Sunday, March 30, 2008

Keeping up with the new politics

Keeping up with the new politics


The writing on the wall is that the Chinese want their leaders to change with the times or they will put the other side in power.

IT was full house at Sin Chew Daily's postelection forum recently and the Chinese paper's executive director Rita Sim who was in the audience was riveted by how the crowd applauded each time the speakers said something critical about issues like corruption or abuse of power.

The speakers included some of the newly elected Yang Berhormat and the loudest applause were for those who until March 8 were opposition politicians.

“They were treated like folk heroes,” said Sim who is also deputy chairman of the MCA Insap think-tank.

But what struck the politician in Sim the hardest was the thought that the crowd was not the sort she had ever seen at MCA events or talks.

“I was thinking the whole time, my God, how do we reach out to this sort of crowd? We've taken this segment of society for granted, thinking that they will always opt for the tried and tested,” she admitted.

The forums were held at Sin Chew's Petaling Jaya head office as well as Penang, Ipoh, Malacca and Johor Baru. Sin Chew commands a huge middleclass readership that includes the Chinese intelligentsia and the community's movers and shakers, and it had received letters scolding the paper for not giving more coverage to parties like DAP, PKR and PAS.

Actually Sin Chew provided one of the most balanced reporting during the elections but it decided to have the forums as a way of addressing its readers' opinions. Chinese political issues will occupy centrestage in the Chinese media in the months ahead. Chinese politics has also reached a critical crossroad, especially for parties like the MCA and Gerakan.

“We give good service but we've been dealing with the symptoms, not the root causes. A classic case was Chew Mei Fun losing to Tony Pua,” said Sim. MCA's Chew, a former parliamentary secretary, was famous for her dedicated service in PJ Utara. But the DAP argued so well that Parliament is for legislators who can talk about national issues and not a “YB Longkang” that her campaign literally went down the drain.

Massive vote swing

The sentiments that led to the massive Chinese vote swing are well known by now. “The more mature generation vented their frustration against political arrogance, corruption and inefficiency in government.

The younger voters were looking at more universal aspirations like fairness, an equitable and open society, media freedom, accountability and economic issues,” said senior MCA politician Tan Sri Dr Sak Cheng Lum. Many of these sentiments are what Sim calls “postponed feelings”, accumulated over the years,

At one level, the Chinese vote was to punish Umno and as a protest against the wrongdoing they see around them. “The Chinese are not angry with the Malays but they are angry with Umno's arrogance,” she said. At another level, it was a generational shift of younger voters who do not share the historical baggage of their parents' generation.

They are not afraid of change and May 13 is a footnote in the textbook. The younger Chinese look at Taiwan and its lively democracy and which, even if disorderly at times, is slowly moving towards a civil society.

For the older Chinese, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew is a political icon, respected for his towering intellect, clean reputation and vision.

For instance, DAP's Pua, the new MP for PJ Utara, had two things going for him. Chinese admire scholars and self-made men and Pua, an Oxford University graduate, was an IT millionaire by the time he was 35. The Star had also organised a series of election forums and Pua commanded the biggest applause when he spoke at the most recent forum.

A great deal of the soul searching among the Chinese parties has been about coming to terms with the community's expectations of their leaders.

“The key word is equal opportunity be it in education, politics or business. The demand for equal opportunity will be the driving issue in future elections as more young Chinese Malaysians come of voting age,” said DAP strategist and Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong.

Despite the limelight surrounding issues like Chinese schools, pig-rearing and scholarships, Prof James Chin of Monash University said Chinese interests are also largely national issues.

“They want fair treatment, a level playing field and they are critical of corruption. They want to see sustainable economic growth and less interference by the government in the private sector. The Chinese business sector believes that too much interference leads to inefficiency, corruption and does not encourage a level playing field. “They want their leaders to articulate a vision for not just Chinese Malaysians but all Malaysians. That's why a significant number went for PKR which, on paper at least, speaks for all Malaysians,” said Prof Chin. And it is quite clear by now that the MCA and Gerakan style of solving problems behind closed doors does not work for today's generation. “They want vocal leaders who speak out when there is injustice and in a rational and intelligent fashion. Speaking out and justifying what you do is part of being transparent,” said Chin. The Barisan Nasional's formula of consensus politics is fine except that over the years, the Chinese feel it is more about giving in to the demands of Umno.

Even Gerakan, which started off as the voice of conscience, lost its way when it allowed the politics of the day to take over. Said Penang Gerakan politician Teng Chang Yeow: “We keep asking the Chinese for full support so that they will be wellrepresented in government. But wasn't that what they gave us in 2004, total support? Now you know why they're fed-up,

“Leaders like Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin must realise this. People equated their behaviour with Umno's inability to change with the times. If an Oxford-educated guy still talks like an Umno politician of 10 years ago, what hope do we have for the rest of Umno?”

The Chinese were disappointed that well-educated Malay professionals in Umno Youth, beneficiaries of the NEP, were still speaking the political language of a decade ago. It is time Malay politicians keep the keris out of politics. The message from the voters is very clear. They are prepared to put the opposing side in power. Not all the Chinese votes were strictly about protest, as evident from the nasi kandar boycott in Penang. Locals were disgusted with the demonstration against the new state government by Umno members and supporters and nasi kandar shops run by Indian Muslims have reported slow business in Chinese areas.

Even the humble chee cheong fun, a popular snack of long rolls of steamed noodles with sauce, has acquired a political connotation. A customer who asked for her noodles to be served unrolled was jokingly told that the snack should be eaten rocket style, that is, in long rolls since the DAP is now in power.

“The writing is on the wall. We cannot hesitate over reforms. I won't say the Opposition will do much better than us but they can't do worse than us,” said Dr Sak.

Facing the new reality

MCA, which experienced its own tsunamis in 1969 and again in 1980, has found less difficulty facing the new reality.

It has quickly set the dates of the party AGM and elections, and the post-mortem on the polls will start soon. Party leaders know that the grassroots want answers and direction and the party polls will enable them to have a say in the party's future so that the party can undertake changes, recover and move ahead.

Gerakan will have a tougher time with its entire leadership toppled in the polls, but Teng said: “Politics is like cycling. You keep peddaling or you fall.”

Bigger challenges lie ahead.

“Voters now know the power of their vote, that the one-man-one-vote system can make a difference. The next elections will be even more defining and challenging if we do not adapt,” said Sim.

But all this talk about change in parties like MCA and Gerakan is not going to mean very much unless Umno also changes in tune to the new politics. And that's where the biggest challenge lies.