrote two chapters for a book “Election for democracy in Malaysia” published by UKM and edited by Professor Noraini Othman and Professor Mavis Puthucheary. So these are the issues that I have been interested in and following for quite some time.
2004 -the year that Pak Lah won the election handsomely- was a milestone year for me. I got married, and I was also awarded the Fullbright Scholarship to the US to do my PhD in Political Science in Duke University. It would take me six years to complete my PhD. I finally returned to Malaysia in 2010.
What made you leave the academic world to get involved in politics?
Although I was trained in economics, several events of national importance sparked my interest in politics. One of the incidents I remember very clearly was in 1998, when Anwar Ibrahim came to London.
This was when Lim Guan Eng had been detained under the Internal Security Act and many people asked him about this case. Anwar said that he couldn’t agree with the detention. This incident motivated me to be more interested in politics.
In the decade that followed the reformasi movement, I began to follow politics closely, firstly while I was pursuing my PhD in political science and later during my involvement in the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (MERAP).
The more I analysed and researched, the more I got the feeling that things seemed to be getting worse for the country. I became convinced that this was mainly due to a desperate regime that is clinging on to power, seemingly at all costs.
As such, the time for sitting on the academic sidelines and commentating as an analyst is over. I decided that it was time for me, to take the plunge and to play a more active role to bring about a necessary regime change in the country. And so I joined DAP.
Involvement in DAP
While I was studying in the US, I met my former schoolmate in Singapore, Tony Pua. In 2006, he invited me to co-write in his blog “Education Malaysia”. I heard rumours – which he later confirmed – that he would be running in the 2008 election as a DAP candidate.
After being elected as the Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara in the 2008 elections, Tony asked me to consult and advise the party on my analysis of the election results.
I started getting involved in the party in different ways, including in the Sarawak state election in 2011. I was involved in setting up a temporary call centre to send SMS and make calls to voters to assist the DAP candidates’ campaign there. That was my early involvement with DAP.
In 2011, I met Lim Guan Eng at a conference and later we went watch Michael Jordan at a basketball game together. I also met Lim Kit Siang through my work. These three people influenced me to join the party – Kit Siang, Guan Eng, and Tony.
Why did you choose DAP, of all political parties?
Helping DAP was not my first political involvement. When I returned to Malaysia in 2010, someone close to Dr Lim Keng Yaik (from Gerakan) asked me to head SEDAR to replace the outgoing director.
It was a good offer, but I didn’t feel that the party had strong leadership and vision. I rejected the offer due to their leadership issues. Since I was not very close with MCA during my tenure at INSAP, no offers came my way. Frankly, I wasn’t interested either.
Why didn’t I join PKR? I think that PKR is a party with good ideas, it is also an inclusive and multiracial party. It is the only party at the moment that has elected representatives from four races – Malay, Chinese, Indian and Dayak.
I think PKR has many idealistic and dedicated people, but I felt more comfortable with the DAP leadership. Leadership is the most important decision factor in joining any organisation. It cannot just be an idea on paper, but we need to see how this idea is brought to life under the leadership of a party.
I have great respect for the many sacrifices which many of the DAP leaders have made because of their political beliefs including being beaten up, humiliated and even jailed under the various repressive laws that continue to exist in this country.
Leaders like Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Karpal Singh and Teresa Kok, just to name a few, have demonstrated their willingness to walk the walk during their many years of struggle in the political arena.
I have utmost confidence in the leadership of the DAP in its intention to renew its ranks and to bring in fresh perspectives and ideas. My experience in interacting and working with many of the younger DAP leaders including Tony Pua, Anthony Loke, Liew Chin Tong, Teo Nie Ching, Chong Chieng Jen, Hannah Yeoh, Wong Kah Woh and Teo Kok Seong has been very positive and has reinforced my confidence that the DAP will be in very good hands in the future.
DAP’ position which the DAP has taken on major national issues is consistent with my own political beliefs. The DAP’s vision of a more equitable and just Malaysia that is secular, free from corruption, governed democratically and by the rule of law is a vision which I very much share in.
Will you choose to remain as a political academician, or would you want to get directly involved as a politician?
At the moment, I still maintain ties with Sedaya University (UCSI). I am still interested in academic work and I try to use my academic expertise to contribute to the political arena. By joining the party, I would have to put the academic interests aside to focus on the more urgent political needs of the party.
The focus would be to help the party with preparations for the general elections in the next six months. The academic concerns have to be postponed.
What is your political ambition?
I am passionate about wanting to contribute the political process in the nation. I find that one of the most effective ways to contribute is to have a voice as an elected representative. From this perspective, I am open to the idea of being fielded as a candidate if the party leadership gives me the opportunity.
By becoming a politician, your views become constrained. You don’t have the academic freedom that you had before. Now you can’t criticise DAP, are you ok with that?
I think one has to understand the role that you’re playing, what’s your end goal? Even in the context of academic research, in my opinion, academic freedom must be applied to further your academic research. For example in my field of electoral analysis, being able to criticise DAP was never a key component in my own academic agenda.
Even after joining the party… one should always be clear about the objective. And my objective is to bring about positive change in the nation through the party.
I feel strongly that one has to be a good team player within the context of the party. As long as the broad parameters of the party are consistent with your personal belief, I’m fine with that. There may be some small areas that you don’t agree with, but I think those are issues not worth fighting for.
But if there comes a time when I feel the party leadership is compromising on key principles, then I’ll have to seriously look at my role in the party. Im sure if that happens, I wont be the only voice to speak up, there will be many voices as well.
Speaking of your role in the party, what exactly do you do as party election strategist for now?
Im using my skills and knowledge to do different things to strengthen the party in the run up to the next general election. Electoral analysis is one way to help the party, also in the negotiating process in whatever way. By analysing the electoral roll, the party can understand and reach out to its voters more effectively.
At the same time, with my economics background, I will also be contributing ideas to help the party strategise economic policy in some ways.
Can you share with us about the results of your analysis in the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (MERAP)?
At first when I got the funding, I thought that I would put together a team and we wouldn’t find many different things that are different from what I found before when I was looking at the electoral roll in 2001.
To my surprise, we found a lot more problems in the electoral roll, things that I did not know before.
For instance, there are females which have been categorised as male, there are issues with voters who have been allowed to change their IC sometimes very significantly. There are voters whose ICs were given to others. There are voters whose race was classified as various foreign nationalities especially in Sabah.
We have incidents of voters sharing the same IC even though the age difference is more than 20 years apart. We found many of such problems only in the non postal voting part. Postal votes have their own share of irregularities.
These are issues that I reported in the MERAP project. I intend to publish this project to the public so that anyone can replicate the process and identify further problems on our electoral roll.
What is your hope and dream for DAP and Malaysia?
Since coming back to Malaysia, I was very encouraged by the energy and excitement and idealism of the young people especially after 2008. Younger people are no longer afraid by the ghosts of the past era of our parents, including fears about May 13, ISA.
I wanted to try to be a part of this process in DAP to get more younger people involved in the political process. Or if not, at least to raise this generation’s political awareness to join NGOs or other political parties. This is something I feel very passionately about.
I also feel very strongly about the need to strengthen the image of DAP as a multiracial party. I was not from a Chinese stream school but I studied in SK La Salle. There were many qualities of a multiracial community which I learnt there and really appreciated. A Malaysian Malaysia, that’s one of the aspirations which we can reach out for. DAP can be part of that movement together in Pakatan Rakyat where we don’t have to look to everything with racially-tinted glasses.
Besides economics and electoral issues, im also very interested in education issues. My immediate focus will be on the National Education Masterplan that is being done under the Deputy Prime Minister. There was a national consultation process, Im very interested in the findings to see how it can be improved on. –The Rocket