Barisan Nasional is coalition of many independent parties. Some are raced-based, like Umno, MCA, and MIC. Some are supposed to be multiracial, like Gerakan, PPP and most of the parties in Sarawak and Sabah. It is, in fact, a loose coalition. There is no BN constitution or a common ideology governing the coalition. Each component party has its own constitution which lays out how each party is to be run, disciplinary matters regarding each party, membership, party elections and so on. Each party also has its own ideology.
For example, Gerakan’s ideology is to fight for a fair and equal society in a non-racial manner, whereas the race-based parties stress on the protection of the rights of the race the party represents. For example, Umno will fight for the rights of the Malays and MCA that of the Chinese and MIC that of the Indians. The membership and structure of each party is also very different. So it is quite correct to say that BN is a loose coalition and is not a single party.
Because of this, disciplinary matters are left to the individual party. Gerakan has its own disciplinary Board. MCA has its own and Umno has its own. Umno’s disciplinary board cannot interfere with the disciplinary matters of Gerakan, and Gerakan’s cannot interfere with disciplinary matters of MCA. The rules are supposed to be clear cut, so that theoretically, there should be no interference of one party into the affairs of another party.
However, in practice, one party is above all others, and that is Umno. Umno extends hegemony over all the others so much so a former president of Gerakan, in a recent interview, said that all the component parties are like ‘beggars’. Coming from the mouth of a former president of a component party and a former minister for over two decades, this cannot be wrong even though the grassroots of the component parties were never told of this before.
What was often told to the grassroots by leaders of these parties was that the leaders of these parties are ‘fighting very hard’ at BN council meetings or the cabinet, but nothing was said of the ‘begging’ inside BN council meetings or in the cabinet. Grassroots were also often told that all component parties are basically equal.
Gerakan’s Lee Kah Choon who was roped in by the new Penang government to help bring investments to Penang and offered a directorship of the Penang Development Corporation (PDC). This is a position like that of a civil service, and Lee’s acceptance was in no way hurting Gerakan. We must realise a politician’s first loyalty should be to the people. If by taking up the directorship of PDC (which is not a political appointment), Lee is able to contribute to the development of Penang, then no one should stop him from doing so. Sometimes, politicians must be prepared to go above partisan politics.
He was, however, forced to resign because after he announced his acceptance, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak immediately asked what Gerakan was going to do in Lee’s case. The rest is, of course, history with the Gerakan leadership issuing him a show cause letter with Lee chosing to quit the party rather than to play politics and reply.
Another case then arose involving Dr Tan Kee Kwong, who is the Gerakan Kuala Lumpur chairperson. He was invited to be the co-chairperson of a task force to oversee land matters in Selangor. This is an administrative position, again like that of a civil service. This position would have enabled him to tackle the problems faced by land owners in Selangor and increase the efficiency of the land offices, which will translate into a saving of time and money for the land- owning raykat. There will be thousands and thousands of beneficiaries if land offices can be made more efficient.
So, who will benefit? The people will benefit. Even the non-land owners will benefit because whatever cost that can be saved can be channeled to development of the state. Political parties exist because of the people. Without the people, there is no party. This is the most basic fact. So in helping to chair a task force which can help thousands of people solve their headaches and nightmares regarding land matters, why should disciplinary action be taken against Tan? Why can’t leaders of political parties be less partisan and work more for the people?
Gerakan leaders have publicly stated that they would go back to basics and go back to the people. Well, this is the best opportunity, in fact, to prove to the people that they are going back to the people by allowing their members to hold non-political administrative positions to help the people. To do otherwise will give a perception that the promise to go back to the people is only lip service. The first person to ask that action be taken against Tan is not from Gerakan but from outside Gerakan and he is Najib, the deputy president of Umno. If you have understood the setup of BN, then you will know that all parties are supposed to be equal and each party is supposed to ‘take care’ of its own members.
What has Umno got to do with Gerakan? This is an internal affair of Gerakan. Gerakan has its own set of leaders, its own set of rules and regulations, its own constitution, and its own disciplinary board. The party is big enough to take care of its own problems and its members. Why should Umno once again show its hegemonic streak in asking a non-Umno member to resign from his own party, when it is none of Umno’s business?
The last election saw the trend of the people abandoning Gerakan and voting for Pakatan Rakyat, mainly because of the perception that a vote for Gerakan or MCA is a vote for Umno. Is this perception really true? Gerakan leaders often tell their grassroots that they fight at BN council meetings and in the cabinet for the people’s interest and that a vote for Gerakan does not translate into a vote for Umno. However, by immediately issuing show cause letters in both Lee’s and Tan’s cases after Najib commented, they have inadvertently confirmed the perception that a vote for Gerakan is indeed a vote for Umno and that Umno is still dictating the terms to Gerakan. This is one of the main reasons the party lost so badly in the recent general election.
The party wants to reform, but reform starts with action and not from the lips. No amount of brainstorming or paying lip service to reform will endear the party to the people again. This perception that Gerakan is doing Umno’s bidding has to be gotten rid of. How to get rid of this perception? One way is to leave BN and be an own independent third force with the party supporting good policies of either Pakatan or BN, and criticising the bad policies of either coalition.
But the party leadership apparently is not ready to make this jump. Okay. That will leave them the second option - stand up to Umno and tell them to mind their own business. Stand up to them and say Gerakan is truly for the people and supports whatever is good for the people. It will not take action against members working for the benefit of the people. Only by standing up to Umno and showing the stuff that Gerakan is made of will the perception that a vote for Gerakan is a vote for Umno be changed.
What is the risk? I don’t see any risk at all BN cannot afford to kick Gerakan out because that would mean losing critical support when Anwar is threatening to entice 30 MPs to cross over. In fact by standing up to Umno and exerting its own right as an equal partner to Umno it can endear itself to the people once again and prove that this party is indeed keen to go back to the people, to go back to its ideology and go back to its grassroots.