Gerakan & PKR: When idealism gives way to realpolitik

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From what we see in PKR and Gerakan today, there is one thing we can learn: never rely totally on politicians to see through our aspirations for a more socially just Malaysia, says Anil Netto.

The early idealism of Gerakan leaders - Photo courtesy of japanfocus.org

Gerakan might as well close shop after 42 years of existence. Almost like Samy Vellu who has rejected the post of MIC adviser, former Gerakan president Lim Keng Yaik has quit as adviser. They are abandoning their sinking ships.

In reality, Gerakan lost its navigational bearings long before it struck its political iceberg on 8 March 2008, when it suffered a devastating defeat in Penang. By then, its idealistic multi-ethnic politics had long been subsumed under the racial politicking banner of the BN and Umno in particular. Self interest and jostling for the spoils of power and position had assumed greater importance.

Even today, Gerakan needs to be held accountable. Its failure to deal with Umno on an equal footing and to put property developers in their place comes to mind. Think of how the right to reclaim land in Penang was given to big developers in exchange for peanuts; examine the roots of the Buah Pala fiasco (carried through to its conclusion under the present administration); look at the grief surrounding the eviction of low-income communities from the inner city with the lifting of rent control, reflect on the general neglect of Penang.

Who can forget the monumental scandal over the PGCC/Penang Turf Club deals that sealed Gerakan/BN’s fate in Penang. I remember attending a meeting of activists with CM Koh Tsu Koon over the PGCC during the last weeks of his administration when they tried to persuade him to put his foot down against the project. Instead, he acted like he was in the dark over the PGCC – like ‘buat don’t know‘ about the humongous scale of the project.

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Gerakan’s lack of traffic planning, its failure to protect green spaces and vegetable farms (the loss of which has driven up contributed to higher food prices in the state), the polluted seas and dirty rivers, and the Komtar eyesore are testament to the party’s failure to practise sustainable development.

The prevention of mass unemployment and the provision of affordable housing in places like Seberang Jaya and Bayan Baru were a couple of its saving graces. But that came at a price: like elsewhere in Malaysia, the BN government in Penang made the state heavily reliant on foreign investment-driven GDP growth – and more vulnerable to global shocks.

Looking back at the run-up to the 2008 general election, it is laughable to recall how the Gerakan folks were unable to see the earth opening up from under their feet. Imagine, they were arguing over who should be the next chief minister when the entire party was about to be dumped at the polls in Penang – the result of a wave of public anger and revulsion over failed leadership.

Now, as vultures circle overhead the writhing carcass of Gerakan in its throes, the ludicrous fighting over positions continues. But what are they fighting for, when the party is about to vanish into the mists of history? To use the sinking ship metaphor again, imagine the Titanic sinking and its officers still fighting to become captain as the ship takes in water! Like MCA, MIC, and of course Umno, Gerakan has shown that it is incapable of reforming itself. They have not learned a thing from the GE2008 debacle.

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Which brings us to PKR. PKR, like Gerakan, was born in the idealism of multi-ethnic politics – in PKR’s case during the heady days of reformasi.

But since then, we have seen a string of PKR politicians betraying the aspirations of the rakyat through their katak politics, factionalism and ambition.

Some PKR leaders appear to behave more like ex-Umno/MCA/MIC politicians. But then again, that’s not surprising because many of them ARE former Umno/MCA/MIC politicians! In fact, PKR is in danger of becoming BN Lite – athough there are a fair number of politicians who remain idealistic and committed to the cause. But will they be able to stand up to the culture of realpolitik now spreading across the party?

Instead of serving the rakyat and struggling for social justice, human rights and democracy on the basis of people-centred policies, some ambitious PKR politicians, sensing that the party could clinch federal power, are scrambling to climb the party hierarchy. That’s to be expected in any political party, I suppose. Sadly, though, the party election campaign has been devoid of any serious debate on policy issues and ideology.

From what we see in PKR and Gerakan today, there is one thing we can learn. Never rely totally on politicians to see through our aspirations for a more socially just Malaysia. If we do leave it to the politicians, we are going to be seriously disappointed and disillusioned. Even if they might seem progressive or better than the alternative – it could be only a matter of time before their betrayals and at times disgusting ambition disappoint us.

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How many times we have heard this: in the next election we must go all out and vote and make a difference?

Big mistake. Why wait five years for the next election before you try and make a difference? We need to play our part through a constant participation in the larger democratic process. Make your voices heard – now. Do something – write, speak, campaign, castigate racist politicians and hold them accountable, speak out against corruption, lobby for policy and legal reforms, join a voluntary or civil organisation or even a political party, read, discuss, debate, reflect. Do it 365 days a year.

Think of the great women and men down the ages – how many of them were prime ministers and presidents? Not many, right? That’s because realpolitik and compromises left many promising political leaders neither here nor there; ultimately many of them grew beholden to powerful political and business interests rather than the people’s interests.

Before the elections, these politicians refer to themselves as Team Rakyat, Generasi Reformasi, and people-centric. After the elections, we shouldn’t be surprised if they evolve into Team Developer, Team Kroni, and Team Korporat. It is the rare minority who hold true to their early idealism and genuinely struggle for the people.

So always hold on to your ideals for they are precious – and work towards a new vision for our country based on justice, truth, accountability, democracy and human rights. Eventually, small ripples of change will gradually spread across the country.

Anil Netto is treasurer of Aliran

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