Old style political AGMs reveal deep structural problems

  • All the pieces matter
  • Wednesday, 11 Dec 2019

Last week saw at least three major political parties conduct their AGMs or party congresses.

Some of the main takeaways: Umno is moving to the middle after Tanjung Piai, Amanah is looking at a ‘neo-conservative’ identity, and PKR remains beset by internal conflict.

We will discuss each of these issues, and explore the deeper structural problems they expose with regards on how Malaysian politics function.

For those who have yet to attend one, there is perhaps only one important thing you need to know about the AGMs of political parties: there are a lot of speeches.

They begin with speeches, there is an endless stream of speeches in the middle, and they end with speeches.

Most parties have a youth wing and a women’s wing, and these wings typically have their AGMs in the days before the main party AGMs. The sessions there consist of, you guessed it, a lot of speeches.

Traditionally, the youth and women wing’s AGMs are officiated by the deputy president of the party.

In PKR, this became a point of major contention, as this year, PKR Youth wanted to invite Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to officiate their congress, instead of Deputy President Azmin Ali.

In the world of political operatives, the debate concerning who was going to officiate became a huge flash point - PKR’s own little battle royale.

In the world of everyone else, one imagines the question: how on earth is this relevant to anything? Is this ‘fight’ something truly worth devoting time and energy into?

Of course, there were (from PKR’s perspective anyway) big undercurrents here, which unfolded like a poker game.

PKR Youth made the first raise when they sought to cut Azmin out from their congress, knowing that this would spark a firestorm.

Azmin and team saw this coming and reraised by basically threatening to have their own ‘parallel congress’ at the Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

PKR president Anwar Ibrahim responded by ordering PKR Youth to fold, essentially looking to appear as a forgiving elder statesmen who always prioritises peace and reconciliation.

Azmin fell in line, pledged loyalty to the party, and attended the main party congress. He was probably disappointed to see that some purported ‘ceasefire’ was not adhered to, as delegate speeches appear to have had plenty of veiled (and not so veiled) criticisms towards Azmin and team.

The peak of this conflict was of course the physical brawls around the youth congress. It is bad that Bersatu is sometimes thought of as the party of flying cars, but even that might be a step up from being the party of flying chairs.

In the end, Azmin did eventually have an event at the Renaissance Hotel, where his allies took turns to open full fire against Anwar and team.

PKR Youth meanwhile, were probably disappointed that Anwar reined them in at the last minute, and left them high and dry. Perhaps they felt like soldiers who marched bravely forth, willing to die for their commander in glorious battle, only to have their sacrifices neutralised and rendered somewhat meaningless by an order mid-battle to retreat and stand down.

In any case, by the end of the weekend, PKR was probably no closer to shedding its brand association as the party of internal discord. The decision not to commit to a full on fight may have resulted in a loss on two fronts.

On the Umno side, there was a marked difference between the rhetoric in the months preceding the Tanjung Piai by election, and the weeks after Tanjung Piai.

In essence, the party seems to have clearly moved away from virulent ethnonationalism and back to the centre, with plenty of talk about the need to respect other races, multiculturalism, and so on.

I think this can be explained via a simple chronology. Post GE 14, Umno was essentially fighting for its very survival. When the tap of government money was turned off, Umno faced a crisis of identity, and had things played out differently, might have collapsed entirely.

Pakatan Harapan began their term being extremely paranoid about its share of Malay votes. Rather than employing a new, innovative, and homegrown method for securing those votes, they allowed themselves to dance to Umno’s old tune of racial supremacy.

Umno played this tune because it was the only tune they knew, and because they knew that that strategy would at least secure their survival via their traditional base - as seen in their first few by-election victories. Basically, they were willing to do whatever it takes to not get wiped out.

When MCA won in Tanjung Piai, however, Umno and PAS realised that shooting for their survival was aiming too low. Smelling blood and weakness, they woke up and realised: hey, with Harapan falling apart at the seams, we might actually have a realistic chance to win GE 15.

It is impossible to do so without significant non-Malay support, so Umno has made almost a complete U-turn with regards to their political strategy, and moved firmly back to the middle. They are now going for the ultimate prize, not just for survival.

At the Amanah AGM, President Mohamad Sabu said that Amanah was now going to move in a ‘neoconservative’ direction, to balance out ‘ultra ethnonationalists’ and ‘hyper-liberals’.

I agree with regards to the need to balance and compete effectively with these forces, but have two concerns.

Firstly, similar to the usage of terms like ‘deep state’ and ‘fake news’, it may be good to be aware of the connotations of terms like ‘neoconservative’. Globally, this term is most closely connected to the likes of George W. Bush and the coterie of advisors who pushed so hard for the invasion of Iraq and the fervent defense of Israel. Are those really the people Amanah wants to be associated with?

Secondly, is this approach and strategy borne organically out of genuine, deeply felt principles, or are they a mere response to political expediency - subject to change like a weather vane?

Too many political parties in Malaysia already incline to the latter (such as Umno as described above), where they exist without a genuine ideological core driven by firm values.

The degree to which this has been detrimental to the nation cannot possibly be understated. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in essence, we are as a result led by people who consistently put political expediency ahead of consistent principles.

Ultimately, this is the root of money politics, personality politics, and feudal politics - each of which has held our nation back from fulfilling its true potential, year after year, decade after decade.

I think we need to ask ourselves some vital questions: Why do we do politics this way? Why are beholden to a system which incentivises the number one and number two of a party to always be at each other’s throats? Why does our system let politics without principles dominate the national landscape?

The answers to these questions tend to boil down to a variation of: we have always done things this way.

Isn’t it time we throw out old path dependencies, and start thinking independently about upgrading and redesigning our political structures in a way that incentivises Malaysia’s best and brightest to engage and collaborate with one another, instead of incentivising Malaysia’s greediest to drag the whole nation down while they bicker and fight?

We don’t need to do things the way they’ve always been done. What we need is to do things the way they should be done - boldly, and courageously.

NATHANIEL TAN is working with some friends on walking the talk, and believes 2020 is going to be a momentous year. He can be reached at nat@engage.my. He also offers heartfelt condolences to Dr. Wan Azizah and family on the passing of her father.

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PKR , UMNO , Amanah , Party Congress , AGM


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