On Dr Toh Kin Woon's Resignation: Whither Gerakan?
by Dr Neil Khor
Long ago, when Gerakan was considered the "conscience" of Malaysia,the party had leaders who spoke up on issues that were regardedfundamental to democratic life in Malaysia. Party leaders like Tun DrLim Chong Eu, the late Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Koon and the late Professor Syed Hussien Alatas did not bade an eyelid when raising the party flag against the ISA or when speaking up against race politics.
After joining Barisan Nasional in 1974, and after having failed tobring about a revolution from within, Gerakan began to be bleached of its ideals. Without any real possibility for Malay or Indian leadership owing to the stranglehold of Umno and MIC, the party founditself competing for Chinese votes with the MCA.
Over the years,Gerakan was transformed into a single race party (more than 90% of its membership is Chinese) advocating a multi-racial agenda. An agenda which was no longer convincing especially when some party meetings were conducted in Mandarin or Chinese dialects.
Yet, Gerakan is crucial to the BN. It allows the powerful coalition to present a multi-racial veneer. Gerakan used to be evidence that the BN accommodated a multi-racial approach. Hence, the BN motto of "racial diversity".
Internally, Gerakan became a tool of UMNO. Whether this happened intentionally or not, Gerakan was a convenient counter-point to MCA and MIC. In short, UMNO could play one party against another, giving itself the role of "moderator". To the public, Gerakan was touted by the mainstream media as the"conscience" of BN but it lost its role as the conscience of the country.
It promoted "Bangsa Malaysia" but never rocked the racial-divide mode. It supported multi-racialism but not inter-culturalism. There is a great difference. Multiculturalism is more akin to apartheid - separate development for separate races.Interculturalism is a melding of cultural traditions, where citizens interact with mutual respect and from that "inter-cultural" experience create a national identity.
But Gerakan's "manufactured" role as the conscience of the BN created ambivalence in urban voters, who continued supporting the party because it was the practical thing to do. The DAP was always too radical, Parti Rakyat too idealistic. By positioning itself in the middle-ground, Gerakan continued to attract intellectuals.
Throughout its history, the intellectuals who contributed to Gerakan have been those on the Centre-Left. Those who agreed with socialism but who felt that to bring about an equitable society one has to be in a position to create positive social change.
Dr Toh Kin Woon, who has just resigned from Gerakan, is probably the last of Gerakan's intellectual-politicians. He is also one of the few in the BN who still garner respect. There is very little dirt the party can hurl against him. The respect he gets cuts across racial and class divides.
Why Kin Woon Quit
One of the most salient points made by Dr Toh when writing his foreword for Non-Sectarian Politics in Malaysia: The Case of Party Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (2008) was that political parties and supporters of non-sectarian and non-racial politics should find the March 8, 2008 election results a reason to celebrate.
Based upon his public stand on a number of issues between 2006-2008, Kin Woon, who has very strong grassroots support, realised that the ground had shifted. In fact, his brave championing of democratic freedoms, particularly the right to demonstrate at the height of the Hindraf rallies, is evidence that he was spot on.
Instead, Gerakan did not heed their veteran leader's advice. Since March 8, Gerakan's leaders, particularly its Acting President and its Secretary-General, did little to indicate that the party was adapting positively to the developments in the country.
MCA and MIC,restricted by their party constitutions, can only go so far. But even they seemed determined to embark upon some sort of reforms in the direction of non-sectarianism. The MCA president decided that new blood was necessary for the rejuvenation of the party and its front-runner, Ong Tee Keat, even went as far as to suggest that perhaps race politics is no longer suitable to garner support from urban voters.
One can only presume that Dr Toh Kin Woon's decision to quit the party must have something to do with Gerakan's lack of direction. By not reacting to the electoral results with any meaningful reforms, theparty leadership seem to have opted for "business as usual". Perhaps,an equally confused UMNO is no longer able to give Gerakan leaders some pointers. So, the party seem unable to make decisions.
Gerakan seems to be a mere shadow of itself. It cannot continue to live on the laurels of its two Tun Dr Lims! Their eras are over. One has given Gerakan a good track record as a party of government whilst the other turned a Penang-based party into a national force. It seems that its present leaders are determined to de-construct that legacy.
It has already lost Penang, the party now seems destined to be shoredto Simpang Renggam.A Party without "Conscience"
One important question that the party grassroots must ask themselvesis "at what point did they lose the ground to PKR?" For it is not the DAP or the MCA that stole Gerakan's thunder. It is PKR. Perhaps most Gerakan members do not know their party's origins. Due to several injunctions against Non-Sectarian Politics: The Case of Party Gerakan Rakyat (2008), some may never know.
However, it is important to state here that the party had socialist and democratic roots. It was a movement of workers unions,intellectuals, blue collar workers and a wide range ofnon-governmental organisations. It was a party that promised innovative leadership, that championed freedom of speech, that wasdead set against the Internal Security Act.
But most important of all,it was a party that did not believe in sweeping things under the carpet.Gerakan felt that issues of race, economic inequality, the national language, national identity; all may be sensitive issues but allneeded to be discussed openly and intelligently. Gerakan had arational platform, and throughout its brief history as an opposition party, called itself the "intelligent opposition".
Dr Toh Kin Woon has stood by and stood firm on those principles. He may not have had enough clout to change the BN's stand on the ISA, OSA or the recent Hindraf rallies but he stood his ground. Gerakan has lost an outspoken voice of reason. At the same time, whilst serving as Penang's State Executive Member in-charge of socio-economic planning, Kin Woon maintained his commitment to upgrading the living conditions for workers. He is a staunch supporter of training and development.
He remains committed to a wide-range of NGOs associated with mass education, sustainable development and the widening of democratic participation.For his efforts, the people of Penang dubbed him the "conscience" of Gerakan. Now, it seems that "conscience" is no longer a pre-requisite in Gerakan politics.
In fact, if the on-going Anwar Ibrahim struggle is any indication, Gerakan is moving in the same direction as the rest of the BN. In such a situation, it is only natural that "conscience"leaves the stage.
Or, to quote the Gerakan Secretary General, Chia Kwang Chye, "Kin Woon should stay away from PKR functions". Such friendly advise, conveyed through the press, is indicative of the way things are now run in Gerakan. It is ironic that a party that came onto the political scene championing individual rights should ask a Life Member to tailor his democratic rights to the needs of the party.
Perhaps, Dr Toh Kin Woon's resignation from Gerakan will spark some deep soul-searching for Gerakan members, indeed for all Malaysians. Members will now have to ask themselves how the party is going to position itself in the future. The game of "cat-and-mouse" against theMCA and DAP is about played out. Gerakan's middling-role as non-sectarian champion within the BN has been scuppered by the recentUMNO-PAS secret talks.
To play that role outside the BN, projecting itself as the moderate and practical alternative to the DAP and PKR is also a dead-end. Luckily for the present leadership, the party is not only bleached ofits ideals, it is also bleached of its thinkers. So such deep soul-searching may not happen.
Most Gerakan leaders think that March 8 was a fluke. The people, after 5 years of "Opposition" rule, will return to their senses. So, these leaders are actually jostling forbetter party positions. Some still acting as though they are Chief Minister designate.The reality is that Gerakan leaders will have to content their very mobile grassroots. Some may remain in the party but find working with a new State Government irresistible.
Many have already voted with their feet.Nonetheless, Gerakan leaders will find great comfort in their un-thinking members. They will see Kin Woon's decision to leave as a"treacherous act". Already some are saying things like "never trust someone who changes ship". This is ironic and can only be said by those who do not know the history of their own party.
Both Tun Dr Lims were once MCA members who made dynamic decisions and jumped ship to form and build up Gerakan.Ultimately, every Gerakan member must do what Kin Woon did. This is not to suggest that they should leave the party. Far from it. They must ask themselves why they are in the party. What are the principles of the party that make it worthwhile for them to continue being members. Then, they must decide, who will lead them. There is always a choice.
It is good that Kin Woon chose to follow his conscience. Not many, it seems, are so consistent.