A political awakening

In March 2008, I was a student in the United Kingdom. I was completing my Bar vocational studies in Cardiff University and like many Malaysians in Britain at that time, we were closely acquainted with the political happenings back home.

The Hindraf rally in late 2007 and the results of the 12th General Election put into motion certain irreversible changes that has now culminated in Barisan Nasional's defeat in the 14th General Election.

While Barisan's loss in GE14 is not due to a single factor, it was a culmination of factors that have long been in a flux of festering resentment and coupled with the scandals like 1MDB and the insensitivity shown by the Government on issues such as cost of living, it was a perfect storm that propelled Pakatan Harapan to power.

However, back to March 2008 and my own political awakening, my friends and I in Cardiff all ushered in the loss of Barisan's customary supermajority as a positive step and a necessary occurrence that will be a catalyst for progressive change.

I was never a traditional Barisan supporter and was more attuned to politicians than political parties who could best articulate the change that Malaysia needed. Politicians from all sides of the political divide were sharing their views and this enriched the political discourse. Some of them made it to London after GE12 and spoke at the Projek Amanat Negara (PAN) organised by the United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian Students Council (UKEC). As I was the President of the Malaysian Students Society of Cardiff University (MSSCF), I was also bound to stay neutral.

I completed my studies in June 2008 and returned to Malaysia, excited about playing a role in contouring the direction of the country.

During the 1st Malaysian Student Leaders Summit (MSLS) in August 2008, I was invited by a good friend of mine to attend a dinner with then Gerakan acting president, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon. Dr Koh was the former Chief Minister of Penang who lost the Batu Kawan parliament seat in GE12.

Besides being treated to a scrumptious dinner, it was one of the most intellectually stimulating discussions I had. Dr Koh was earnest, honest and most importantly, infectious in his enthusiasm for Malaysia despite Gerakan's crushing loss in the 12th General Election.

Gerakan has always impressed me and it was mainly due to the leadership of the late Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik. As a Form Four student in 2001, I attended a Rotary leadership camp and the Dr Lim was the guest of honour. He spoke very well, without fear or favour, challenging all of the young eager minds to be better Malaysians. He even went as far as saying that he envisages a day when we will all be Malaysians and not defined by our ethnicities. In a way, for me Gerakan is and remains an idea ahead of its time.

Given my personal biases towards Gerakan, despite my then general lack of enthusiasm for Barisan, I took up the offer to intern with Gerakan's think tank SEDAR Institute.

I must say I had two very good superiors in Khaw Veon Szu and Ng Yeen Seen who took the time to guide me and show me the ropes.

Many back then questioned my decisions on two fronts; first, many saw Gerakan as a spent force and second, why did I chose a Barisan linked party.

My explanation then and now remains the same.

First, Gerakan is a party with a sound ideology that has always advocated a non-racial approach to politics. It has been at the forefront of defending the basic tenets of the Federal Constitution and our Malaysian way of life.

Second, Barisan in 2008 was undergoing a reconstruction and I believed that change from within must be given a chance because if Barisan was completely shunned by young and eager minds with a progressive outlook, then any change in the country would be impossible.

So the decision was made and I communicated it to my parents who were not completely enthusiastic but nonetheless supportive as they had been with every decision I made in my life.

Two months after interning, I was offered a permanent position that I readily accepted.

The initials months were very exciting and invigorating. There were many discussions on policy and rebuilding the party. However, it was also a very tense period because Umno could not come to grips with the losses Barisan had suffered and was behaving like a spoilt child.

One incident stands out as a sore thumb.

During the Permatang Pauh by-election in September 2008, Datuk Ahmad Ismail, the Bukit Bendera Umno Division Chairman called for Dr Koh to be stripped of his Penang Barisan Chairmanship and also called the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia as squatters.

Despite being a "small fry", I was privy to some of Gerakan's internal discussions on this issue. Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan, then Penang Gerakan Chairman severed ties with Umno Penang after the actions by 13 Umno Divisions that collectively expressed their support for Ahmad Ismail despite his remarks being seditious.

Dr Teng, someone who I continue to admire and respect, came out very strongly against Ahmad Ismail's remarks believing that enough was enough but in the spirit of Barisan consensus, it was left to Umno to take action against Ahmad Ismail.

Umno did take action against Ahmad Ismail and it was historic and some of us saw this as a "small win".

I believe it was incidents like this and the failure of Umno to take full heed of the views and feelings of component parties that led to the eventual downfall of Barisan.

It is important to undertake an empirical analysis into reasons for Barisan's loss and I intend to play my part.

Indeed, it was a political awakening for a young man like me with zero political experience previously.
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