The DAP and its weaknesses
For a long time (since 1965), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) has been a major force in the opposition side of the Malaysian political divide. And for a rather long time, Lim Kit Siang has been helming the DAP. However, the recent defeat of his son (Lim Guan Eng, party Secretary-General) and his daughter-in-law (Betty Chew, Guan Eng's wife) in internal party elections raises a considerable number of questions about the party's future.
It should be made clear that I have never been a fan of the DAP. Its socialist economic stance runs contrary to my beliefs regarding a free market, and its abrasive nature of opposing for the sake of opposing have made me always wary. In addition, its underreliance on grassroots support, in favour of pilih kasih (favouritism) from the party leadership, has alienated me - I don't believe a party that rules from an ivory tower should be ruling. (Some commentators like Joceline Tan of The Star have attributed this to the party's socialist nature - I wouldn't know how true this is.)
There is also no denying that the DAP has, intentionally or otherwise, cultivated a very Chinese-centric image. Most of the issues it champions tend to be of concern more for Chinese voters than for anyone else. Oh, sure, the DAP says it's a pro-Malaysian party, not a pro-Chinese party. Maybe that's true. But the DAP doesn't seem to be concerned about rehabilitating its image, aside from some minor squealing about "We're looking out for the interests of Malaysians!"
Another group notably missing from the DAP is the youth. This crucial demographic segment is what will make or break the party's fortunes in the future. After all, one can only rely on support from senior citizens for so long. However, little bodes well in this direction. Most of the young faces in the DAP tend to be the children or relatives of party members - Lim Guan Eng is an excellent example. There also appears to be no serious concern about reaching out to the youth. The DAP seems to expect new voters to come to it, instead of actively hunting them down for their support.
Some recent discussions I've had with a party "insider" have also fuelled my concern. For instance, it appears that the DAP is not so much a coherent organisation as it is a feuding bunch of fiefdoms, all squabbling for political (and occasionally) economic power. Apparently there is a lot of internal jockeying for position, both within the party and the various state assemblies.
Perhaps the Lim/Chew defeat in the recent election to the DAP Malacca committee serves as an excellent example. As it turns out, Lim's style of politicking, and his wife's meteoric rise in the party organisation, have led to some considerable backlash from the grassroots (if they can be called that). Allegations of nepotism are never nice, but, honestly, who can see the DAP ruling Malaysia if they're just more of the same? What is Malaysia, a new sultanate?
Just look at some of the prominent politicians in the government, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Khairy Jamaluddin, Deputy UMNO Youth Chief - Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's son-in-law. Hishamuddin Hussein, UMNO Youth Chief and Education Minister (real title: "I'm Gonna' Be A PM!") - grandson of UMNO founder Dato' Onn Ja'afar, and son of third Prime Minister, Hussein Onn. Najib Razak, Deputy Prime Minister - son of second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak. Can anyone squeal nepotism? Maybe if we're going to hunt for an alternative to UMNO, it might be wise to avoid more of the same.
Let's return to Lim and Chew. When they were defeated, what was the reaction? Member of Parliament (MP) Teresa Kok accused unnamed conspirators of orchestrating their defeat. The Selangor and Negeri Sembilan DAP branches came out in support of Lim and Chew. Quite a bit of bad blood in the party, isn't it?
Perhaps one can attribute this intense politicking to the structure of Malaysian party elections. Typically, delegates representing each constituency are elected by ordinary party members, and these delegates in turn go on to vote for the party leadership. This is hardly fair, as these delegates aren't bound to vote in a particular matter - they just vote for what would ostensibly be in their constituents' best interests. (This is an inherent weakness of the Westminster Parliamentary system, which has its head of government indirectly elected by Members of Parliament.) This situation has led to money politics and outright on the table vote-buying in UMNO. I would not be too surprised if this has occurred in the DAP.
After all, the DAP is not very well known for its transparency either. Heck, it's not even known for principled leadership in its equivalent of corporate "middle management". After all, more than a few have used the party to get elected to public office, and then enrich themselves by virtue of their positions. Rather than join the Chinese tycoon party (the Malaysian Chinese Association, or MCA), where competition for the opportunity to run in an election is tough, many have opted to rise through the DAP ranks to gain public office - and then jump ship to MCA. Some specific cases: Tiger Le from Lobak Seremban, Khoo Seng Hock from Temiang, Seremban and Chin Nyok Soo et al from Penang.
All this could be solved if the DAP reached out to the grassroots by electing its leadership through primary elections. But does the DAP value the grassroots that highly? Or does its leadership value their own skin more than the party and the nation? Tough question. But looking right at the top to Karpal Singh, that fiery bulldog, I'd be surprised if the former were true. After all, this is the same man who couldn't be bothered to open a service centre for his constituents in Penang, forcing them to visit his legal office for help.
The DAP is undoubtedly the best of a rotten lot (this lot is the Opposition, of course). But how much of a compliment can that be? The DAP needs to drastically reform itself, and reposition itself as a new party - one with vigour, full of young energy and dedicated to Malaysians and not just the Chinese or non-Malays. Here, it's all a question of PR - window-dressing. But before that is attended to, there is much more that has to be addressed. Deep faultlines threaten to tear the party apart if it doesn't get its act together. The DAP has to act now to reform itself, or risk becoming yet another footnote in the history of Malaysian politics.