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Sunday August 10, 2008

Riding high on wave of victory

The DAP elections this month will see new faces jostling with experienced names to join the 20-seat party central committee. But the party's brightest star Lim Guan Eng is expected to emerge at the top of the charts.

ABOUT a week ago, DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng made what could only be described as a triumphant return to Malacca where it had all begun for him in politics.

The state DAP threw him a dinner in the biggest school hall they could find in Malacca to mark his first party function in the state since becoming Penang Chief Minister. Paying guests and supporters filled up 400 tables to hear him speak.

He was welcomed like a victorious general who had returned from war and, in a way, he had.

The irony was that just three years ago, Guan Eng had been so unpopular among party leaders in Malacca that they ousted him and his politician wife Betty Chew from the party's state committee. It was a stunning rejection that ensued in a cold war between Guan Eng and the Malacca DAP chairman Goh Leong San.

During the Machap by-election in Malacca last year, both Guan Eng and Goh had accompanied the DAP candidate to the counting centre. They looked civil as they walked side by side, but their body language said it all – the studious-looking Guan Eng looked to the left while the tall and handsome Goh looked to the right without exchanging a word.

But Guan Eng has gone from zero to hero in Malacca, the ice has thawed between the two men and Goh was a key figure behind the Malacca dinner.

Malacca DAP is even said to be ready to give its full support to Guan Eng in the party elections taking place in a fortnight's time.

This will be the party's first elections and national congress since the DAP's March 8 success. For the first time in its history, the party is the Government in three states, with a total of 78 assemblymen and 28 MPs.

Man of the hour: Many in the party want to reward their first Penang Chief Minister by giving Lim Guan Eng a huge endorsement in the party polls; he is seen here with (from left) party strategist Liew Chin Tong and Penang DAP chairman Chow Kon Yeow at a dinner.

The party has finally arrived, as they say, after years of struggle as an opposition party.

The euphoria has yet to evaporate and this party congress will be more of a celebration than anything else.

“We never imagined this kind of success and there's a really good feeling in the party. It's an exciting as well as challenging time for us,” said Anthony Loke, who is Rasah MP and DAP Youth secretary.

For a start, the party has upgraded from their old haunt at the Federal Hotel to the five-star Crown Princess Hotel.

More nominations

There has also been an unprecedented number of 73 nominations for the 20 central committee (CC) posts. Nominations rarely exceed 40 names in a normal year.

For the first time, the proceedings of the congress will be opened to the press in line with the prevailing mood of openness and transparency.

Party members have also shown great interest in attending the congress as observers. Many of them have only read of or seen the new crop of DAP wakil rakyat in the media.

They want to see them up close, especially new faces like self-made millionaire PJ Utara MP Tony Pua, the oh-so-cute Subang Jaya assemblyman Hannah Yeoh, and Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong whose appearances on Chinese TV forums have established him as a serious opinion-shaper.

And they are curious to meet the “next Karpal Singh,” that is, Puchong MP Gobind Singh Deo, who has made quite an impact in his short time in Parliament.

“Basically, it means a bigger pool of talent to choose from,” said Loke.

Goh organised a memorable homecoming dinner for Guan Eng.

The party's electoral system is somewhat different from most other political parties. The party comprises only branches on the ground. It needs only two nominations for anyone to qualify for contest in the 20-seat CC.

The elected CC members then choose the main office bearers such as the secretary-general and so on from among them.

According to Loke, more than 90% of those nominated are elected representatives and about half had accepted the nominations by the deadline last Friday.

The general election was Guan Eng's first as secretary-general and the consensus is that he did a fantastic job in leading the party through the polls.

In the 2005 polls, party delegates were upset by what they saw as an over-hasty scheme to hustle Guan Eng, then just released from detention, into the secretary-general seat. The resentment built up into votes and Guan Eng ended up 12th in the CC while Kit Siang, seen as the hidden hand, landed at a shocking 14th spot.

But all that is now water under the bridge and many in the party want to reward their first Penang Chief Minister by sending him to the top of the charts.

“I think we are going to see a huge endorsement of Guan Eng's leadership at the congress,” said Liew.

Still, Guan Eng is not taking things for granted and has been touching base with the DAP grassroots. The Malacca dinner was one such stop. Several days ago, he attended political retreats in Lumut and Penang and next week will see him in Negri Sembilan.

The new CC will definitely be a lively mix of experience and youth and newcomers like Pua, Liew and DAP's guitar-playing MP for Jelutong, Jeff Ooi, are quite likely to make their debut in the line-up.

Contemporary image

If they succeed, they will lend the DAP a more contemporary image that will help the party connect with the younger crowd as well as change the way non-Chinese perceive the party.

The younger ones already stand out from the old guards with their trendy hair, fashionable glasses and up-to-date clothes as opposed to the heavily-oiled hairdo and white shirts of the Kit Siang generation. Their world view is also broader and their ability to argue out issues have already made a difference to party meetings.

But the shocker is that the “cili-padi” MP for Batu Gajah Fong Po Kuan will not defend her CC seat. She had come in second after Cheras MP Tan Kok Wai in the last polls.

Every party likes some sort of “voice of conscience” in the ranks and there is curiosity about whether vocal leaders like Teng Chang Khim will keep his CC seat.

Teng, now the Selangor Assembly Speaker (another first for the DAP), is known for his independent streak and fiery oratory. But he and Guan Eng have a thorny relationship; some people joke that their horoscopes just do not match. Will delegates still vote to retain the party rebel now that Guan Eng is riding high?

For a long time, even after he had cut his political teeth and spent time in detention, Guan Eng was seen as “Kit Siang's son”. But the tables have been turned and, nowadays, Kit Siang tends to be known as “Guan Eng's father”.

Guan Eng has emerged as his own man after March 8.

“Power transforms people,” said Liew, with a laugh.

But the father does not mind in the least his son taking centre-stage.

“Sometimes we can see Kit Siang trying to hide from the limelight because he knows his son is now the star of the party,” said Liew.

Apparently, Kit Siang has never been happier on a political or personal level although you would never have guessed looking at his world-weary expression.

In Hokkien-speaking Penang, the father is known as the “lau hero” (the old hero) while many party members still refer to him as “lao ta” (the No. 1), a sobriquet from his days as the powerful secretary-general.

No matter how bright the son's star shines, the father is already a legend in his time.

The son has yet to earn such deferential references but if he performs and delivers, it will come his way.Man of the hour: Many in the party want to reward their first Penang Chief Minister by giving Lim Guan Eng a huge endorsement in the party polls; he is seen here with (from left) party strategist Liew Chin Tong and Penang DAP chairman Chow Kon Yeow at a dinner. Left: Goh organised a memorable homecoming dinner for Guan Eng.

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