Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali took a few hard knocks last year and his political career is almost over but his controversial NGO may become a full-fledged political party.
DATUK Ibrahim Ali is somewhere in Italy right now, in a town with rolling hills and lots of olive trees, according to his SMS.
The Perkasa president is taking a breather after a tumultuous year. The year 2013 was not an easy one for Ibrahim.
In November, he was sentenced to a day’s jail for contempt of court. But this was nothing compared to losing the Pasir Mas seat to PAS’ Nik Abduh Nik Aziz in the general election. Ibrahim’s name had been synonymous with Pasir Mas, he had poured his time, energy and money into the constituency during his years as an MP, yet he was beaten by a novice with a famous father.
Vinegar on a wound – that was what it felt like for him when the votes were tallied on the night of May 5. Two days later, he announced that he was stepping down as Perkasa president. The Perkasa council rejected his resignation at an emergency meeting and a crisis was averted.
“We told him no, he cannot be replaced,” said Perkasa secretary-general Syed Hassan Syed Ali.
Syed Hassan was not exaggerating about the man who is arguably Malaysia’s most controversial figure – Perkasa is Ibrahim and Ibrahim is Perkasa.
Ibrahim is known as Tok Him among friends. But he has been called all manner of names by his detractors – loudmouth, extremist, a zealot and even crazy. But regardless how people out there feel about Ibrahim, the man and his organisation is not going away any time soon.
Or as Syed Hassan put it: “Perkasa will be there for as long as the Indians have Hindraf and the Chinese have Dong Zong.”
With 420,000 members, it is reportedly the biggest non-political Malay NGO around.
Besides, the signs are that Perkasa is about to evolve into something bigger going by the tone of its AGM last month.
Perkasa has often been perceived to be the right-wing offshoot of Umno but at the AGM, Ibrahim’s guns were trained at Umno. He declared that Umno was showing signs of weakness and lethargy in standing up for Malay interests.
He implied that Umno had become a toothless tiger, afraid to raise its voice for fear of offending the non-Malays and that it was more interested in its role as the government than a party that represents the Malays.
He warned that if the Umno-led government fails to deliver on the Bumiputera Economic Empowerment Agenda, it had better be prepared to take on Perkasa in the 14th general election.
He had thrown down the gauntlet. He was telling Umno to deliver on the Malay agenda or risk having Perkasa as an opponent.
Ibrahim has a habit of making over-the-top claims but very few in Umno would deny that Perkasa helped rein in the right-wing Malay vote for Umno in the general election.
“Perkasa helped us. It could say things that Umno could not say because we are the government and the leader of a multi-racial coalition. I don’t swallow everything they say, but I listen very closely,” said Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad, the assemblyman for Ketereh in Kelantan.
Ibrahim’s threat to take on Umno in the next general election cannot be taken lightly because Perkasa’s newest vice-president is no less than former Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman.
Rashid and Perkasa caught everyone by surprise and a news portal described it as one of the “best kept secrets”.
He is the ultimate catch for any organisation and Ibrahim told people that he caught a “big fish”. Few can rival Rashid in terms of knowledge and understanding of the electoral system and he will be the ultimate trump card if Perkasa decides to take the political road. It has started to organise itself according to parliamentary constituencies.
“Perkasa has its own political strengths and if Umno fails to deliver, Perkasa may move in. We will have to sit down and draw up plans,” said Rashid.
Like many top civil servants, Rashid’s civil servant persona took priority over his own personality. But his real personality has emerged now that he has retired.
Basically, Rashid is a patriot, loyal to King and country, and conscious of his responsibilities as a Malay who has served his country.
He has an intellectual side that not many are aware of, he writes with authority on politics, especially the politics of his homestate Kelantan. He is chatty as well as witty, and one senses that he is still wondering how he landed up with a group like Perkasa.
“I am still adjusting. As a civil servant, I deal with facts. But here, you have facts mixed with emotion and perception. But I’m learning and I’m enjoying it,” he said.
Rashid was probably one of the few in Perkasa who were not put off by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s speech at the group’s AGM last month.
The royal politician, often referred to as Kuli, was the guest of honour. Instead of pandering to the Malay right-wing appetite, he delivered a few hard truths to the race-based group, telling them to reflect on why they have been struggling with their public image.
He urged them to take on issues based on facts and in accordance with the Federal Constitution and laws rather than in an emotional way.
“Perkasa still bears a negative connotation for most people. It is described as ultra, racist and belittled even by the Malays, the very community that it claims to protect. Perkasa is seen as a cause of disunity. This perception is negative to your struggle which has noble intentions,” said Tengku Razaleigh.
Tengku Razaleigh, noted publisher Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, has been very critical of Umno. Perkasa, he said, probably saw him as an ideal conduit to deliver a message to Umno. Instead, they got a gentle reprimand from the Prince.
“Kuli has moved to the centre whereas Perkasa is on the far right,” said Juhaidi Yean Abdullah, executive director of the Pondok Development Foundation.
Tengku Razaleigh’s speech did not go down well with the crowd but they were too polite to show it.
The speech probably gave Ibrahim a bad case of indigestion but he is too devoted to Tengku Razaleigh to complain.
After all, he once declared that there are only two people in the world he would do anything for and they are Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh. And the irony is that the two men he so adores cannot stand the sight of each other.
But as the right-wing blogger Zakhir Mohamed aka Bigdogdotcom pointed out: “I don’t see why Perkasa has to take this from Kuli. Perkasa is big and getting bigger. Kuli’s own NGO (the multi-ethnic Angkatan Amanah Merdeka) is going nowhere.”
It will also be the last time the Prince is invited to speak at Perkasa functions.
Perkasa gets a lot of bad press but Juhaidi sees its role growing rather than diminishing in the coming years.
Perkasa is a creature of the times and many Malays, said Juhaidi, are extremely concerned about the way non-Malays have taken liberties with what he calls the “Malay trinity of issues,” namely Islam, the Malay rulers and Malay rights.
For instance, Malays were outraged when the infamous sex couple Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee wished Muslims “Selamat Buka Puasa” while having bah kut teh on their blog during Ramadan.
A Buddhist group which used a surau in Johor for meditation was another instance.
But the mother of all issues as far as they are concerned has been the kalimah Allah controversy.
The issue has seen Umno and Perkasa sharing the same platform to defend the Muslim demand for the exclusive use of the Allah term.
Many in PAS also feel strongly about the matter but they are reluctant to be seen on the same stage as Umno and Perkasa. Besides, PAS has to be sensitive to the feelings of its DAP partners who support the use of the term by Christians in the country.
“Whatever people may say about Ibrahim, Perkasa has the potential to eclipse Umno in taking up Malay issues. Perkasa is necessary in that sense,” said Kadir.
Nevertheless, politicians in Sarawak, a state with a pretty good track record in race relations, told Perkasa to buzz off when they heard that the group was planning to spread its wings eastward.
Syed Hassan claimed that Perkasa’s members include Umno members as well as those from PAS and PKR.
The group has a strong following in Sabah, Kedah, Selangor and Johor. The reasons offered are quite intriguing. Perkasa’s voice resonates among the Muslims in Sabah because they are apprehensive of the strong Christian presence in the state.
The group has good support in Kedah and Selangor because Malays were unhappy about the DAP’s rise to power in Pakatan Rakyat.
In the case of Johor, Syed Hassan said there is growing concern among Malays in Johor that Umno is not assertive enough on matters concerning the community.
Ibrahim will be 62 this year and his political career is almost over. His defeat in the last general election was a signal that politics has shifted to a younger generation. But few are prepared to write him off because he is such a survivor.
“Perkasa cannot replace Umno but it can be a thorn in Umno’s side, to make it more mindful of Malay interests,” said Kadir.
Joceline Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org