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Sunday February 14, 2010

New platform for old mission

The appearance of a right wing Malay group, Perkasa, on the political landscape has caused ripples particularly given that its prime mover is the maverick politician Datuk Ibrahim Ali.

SO much has changed about Datuk Ibrahim Ali over his years as a Malay politician.

At the same time, some things about him just do not change. For one, he is still as loud as ever.

Malay champion or racist?: Datuk Ibrahim Ali has worn many hats in his political career but the initiator of a new Malay group known as Perkasa may have just donned his most controversial hat yet. – SIA HONG KIAU/ The Star

He speaks as though he is at a ceramah even during a normal conversation. At several points during this interview, the room seemed to vibrate from the boom of his voice.

His hands swung like karate chops in the air, the table shook, the coffee spilled onto the saucer and one’s ears felt numb afterwards.

The Pasir Mas MP is probably one of the few politicians around who can still go on loud and clear even if the sound system broke down in the middle of his speech.

Ibrahim has been controversial from as far as anyone can remember.

But he has just embarked on his most controversial role yet as the leader of Perkasa or Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia.

Last week, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad launched Perkasa’s Selangor chapter where he stood on stage holding a keris in a rather half-hearted manner.

But perhaps the clearest hint that Perkasa is not another loony fringe group is that the Sultan of Selangor has agreed to officiate at its inaugural assembly next month.

Perkasa is ostensibly an NGO set up to articulate and defend Malay interests.

To date, the group has taken a strong stand against the High Court ruling on the Catholic Herald’s use of the term “Allah”. Ibrahim has even written a four-page letter on it to the Vatican.

It participated in the recent Malay protest in George Town against Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng during which Ibrahim made a hard-hitting speech. It was the only group to defend Datuk Nasir Safar over the latter’s allegedly racist remarks.

But Ibrahim and his group have been labelled as ultra Malay, extreme right wing, hardline and even racist.

He has been criticised by quarters who think that such a group is taking the country backwards rather than forwards. The Internet chatter has vilified and thrashed him.

Ibrahim has been called many names over the years but he balks at being labelled a racist.

“I am not a racist. We are only asking what is due to the Malays under Article 153 of the Constitution. We are not saying, don’t give this or that to the non-Bumiputra. Nowhere in my speeches do I say take this from the Chinese, don’t give that to the Indians. I want to unite Malays in defending Article 153.

“So many police reports have been lodged in the last few months against people for saying all kinds of things. Were there any against me? None. I am always misunderstood,” said Ibrahim.

He said his group wants to defend Malay rights and privileges and he has said on previous occasions that if Malays do not come out and defend themselves, “others will climb on our heads.”

He insisted that he respects meritocracy but said the concept is not fair for as long as the Malays are still lagging behind in the economy and education.

“I also have pride. I would prefer to be respected because of merit rather than quotas,” he said.

Perkasa’s supporters are making no apologies for their communal world view and their defence of Malay rights. The group is also uncompromising on the question of Islam and the royalty which are core to the Malay identity. Or as Dr Mahathir put it a little more politely: “Perkasa represents a number of Malay opinions.”

But no matter how strenuously Ibrahim argues that he is merely defending and championing Malay rights and issues, there will be people out there who will find him too right wing for their taste.

In other words, Perkasa is likely to come across as one of those politically incorrect outfits in civil society. “I don’t agree with everything he is saying or doing but he wants to defend the Malay agenda, to help Malays be equals in this country,” said fellow Kelantanese Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad.

However, said Alwi who is also Kok Lanas assemblyman, there should be a limit to how far Perkasa takes Malay issues.

“This country cannot accept ultra politics. It is moderation that binds us together. That’s what the majority of people want,” he said.

Uncomfortable situation

Umno has been the melting pot for Malays ranging from the moderate to the conservative and the ultra. But this is the post-March 8 era, the political terrain has changed and any party which wants to be in power has to dominate the middle ground because it is this segment of the population who will decide who is in power.

Even Umno is not at all comfortable with Perkasa.

“Feelings in Umno are divided. Some of us see Ibrahim as the Malay equivalent to Tian Chua of PKR or Lim Guan Eng of DAP,” said Alwi.

At the same time, there will always be a segment of society who see things from the communal viewpoint and who feel strongly about it.

In its bid to control the middle ground, Umno has left a leadership vacuum over the opinion ground occupied by the far right.

Some in Umno say it is good that Ibrahim controls this space rather than someone else, a sort of “better the devil you know” kind of argument.

Besides, it makes sense to channel these sentiments in a mainstream way rather than allow it to go underground or astray. This way, they can be monitored and, if necessary, controlled.

Ibrahim, 59, has a mega-personality. He is not afraid to be different, has bold views and there is never a dull moment when talking with him even if one does not agree with much of what he says.

He has great stories to tell just as the wall of photographs in his cramped little office tells of a man who has travelled a long road.

The photograph of him with Cuba’s Fidel Castro comes with a fascinating tale of their meeting in Kyoto. There are lots of pictures of him with Dr Mahathir who is said to be incredibly fond of him and whom Ibrahim adulates.

But the centrepiece of the wall is a photograph of Ibrahim with the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

There is also a bed in a corner where the late Tun Ghafar Baba used to take naps. Ghafar was a rather lonely man after retiring as Deputy Prime Minister and used to hang out at Ibrahim’s office.

Perkasa, some say, is the national version of the Kelantan Malay Action Council that Ibrahim formed in 1999 to defend the Kelantan Palace, which was then caught in the middle of the conflict between PAS and Umno. The Sultan found Ibrahim to be such interesting company that they grew quite close and even went for holidays together.

Perkasa is still a work in progress.

Dr Mahathir has advised Ibrahim that Perkasa’s cause must be within the framework of the Constitution. The former Premier has said by all means fight for Malay rights, but do not oppose the rights of other races.

Ibrahim has no intention of turning Perkasa into another political party.

But Perkasa will be a very powerful platform for his politics. Right now, he is a an MP without a party, or what is known as an independent.

The optimist in him sees independents as the way to go in the future.

“Independents have become a factor now that a two-coalition system is in formation, We can determine who becomes the Government,” he said.

It will be interesting to see where he takes Perkasa and also where Perkasa will take him in the new political landscape.

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