Politics and NGOs don’t mix

“WHAT do you mean two presidents? There's only one president and that's me,” said Datuk Suhaimi Ibrahim in a serious tone. 

Then, realising the irony of the situation, he laughed out loud. 

The normally chatty and charming Suhaimi has been under tremendous pressure of late. 

At an AGM on Christmas Day, Suhaimi was re-elected president of the Federation of Malay Students Union or GPMS, its Malay abbreviation. 

The trouble was, Suhaimi is not the sole claimant to the GPMS presidency. 

There is another claimant to the title, namely Datuk Reezal Merican Naina Merican, a rising star in Umno Youth and political secretary to Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in his capacity as Finance Minister II. 

The bizarre situation of “the two GPMS presidents” capped months of intense rivalry between the two men and their supporters. 

Suhaimi's camp, claiming to be the legitimate group, held its AGM and election at the Equatorial Hotel in Bangi. 

Reezal's supporters claimed they were denied entry to the above AGM, so they convened their own in nearby Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and elected Reezal as their president. 

At the end of the day and much to everyone's confusion, there seemed to be two GPMS', two presidents and two sets of office-bearers. 

Even the Malaysian Youth Council (MYC), the self-appointed mediator to the dispute, was left largely hapless. 

Attempts by MYC to get the two sides to sit down and talk later in the evening failed when Suhaimi's groups refused to attend. 

“People were not prepared to compromise,” said MYC representative Faisal Abdullah. 

However, Faisal and his mediator group did manage to prevent rising tempers from flaring into fist fights.  

But in Shah Alam, frustrations over polls in another youth organisation, the Malaysian Association of Youth Councils (MAYC), boiled over, with rude heckling, chairs being overturned and punches thrown. 

The commotion erupted when a group opposed to incumbent MAYC president Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar lost their cool after their nominee for president was rejected. 

Syed Hamid, who is also Foreign Minister had to come down from the stage to help defuse the tension. 

The situation was rowdy, with people pushing and hitting out while others tried to restrain them. 

But Syed Hamid insisted he was not manhandled as reported. 

“My bodyguard was there. He would not have allowed anything like that to happen. They wanted us to stop the meeting and call it off but we decided to carry on after things calmed down.” 

Syed Hamid was elected to a third term but he said: “They asked me to stay, to oversee the amendments to the constitution and to put in place a younger transition. As soon as I finish ? in less than a year, I will go. I do not intend to stay a day longer than necessary.” 

The troubles in the above two organisations are partly a result of their internal politics and partly symptomatic of the way youth groups have been compromised by partisan politics. 

Their recent power tussles attracted attention because of the personalities involved – a Cabinet member, an Umno Youth rising star, a former assemblyman from Pahang and a host of other political figures.  

Former MYC president Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said an NGO can take political stands on issues but it should be non-partisan. 

“An NGO should not be too close to any political party otherwise people question your independence. 

“The person leading the NGO should also not hold too high a post in a political party or the government. There must be some balance,” he added. 

But Saifuddin's opinion will probably fall on deaf ears. 

Youth organisations especially Malay-based ones have become dominated by Malays politicians from the top down to the middle tiers. 

In fact, the membership of these youth groups tend to overlap with that of Umno.  

These organisations have not exactly lost their relevance, but they are dominated by politicians. 

Compounding this is the fact that the politician leaders are not exactly young (see chart). 

“It's ironic and flies in the face of the idea of empowering young people, giving them a stake in society,” said a young Umno official. 

Even the methods used by the opposing camps in GPMS was reminiscent of power struggles in party politics. 

As Saifuddin noted, one group justified its hold on power by interpreting the organisation's constitution to the letter but not the spirit. 

For the group aspiring to power, the end seems to justify the means.  

In the process, both groups seem to have forgotten the original ideals of the organisation. 

The power struggle in GPMS will continue to fascinate onlookers. 

GPMS is not just another Malay NGO. 

It began as a nationalistic group articulating Malay education and language issues. The present Prime Minster was a former president in the 1960s when he was a young civil servant. 

It boasts a membership of some 400,000 today, and that is what makes it so irresistible as a power base for ambitious politicians. 

Suhaimi has denied that he is desperate about holding on to power. He said he did not like the way the other side tried to oust him and that he was actually ready to go. 

“Give me a year to restore my dignity,” he had said at his AGM last Sunday. 

Reezal also denied that he is greedy for power. 

“I don't mind not contesting. I don't need the position. I am already a senior exco member in Umno youth and political secretary to the PM. But I had no choice and I will be blamed if I don't do it. I'm being put in a great dilemma,” he told The Star

He said he was risking his posts in Umno by getting entangled in the GPMS problem because the Registrar of Societies had warned that if GPMS is deregistered as a result of the dispute, the status of GPMS office-bearers who have posts in other organisations will be affected. 

The ROS is still deliberating on the dispute but it is unlikely go to the extreme of striking GPMS off its roll because of the big names involved. 

Besides, the GPMS problem is now more of a political than constitutional nature. 

There is too much bad blood and distrust between the two camps and the two key protagonists may have to withdraw before a real solution can be worked out. 

In the meantime, the Youth and Sports Ministry is drawing up legislation aimed at streamlining youth groups along lines that are truer to the youth agenda rather than according to the agenda of politicians and political parties. 

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