Learning the ropes

I returned from the United Kingdom after a short break and my call to the Bar in October 2008. My call to the English Bar will always be memorable for two reasons. The first reason is that it happened on my father's birthday of Oct 9, and the second is that it was held in the Temple Church that was made famous by the Da Vinci Code.

I accepted an offer of a permanent position with the SEDAR Institute before I left for the UK and I was very eager and happy to be a change-maker. I was 23 years old and felt that the world is indeed my oyster.

Even though I had read law in university, I was keenly aware of major political developments and some of my stints as an office bearer in societies from high school, college and university prepared me for the challenge ahead.

My initial tasks with SEDAR Institute revolved around preparing daily news digests and responding to some of the daily statements of political partners or opponents of Gerakan or any issue at hand that was deemed to be important with press statements. I would normally draft the statement and it would be cross-checked by my superior.

It was followed with lunch with then-Gerakan President, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon where the discussion would normally be centred on the recent political developments and Gerakan’s reformation.

At the same time, there was also a general sense that the dalliance with the Opposition would not last and Gerakan and by extension Barisan Nasional should undergo serious reform in order to regain lost support.

However, there was a lot of debate on what the reform should be because organisations that are entrenched by being in power for so long - such as Barisan and Gerakan - will always be resistant to any change that will alter the status quo.

So, while many proposals were made including leaving BN and forming a third force, Gerakan chose to remain with Barisan, and I was comfortable with that decision as I was always reminded that Gerakan founded BN and there was no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water.

At the same time, the machinations of power within Umno were in full swing and the movement to oust then-Barisan president Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was in full motion following the shocking loss of five states and the customary two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The vice-president of Umno at the time, Tan Sri Muhyuddin Yassin laid down the gauntlet at the behest of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he called on Abdullah to resign and take moral responsibility for Barisan’s losses.

Gerakan too was dragged into the fracas but as a loyal Barisan party, we deemed it to be an UMNO internal matter and it was left at that.

However, there was a feeling internally that a reset was needed. Abdullah is a completely decent and honourable individual, but he could not bring the political pugnacity and gravitas needed to take on an ascendant Pakatan Rakyat led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

This was made worse by the challenge laid down by Anwar that a significant number of Barisan members of Parliament were going cross over by September 16 2008. The response of the Barisan government to this episode coupled with Dr Mahathir’s attacks on Abdullah’s family and the eponymous “4th floor boys” dented Abdullah’s authority.

During the same time, there were very intense discussions on the re-branding and repositioning of Barisan. One thing that struck me then and continued throughout my 10 years in politics is that Barisan component parties operated individually. All of them would come together during elections or by-elections or when confronted with a major issue or problem.

However, they were quite content working by themselves at all other times.

In order to address this problem, the Barisan Nasional Research Unit (BNRU) was formed in late 2008. It was headed by Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh from UMNO. Idris was the Mara Chairman at that time and the former Menteri Besar of Terengganu.

I was seconded by SEDAR to BNRU and spent a good amount of my time with my colleagues from UMNO, MCA, MIC and other component parties. Not all of the 13 BN component parties were represented as most of the Sabah and Sarawak parties felt the problem was with BN in the peninsula and not in Sabah and Sarawak hence it was also seen as a “peninsula-centric” initiative.

However, they did attend the high-level discussions that I was not privy to.

We made a lot of constructive suggestions but given’s BN’s labyrinthine methods, I am not sure what came of these suggestions but I dare say that many of them were not implemented.

One engagement though stuck with me because it was a recurring theme with many such discussions I would have later on.

In one session, a very senior UMNO leader remarked that UMNO does not have a credibility deficit and it was the component parties that are weak as the Chinese and Indians no longer support MCA, MIC and Gerakan. He went on berating those of us not from UMNO for the failures of our parties but all of us were only staff of the parties seconded to BNRU with no say over what positions our respective parties took.

Incensed by what was said and unable to stomach the abuse, I spoke up. I said, “Datuk Seri, it is such arrogance from UMNO like you are displaying now that led to Gerakan’s loss in Penang. We will continue to lose unless there are changes at the top and Chinese and Indians are given the respect they deserve.”

A still silence engulfed the room and within seconds Idris tried to mediate and I was told to leave the room for a while, but this habit of speaking up would put me in trouble in other instances later on in my political journey.

That said, I have zero regrets.

I was learning the ropes but even so; I knew it was not going to be easy.

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