Pakatan primes for the next level

The near miss to bring about political change in the last general elections have left many wondering if BN’s five-decades stranglehold on the political powers of Malaysia will ever be broken. As a continuation of this series of interviews of PR leaders on its future, PKR’s deputy president Azmin Ali sketches out the future of the country’s most enduring political alternative to BN, Pakatan Rakyat. Report by T.K Tan. Photograph by Ahmad Yusufi. This was an exclusive interview with The Rocket from December 2013.

Azmin Ali mug yusufi

How do you assess the current political scenario in Malaysia now?

I am optimistic that Malaysia is witnessing a new politics that is being brought about by Pakatan Rakyat in which the race-based politics will be a thing of the past.

The past taboo of mental barriers amongst the races has clearly been broken since 2008. I was on an Air Asia flight to Sibu during the Sibu by-election campaign in May 2010. In the same plane I saw many PAS Muslimat (women wing) members from Kelantan flying together to help DAP during the campaign. These are conservative segments of the Malay society helping out DAP, the anti-Islam party according to UMNO.

Such sight has never happen before in the past 50 years. It speaks volume of how far we have progressed in the Malaysian political scene and inter-races interaction.

All the various races are beginning to steadfastly reject race-based politics. It is also evidently so amongst the younger generation who are more open-minded and see diversity as a strength and not a weakness for the society. Malaysia’s multi-cultural society is an impetus to generate advantages in its economical growth and national and social integration.

That optimistic scenario was already explained exhaustively before the last general elections; however it has not translated to votes for change in the last GE. Why did PR not delivered on the results?
We must understand that change doesn’t happen overnight. There was improvement in the election results compared with the 2008 GE.

Less we miss the trees for the forest, don’t forget that we have denied BN’s two-third majority two times in a row and also increased the number of seats. Most humiliating of all for BN is it is now a minority government as PR has the popular votes majority.

UMNO has tried to paint the results as a work of individual parties and not PR the coalition. But the majority of the voters have accepted the existence of PR even though we don’t have a common logo. Our consistent agreement with each other and our unity has convinced Malaysians that we are a viable alternative to BN. For me this is a great achievement.

This political struggle for a better Malaysia is a marathon. Our political barriers are formidable, what with the racial and religious rhetoric constantly being harped by BN to mislead Malaysians. The Malaysian politics is tragically still very much dominated by religious and racial sentiments.

Our challenge now is to enter into the rural Malay areas and convince them that supporting DAP and PR is not a threat to abandoning their duties as a Muslim but actually celebrating other cultures and accepting other religion as required by Islam itself. We also need to inculcate to them that PR is the future.

The past GE results show a downtrend of Malay support for PR. Has the perception that ‘if PR wins, the Malays lose out’ gain traction amongst the Malays?

I don’t deny that UMNO has successfully exploited this opening and revved the vulnerable psyche of the Malays in believing such lies about PR. However we shouldn’t be too quick to summarise that UMNO’s rise in Malay votes is across the board.

A big portion of urban Malays are very much with PR as they have access to the alternative media and the internet as our victories in the urban areas throughout Peninsular Malaysia shows. Even in Terengganu, PR through PAS has increased its popular votes substantially from the last GE.

In Gelang Patah, which has a distinctive and sizable urban non-Malay and semi-rural Malay enclave, DAP’s Lim Kit Siang managed to win the seat handsomely in the last GE. Bear in mind that the seat has only around 52 percent Chinese voters with 34 percent Malays. Lim could not have carried the seat without substantial Malay support.

Don’t forget the Johor Malays are distinctive breed. They don’t embrace political change that easily. Now we are even seeing the winds of change reach Johor’s Malays as well.

Why, Lim who in the past was seen as the bogeyman of anti-Malays amongst the brainwashed Malays and was up against the former Menteri Besar of Johor, the penultimate ‘defender’ of Malays in Johor. Yet he managed to win so convincingly in Gelang Patah with substantial Malay support.

Likewise in Temerloh which is a rural seat in Pahang PAS’ Nasruddin Tantawi managed to beat an UMNO deputy minister and claimed its first parliamentary seat in the state.

I admit there are challenges with the rural Malays. But I believe with concerted effort by PR to constantly visit and explain the issues to the Malays, there can be breakthrough amongst this segment of the voters.

Unbuckling the rural baggage

The six-million ringgit question that looms large in the last GE was PR’s failure to win over the rural voters. In an analytical piece by the Rocket in August 2013, it was shown that with 11.4 percent of the registered votes cast, BN won 85 seats with less than 50,000 voters. The overwhelming majority of these seats are rural in nature. Does PR have what it takes to tackle this BN’s stronghold?

Rural voters are often simple minded and less sophisticated people who are not looking to the arguments of the elites. They want elected representative that is constantly in touch with them.

“We admit that PR’s big challenge is to win over rural voters. However, all three PR parties are entering and engaging the rural area residents more aggressively now, DAP with its Impian Malaysia programs in Sabah and Sarawak, PKR and PAS in their respective outreach efforts.”

“Our main goals in these outreach efforts should be to raise the rural folks’ political awareness and conveying the message that PR is the future of the country. I am optimistic that it will happen,” Azmin enthused.

Malay segment

As the majority race in this country, the Malays will still be the arbiter of the government in Malaysia. How will PR break into this UMNO stronghold?

“Many rural Malay youths are unemployed or have low incomes and often low educated. We need to visit them often enough to hear their views, aspirations and things they want in life. We need to be humble to listen to their grouses and understand their plight. We need to break out of this big-scale ceramahs approach. We need to be at the coffee stalls or the mosques.”

“As for PKR, whenever we devise a policy or program we will not just confine it to the Malays, Chinese or Indians but frame it as a proposal for all Malaysians. We want to speak as one voice and show our commitment to the Malaysian race concept.”

He notes that DAP too has been consistently voicing out regarding the united Malaysia concept. “When raising the issues for vernacular schools, DAP emphasises what’s at stake for the Malay schools, Chinese schools and Tamil schools, not just one particular streams. This will give confidence to the people that we mean to be Malaysians to all.”

Azmin points out that much has changed in the current political culture, pointing out the solidarity on PR leaders’ part and that is a positive sign for Malaysia.

“I was in Sg Limau during the by election in Kedah in October. The announcing of the PAS candidate by the PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang took place in a remote village in the rural Malay heartland. DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang was there to grace the event and joined Hadi to announce the candidate, in front of an overwhelmingly Malay crowd. “

“During the night I took the initiative to break the Malays’ taboo mindset of DAP. I told the crowd that Lim’s commitment with his presence there is to inform the Malays that DAP is not anti-Malays or anti-Islam, only against the corrupt, slandering and wicked UMNO Malays. He shows that he understands the poor and downtrodden Malays’ plight as well as the other races.”

When asked why Johoreans, especially the Malays, are still adverse to change, Azmin has this to say: “Johor Malays are a distinctive breed. They don’t embrace political change that easily. Now we are even seeing the winds of change reach Johor’s Malays as well. Why, Lim who in the past was seen as the bogeyman of anti-Malays amongst the brainwashed Malays, was up against the former Menteri Besar of Johor, the ultimate ‘defender’ of Malays in Johor. Yet he managed to win the seat so convincingly with substantial Malay support.”

“We need to enter into the rural Malay areas and convince them that supporting DAP and PR is not a threat to abandoning their duties as a Muslim but actually celebrating other cultures and accepting other religion as required by Islam itself. We also need to inculcate to them that PR is the future.”

“We have seen this happened in Sarawak. In the last state election the local opposition party SNAP’s president put up a three cornered fight with PR and lost his deposit in that contest. PKR also won a few rural and remote seats in that state election.”

“This shows the new politics that PR is bringing whereby the leaders of one particular ethnic group is no longer confined to addressing their ethnic group’s plight but also taking up issues of the other races to public attention.”

Getting down to work

Trading of seats amongst parties and candidate swapping at the last minute have long being the feature of Malaysian politics. It has also caused much disruption to electioneering work, which is even more crucial in the alternative information-starved rural areas.

Indeed the need to identify the potential candidates early on to do this work takes extra urgency now as the stakes for the next GE is higher. That means the PR parties need to identify early on the seats it is targeting to work in and the people to do the job. Does PR have the consensus in seat allocations at this point in time?

“That would be the optimal solution, if we can decide on the seats allocation early on and identify and appoint the potential candidates discreetly to begin this electioneering work.”

“We are beginning our discussions on the seats allocation for the next GE. We don’t want to repeat the bitter experience from the last GE where several state seats were lost to BN due to multi-cornered fights. We are now in the midst of reviewing the seats allocation in several states so that the parties will have equal representation.”

Spoilers in the deck

In the last GE, third party candidates and disunited opposition front in Sabah allowed BN to claim four parliamentary and eight state assembly seats. How will PR deal with the local opposition parties, the spoilers in the next GE in Sabah and Sarawak?

“We in PKR take an open view regarding on negotiating with the other parties in Sabah working with PR. However we stress that they must agree to PR’s common policies. This requires negotiating extensively early on with them.”

“However I believed the people in Sabah and Sarawak are beginning to practise mature politics. They want a two party system to be realised and PR is the only viable alternative to BN.”

“We have seen this happened in Sarawak. In the last state election the local opposition party SNAP’s president put up a three cornered fight with PR and lost his deposit in that contest. PKR also won a few rural and remote seats in that state election.”

“These spoiler candidates and parties is a regular feature in Sabah and Sarawak politics. We wouldn’t be able to do away with it as the local sentiments and culture tolerate their existence. However we can clearly see some changes coming to Sabah and Sarawak as well.”

Stepping up cooperation

Five years into a formal coalition and a second try at it, has PAS, PKR and DAP progressed much in terms of interparty cooperation. Azmin calls the spade.

“At the national level, PR leaders are cooperating very well. We have had constant and regular meetings amongst the national leaders. In all these meetings we discussed about the tricky and big issues and proposed the policies and direction of PR.”

“Our challenge now is to translate this compact cooperation to the state and grass root levels. We want to see this cooperation effected at the local levels. We have a bit of problem there in terms of execution. What’s been decided at the national level will be executed at the state and local levels. We are monitoring that.”

Azmin emphasises that in all the states there should be a joint secretariats in place to coordinate the workings amongst the PR parties. “The national PR leadership has decided that the national representatives of the three parties will be going down to each state to encourage the state leaders of what we have practised at the national level.”

“We will start with the PR-run states of Kelantan, Penang and Selangor then to the frontline states of Johor, Sarawak and Sabah. These programs are in the pipeline. We hope to launch PR workshops in the states, too.”

PKR and DAP

What of cooperation between DAP and PKR? “Our cooperation with DAP is at a very good level. For example, Kit Siang and Guan Eng are in constant and personal contact with Anwar Ibrahim at all times.”

I have been told to improve my public relations with DAP as I am seen as stiff and hard to the other PR supporters. I am the bad cop for PKR. Perhaps that’s because I have to be hard during the seats negotiation (laughs)! Likewise Tan Kok Wai and Dr Hatta Ramli are also hard negotiators for their respective parties.”

tony and azmin“Just before the last GE PKR and DAP had some tussle regarding the Gelang Patah and Bentong parliamentary seats. I always work on consensus. I may have different opinions about the seats. But for me when a strategic and executive decision for PR is made, I will obey and defend it. Sticking to the cause is important for me.”

“I respect the fact that DAP has many young, professional and capable leaders such as Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong and Hannah Yeoh. I think we should have a forum for them to promote the cooperation amongst the three parties.”

Sharing the burden – by Azmin Ali

As the party contesting the most number of parliamentary seats in the last GE, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, PKR has been branded as greedy for power by certain quarters. Will PKR be willing to let the other PR parties help out in these ‘difficult’ seats, which requires much manpower, investment and time to penetrate them?

We are more than happy to share the seats with the other PR parties. Let me qualify this perception of PKR being greedy with the seats in east Malaysia is totally baseless. I was involved directly in the seats negotiation with DAP and PAS in the last GE.

We know that DAP strength is in the urban areas, especially with the Chinese community in Sarawak and have focus its efforts there. PAS on the other hand is limited to several Muslim-majority seats.

PKR is left holding the ‘difficult’ seats. If we in PKR had not taken those seats, BN would have won those seats with walkovers, i.e. no contest. We had to take those seats to protect the interest of PR. We must put up a challenge. That was the risk we took.

Now we see that DAP is moving into the rural areas with its Impian Sarawak and Impian Sabah programs to engage the rural folks and in the meantime also build up its presence in these rural areas as well. On behalf of PKR and in the good interest of PR I am ready to negotiate with DAP and PAS regarding some of these seats.

Ultimately the one who benefits is PR. If we see that DAP and PAS has the strength and capabilities in some of these seats, we are willing to release these seats. We are not capable of holding on to too many of these seats because it is so costly to do so.

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