TURNING 80 is pretty auspicious and birthday greetings flowed in for DAP leader Lim Kit Siang (pic) when he touched the Big Eight-O last week.
DAP leaders had a zoom gathering to mark the occasion while Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow went down memory lane with Kit Siang, looking back to the time when ordinary Chinese were afraid to openly support DAP.
Chow, whose political career began in Penang, recalled how the pair would walk the length of Penang’s Campbell Street, which is a very long street, and manage to sell only two tickets for their annual party dinner.
As Kit Siang put it, it has been a “long, lonely but worthwhile journey”.
There were also tributes from Pakatan Harapan leaders, including a heartfelt video message from Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim who said that “I love Kit as a brother, family and friend”.
On social media, supporters and admirers wished the DAP leader good health and longevity.
But there was something glaring in the flood of birthday greetings –hardly anyone urged him not to retire or to contest the next election.
This was in contrast to his earlier birthdays when well-wishers would tell him that his leadership was still needed.
It is often said that age is just a number but there is no running away from age when one hits 80.
For instance, some people still talk about Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as prime minister (PM) material. The Gua Musang MP was PM material but not anymore at 83, while Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is living proof that the top job is too demanding for senior citizens.
In contrast, DAP stalwart Datuk Teng Chang Khim, who is a Selangor exco member, has announced he is retiring to make way for new blood although he is only 57, at the peak of his career and has impressed even the Selangor palace.
Turning 80 has been politically awkward for Kit Siang.
DAP leaders used to call each other “saudara” but for some reason they have taken to calling Kit Siang “Lao Da”– it means “big brother” and it is a popular term among underworld groups.
No one in DAP has broached the subject of whether “Lao Da” would be contesting the general election or whether he would remain in Johor or move again.
“Retirement does not apply to him. The decision is his to make, it’s entirely up to him. Even if he does not contest, he will find ways to be politically relevant, ” said Penang Deputy Chief Minister Dr P. Ramasamy.
Pacific Research Centre principal advisor Dr Oh Ei Sun said DAP would want to win as many seats as possible and Kit Siang still has appeal wherever he goes because his identity is closely tied to that of DAP.
“Where he stands depends on where DAP plans to expand. The party is always looking to explore new seats, ” said Dr Oh.
The opinion out there is that Kit Siang will probably contest again and that could be rather awkward for a party that is trying to move forward and beyond its Chinese base.
He is still respected among many older Chinese but his image and that of his son Lim Guan Eng is at its lowest among the Malays. They have become a liability to the party’s quest to reach out to Malay voters.
“The Lims know the Malays don’t like DAP because of them. The grooming process is so visible in DAP, they have many young, capable people. They should build on that, ” said former Law Minister Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar who got to know DAP better after he joined Bersatu.
Few expect Kit Siang to remain in Johor because he rarely remains long in any seat.
Kit Siang, said Dr Oh, is always trying to break new ground for his party.
He played a vanguard role in cracking Umno’s southern fortress back in 2013. But the welcome is not like what it was although he will easily retain his Iskandar Puteri seat.
There is speculation that Senator Liew Chin Tong, an arch loyalist of the Lims, may be given the Iskandar Puteri seat or it may go to Kit Siang’s political secretary Syahredzan Johan whose father, the renowned journalist Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar, is from Johor.
Those who have watched Kit Siang break new ground from one election to the next think he may head back to Penang which has to be defended at all costs after seeing Gerakan reduced to nothing without the state.
He can help to hold the ship together in Penang while his son and daughter-in-law grapple with their court cases.
Dr Oh does not subscribe to the notion that Kit Siang wants to hang around to shield his son from enemies outside and within.
“The Chinese are disappointed but they will stick with DAP for want of a better alternative, ” said Dr Oh.
The party has lost the moral high ground, starting from the point when Guan Eng was appointed Finance Minister while his graft trial was in progress. It worsened when party leaders kept silent on issues that propelled them to power and, of course, there are the latest corruption charges against their top leader.
All this goes against so much of what DAP used to stand for.
Kit Siang also stunned people when he took to Facebook to make a public and emotional appeal to the Prime Minister to drop the charges against Betty Chew.
This was coming from a man who had spoken out and even written books about executive interference in the legal and judiciary process.
The DAP icon and Dr Mahathir share a similar dilemma – they are unable to let go.
Kit Siang is still the best mediator in Pakatan, able to talk to the leaders of the coalition.
He also represents a steady pair of hands amid the undercurrents in DAP between the crop of young leaders and the party’s traditional base.
Without him, the party would not have come this far and DAP’s “Lao Da” will need to decide whether the party is able to go further with him around.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.