WHAT does it mean when the deputy president of the political party with the most seats in Parliament has not attended a single central leadership council meeting since he was elected in November 2018?
For my money, it implies a failure of our political system as a whole – especially in regard to what a political party is supposed to be and how it is supposed to function.
In examining this, we will look at the role and function of leadership positions in political parties, briefly examine our history regarding presidents and deputy presidents, and the role ideology does or does not play in Malaysian political parties.
So, let’s have a look at PKR’s leadership structure.
Thankfully, there is no longer a "de-facto leader", whatever on earth that meant. Instead, according to their website (http://keadilanrakyat.org/index.php/senarai-pimpinan-pusat-parti-keadilan-rakyat-20182021/) there is a president, a deputy president, and no less than nine individuals holding the rank of vice president (the page still includes Nurul Izzah Anwar).
There is a secretary general (with three deputies), a treasurer (with one deputy), an information chief (with two deputies, alongside one more director of communications), a coordinating secretary, a chairperson and deputy chairperson of an advisory council of some sort, a disciplinary board chairperson, one state chairperson per state, and some 25 central committee members that I counted.
In total there are 65 people listed on the page.
Presumably, the Youth and Women wings of the party each have a similar structure of chief, deputy chief, countless vice chiefs, and the whole shebang of office holders.
Long story short, it’s quite top heavy.
For the purposes of this article, however, let us focus on the question of the president and his or her deputy.
Theoretically, in most organisations, one assumes that the role of a deputy is to be something very much like the president, only a little more junior – an individual who is there to help realise the vision of the president, and help cover whatever the latter cannot.
The reality in Malaysian politics (though this is, of course, not fully unique to us) is that the deputy president in a political party is very often the number one rival to the president.
We have seen this play out countless of times in Umno – the parent party which PKR splintered off from.
We can go back to Tun Dr. Mahahthir Mohammed’s conflict with Tengku Razaleigh Tengku Hamzah and Tun Musa Hitam in the late 80s and, of course, with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim himself a decade later.
Another decade and a half later, Datuk Seri Najib Razak had his own big fight with his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
The problem is not unique to Umno. MCA has had similar president vs deputy president fights, such as between Tun Ling Liong Sik and Lim Ah Lek in the early 2000s, and between Ong Tee Keat and Chua Soi Lek later that decade.
MCA fights, of course, tend to be a little more forgettable.
One of the reasons these fights happen so often is that political parties tend to look for some check and balance. Thus the logic is that with Team A holding the No 1 position, and Team B holding the No 2 position, there will then be a balance of power.
This makes a little sense, of course, but the corollary is that you often have the party’s No 1 and No 2 constantly at each other’s throats – spending endless time and resources being locked in an unending struggle for personal dominance, rather than focusing on national problems.
It must be noted that while the No 2 position is somewhat powerful, most parties have a winner-take-all system, in which only the president can finalise which candidates run for election. This is most often the ultimate power in any political party.
The reason Datuk Seri Azmin Ali doesn’t attend official PKR meetings is simple – he doesn’t see any benefit whatsoever in doing so. He obviously feels powerful and influential enough to simply sidestep any formal proceedings with impunity, and does not see existing PKR processes and mechanisms as important in any way to the furtherance of his political career.
To be fair, when Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim was Menteri Besar of Selangor, he eventually stopped going to those meetings too. Some say it was because all they did there was pressure him to use more of the state resources to help the party.
Everyone except the truly naive must realise that Azmin is obviously having meetings of his own with his cartel within PKR, operating in parallel – and often in complete opposition to – "mainstream" PKR under Anwar.
Does this divisive dynamic, so common in our political parties, benefit the country as a whole?
Historically, political parties are formed around ideologies. From Malaysia’s foundation, race appeared to be our core political ideology. For all our formative years, the only parties that mattered were all essentially race-based.
In Malaysia today, ideology plays a smaller and smaller role – especially compared to feudal factors.
Feudal here means the prominence of personality-based politics. At times, it seems like ideology is created only as a corollary to feudal concerns.
Muhyiddin may be a good example of this. During the time when he was rising to slowly challenge Najib, he suddenly started painting himself as an ultra-Malay – famously declaring himself to be Malay first, and Malaysian second.
A few years later, Muhyiddin made a 180 degree turn and is now "best buddies" with the "ultra-Chinese" DAP. One could be forgiven for deducing that the whole "ultra-Malay" thing was not a core principle that was integral to Muhyiddin as an individual, but rather a tool of political expediency.
In my last article, I wrote about how in the Anwar and Azmin Ali conflict, there is zero element of ideology as well.
Nowhere in the debate is there anything about differing ideas on how to run the country or anything of the sort. (https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/all-the-pieces-matter/2019/07/26/anwar-azmin-how-should-we-choose-our-next-pm/#cxrecs_s)
So, if ideology has fallen so far from center stage that it is closer to the audience than to the play – what are our political parties really about?
Why should the sometimes arbitrary-seeming membership of various political parties that do not have clear ideological cores be the ones who decide who runs our country?
Is the criteria for being appointed a minister – positions that often would benefit from relevant experience in the ministry’s field – based solely on things like whether one succeeded in winning one of nine vice president’s posts in what is essentially a bigger version of a high school popularity contest?
If internal party political contests are not about ideology, then they tend to be about feudal patronage. And if you ascend into a ministry off the back of feudal patronage, then the clear tendency is to use the resources of that ministry to keep the gravy train of feudal patronage running.
Simply put, if money politics is what you used to get into power, you will always need to use money politics to stay in power.
The structures of our political systems and how our political parties are run have not changed for decades.
This institutional stagnancy is highly unreflective of genuine democratic aspirations of today.
If current parties do not recognise this and start the institutional engineering necessary to fix these problems, I imagine voters will eventually throw them out in favour of someone who will.
NATHANIEL TAN is a consultant specialising in impactful communication and navigating public perception.
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