Ngeh Koo Ham : Steering Through Choppy Waters

Perak’s unconstitutional toppling of the state government was a watershed event that opened the eyes of many of the uninitiated. Much has passed under the bridge; public sympathy for Pakatan Rakyat has subsided and recent polls suggest it is a toss-up contest for both sides of the divide. The Rocket journalist T.K. Tan caught up with Beruas Member of Parliament, DAP deputy secretary-general and Perak DAP state chairman Ngeh Koo Ham to hear his thoughts on the political climate in Perak and how DAP and Pakatan will measure up to the challenge in the next coming general elections.

What is the political climate in Perak now?  Are the people still as angry as they were in 2009?

The political mercury has subsided. At the height of the Perak crisis, we had an independent poll survey indicating that had elections being held then, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) would have won 40 state seats. However based on another poll results held this year, PR would only be able to garner 33 seats now. We take it as a sign that people are saying “lets move on”. This drop is reflective of the split electorate sentiments that exist in Perak.

In the 2008 general elections (GE), we had 18 state seat contests that were decided by less than 1000 votes, three being decided by less than 100 votes. BN took 10, PR won eight. The political situation in Perak is still fluid; it could go either way for BN and PR. However on the plus side, the people especially the non-Malays, no longer see MCA, MIC and Gerakan as their representative parties.

What is the cause for this reversal of opinion? Is the political adage applicable to Perak, “Perakians forget easily”?

We have to admit that the current BN state government is working hard to win the people’s trust to them. As a result of the PR takeover from BN in 2008, we had revamped and implemented many cost cutting measures which were a result of more honest and cleaner governance.

This led to the PR-led Perak state government gaining a four star ratings from the national auditor-general for financial performance. Since then the state government has obtained four star ratings three years in a row. Yes, the BN state government has continued somewhat with this cleaner governance practice.

Though the state government financial performances may have improved, the state controlled agencies and companies are not performing to par. Take for example the Perak State Economic Development Corporation (PSEDC) and State Agricultural Development Corporation (PSADC). PSEDC is a RM 2 billion company that is performing sub-par after briefly shining under PR’s tenure. The PSADC on the other hand has around 38000 acres of palm oil plantation land in Indonesia that has produced returns which is below its market peers such as IOI or KL Kepong.

These are snapshots of the corrupt practices that BN is practicing despite being out and back in power. Our job is to remind the people that the same cast of leaders that had been robbing the state for over 50 years are still in place, bidding their time for the next pilfering opportunity.

According to your comments with other media, in a poll conducted by Merdeka Centre, Pakatan has actually lost ground in Perak. Can you explain some of the findings from the survey?

If the poll result holds, there is a great concern on our part. In the rural areas where Malays predominate, the support for BN has stay strong. In these areas, where the access to alternative media and basic amenities are limited, the people buy into the BN propaganda easily. Many of them believed the BN’s lies that the Chinese are out to dominate the Malays and are undermining the Malay supremacy.

However, I am a little ambivalent of the poll findings as wherever I go, the people have come enthusiastically out to show their ardent support for us. In areas such as Trong and Grik where previously DAP was not represented there, we held functions that were well attended by the locals. Many Chinese in these areas, amongst them even MCA members, came out enthusiastically to profess their support and donate openly to our fundraising efforts.

Since 2008, the support from the various races for DAP has increased across the board in the areas we contested. In my Beruas parliamentary and Sitiawan state seats, I have regularly attended the Malay-oriented events such as wedding celebrations and kampong ceramahs; their receptivity towards me has been ominous. I have confidence I can do well in my constituencies amongst the Malays. We have to work hard to connect with the voters, especially the Malays.

The poll and people’s reactions are conflicting. Perhaps the voters have become more discerning and smarter at answering pollsters and politicians! (laughs)

Many surveys and polls have shown PR to be losing support amongst the Malay electorate in Perak. What are the reasons for this decline?

Many of the Malays in the rural areas actually feared that their rights will be taken away under PR. When they heard DAP talked about restituting the rights of other groups, their fear becomes heightened as they believed they had to give away their rights to others.

However it is only a fallacy as they have not been enjoying these rights themselves all these years because only the UMNO elites have benefitted from appropriating these rights.

In addition, many rural Malays are still feudalistic in their mindset, unquestioning of their loyalty to the Sultan. UMNO knows this and have been manipulating it ceaselessly to demonise PR in their minds. However, since the crisis their awe and respect for the monarchy is wearing off; this is especially true for the urban and well-informed Malays.

What does PR need to do to garner back the support? Will sympathy factor alone be enough to help PR win? 

Certainly we need to work hard as our opponent is not resting either. For DAP, we have identified five areas that are potentially difficult for us. As for PR we are venturing out to help PAS and PKR in their outreach to the non-Malay areas.

Perak DAP organises on average two to three fundraising dinners throughout Perak every week to touch base with our supporters. We are also stepping up our social assistance activities such as the Sunshine programme where we help the poor and downtrodden with food and financial assistance. We hope to present an image of DAP that is caring and soft for the people.

As PAS is focused on doing ceramahs, DAP leaders are usually invited to give speeches. Through joint appearances in individual PR party’s events, such as ceramahs and dinners, we hope to present a more unified front to the people.

The crisis has turned out to be a silver lining for Perak PR as we have grown stronger together and more united as a result. Our cooperation is exemplary for many other states; we now have PR secretariats in every parliamentary seat in the state to brief each other and coordinate joint activities together.

The present situation shows that should PR comes back to power, DAP will be the first party of the bloc to sweep all the seats it contest. If the political situation is similar to the 2008 GE results, how stable will this government be?

DAP need not be apologetic about its stand and multi-racial emphasis. We have been condemned as Chinese chauvinist, communist, extremist etc. We have continuously informed the people that our social democracy stand is in line with the welfare state embraced by PAS.

It basically says that we want to ensure the five core needs of the people, namely food, housing, public transportation, health and education, is taken care of.

Initially the Chinese were apprehensive about Datuk Seri Mohd Nizar being the Menteri Besar as he was from PAS. Since 2008 and the unfolding of the crisis, the Chinese throughout the whole country have embraced him warmly. Likewise for DAP; as time progresses and with our sustained service to the people, the people’s fear will be dispelled.

Admittedly we need to be more effective with our information dissemination to the people; we need to inform the Malays that DAP has had Malay elected representatives serving Perak before.

There were reports surfacing that DAP has been stealing the limelight in campaigning to get back Perak. In fact it has been insinuated that DAP is looking to supplant Nizar as the next Perak MB. Can you comment on the allegations?

DAP believes in the best and most qualified person to be the next Menteri Besar (MB) and we have reiterated publicly that Nizar is our choice for the MB position.

When we were in the state government, UMNO has often accused Taiping MP and Perak DAP state secretary Nga Kor Ming and me of being the real power behind him and controlling him. That is categorically untrue, for he is his own man.

We often appeared with him in the Chinese-oriented events and functions in order to bolster his appeal amongst the Chinese. It has given the impression that our closeness to him is a sign of us controlling him.

Now even the UMNO MB admits to me in private that he is a firebrand and feisty politician that often criticises UMNO harshly and has asked me to rein him in (laugh)!

We need to educate the people to look beyond racial considerations when choosing their political leaders. UMNO had accused the PR Perak state government as DAP-run and Chinese-dominated that would erode the Malay dominance in government.

If DAP and PR can run the state and country more honestly and competently and reduce corruption, thereby ensuring all the races benefit from our good policies, the people will see us for what we stand for. However, this will take time for the people to accept.

With the impending elections round the corner, how prepared is DAP to face it?

I am confident that we can win 13 or 14 state seats; however there are five state seats that are questionable for us. We need to invest more efforts to reach out to the voters there. We want to ensure we can win all the 18 state seats. We hope to contest more seats; some of the other PR state seats also look shaky and I believe we can deliver them for PR. However, we need to finalise the seat allocations arrangement with the PR state and national leadership.

As for the performance of the current elected representatives and potential candidates, they are being monitored by a supervisory group of state DAP veterans who were appointed since 2008.

Can you comment on the rift and factional rivalry in Perak? What are the state leadership doing in order to heal the rift?

After the state party elections, we have only one team in Perak. Despite all that has been said about the factional rivalry in Perak, I have a good working relationship with DAP national vice-chairman M.Kulasegaran. We regularly appear together for party functions and ceramahs. He has attended some of my constituencies’ party events; likewise I have been invited to his branch fundraising dinner in Ipoh.

As a state party chairman, I have to move forward with the party agenda. I was elected with almost 70 percent of the delegates’ votes; I have a duty to close ranks within the party and groom leaders to take over from me. In this sense I believe I have succeeded.

What is your comment on the allegations that you and Nga Kor Ming are too domineering and running Perak DAP as a personal fiefdom?

Nga and myself have often been accused by the DAP detractors and media that we are dictatorial and manipulating the powers while being in the state government and in state party leadership. We would like to ask them, “cite us our wrongdoing. If I am corrupt, show me proof and I will resign. If I was lazy, point to me and I will step down. If we are performing well, what is your gripe with us?”

I admit that I have sometimes being aloof in speaking to the media, especially on party-related matters. Whenever negative news about Perak DAP popped up, inevitably the media would be asking me for comments on it. I would instinctively clam up in order to limit the damage done to the party. That has not endeared me to many media, alternative and mainstream. -The Rocket