Evolving with the times
INSIGHT: By JOCELINE TAN
DAP’s new Malay recruits are more likely to impress its non-Malay supporters than the Malay ground which it is trying to infiltrate but, in the long run, it is an astute move to tap into the changing urban demography.
DATUK Ariff Sabri has been the talk of Pahang Umno since he joined DAP a few weeks ago. Ariff, a former Pahang assemblyman but who is now more famous as a blogger, is arguably the biggest Umno name to have joined DAP.
“I was quite shocked. I thought someone was playing a joke on me and I felt sad when it turned out to be true,” said Pahang exco member Datuk Sharkar Shamsuddin.
The Umno and DAP view of each other has always been extremely polarised – ultra Malay versus Chinese chauvinist. As far as Ariff’s friends in Umno were concerned, his political move was akin to leaving one world for another.
On top of that, DAP has been making a song and dance about the fact that Ariff hailed from the Prime Minister’s constituency and used to be the Pekan Umno information chief.
But no one felt more taken aback than Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob. The two men have known each other for years and when Ariff was not picked to defend his Pulau Manis state seat in 2008, the Mentri Besar had reportedly made efforts to ensure that Ariff and his family would be all right.
Sharkar is one of those people who sees everyone as a friend and he called Ariff to urge him to rethink his decision, but the die was cast.
Ariff and Aspan Alias, another Umno politician from Negri Sembilan, had attended the DAP national conference in January where they were welcomed like VIPs. Since then, former National Union of Journalists president Hata Wahari has also been recruited.
The latest recruits stand out as both are from Umno whereas Hata had single-handedly taken on Utusan Malaysia before he was sacked from the paper.
In that sense, it was the first time that DAP had managed to snare three Umno-related personalities who can now join them in challenging Umno.
Hata, who is currently working for Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, seems to be taking his radical views against Utusan Malaysia and on press freedom to the political arena.
Ariff and Aspan have used their blogs to air their opinions and often to hit out at what they think is wrong with Umno.
Ariff, being a former assemblyman, is definitely the biggest catch among the three. He said he is against corruption and wants to see good governance and the rule of law.
“It’s not easy to move on but I am taking stock of the new realities of Malay politics. The younger generation is less racial in outlook and more willing to go on merit,” he said.
He is also much harder to define – he is a big fan of muay thai, has a taste for serious literature and likes music from an earlier era. Although his blog may be rather too cerebral for the average person, his writing is very cut-and-thrust and he can be quite ruthless. He has commented on everything from politics to the economy and has a loyal following.
DAP Youth chief and Rasah MP Anthony Loke who took the initiative to approach Ariff admitted he was attracted to the latter’s line of attack against Umno.
“We told them to go on writing. They can attack Umno and explain a lot of things on our behalf,” said Loke.
But what is the big deal, some have asked. They said that a few new Malay members looking for a new platform to air their grouses is not going to change the image of DAP. They think DAP is recruiting people who have an axe to grind, basically “Umno-bashers” who can take the DAP fight with Umno to another level.
There has been a trickle of Malays into the party over the years and there is even an all Malay DAP branch in the Klang Valley. There have also been Malay DAP candidates every general election but only three or four have managed to win seats, the most notable being the late Bayan Baru MP Ahmad Nor who was a well-known trade unionist.
But DAP’s attempts to reach out to the Malays over the last 40 years have been a flop partly because of the success of Umno’s propaganda against DAP and partly because of the way DAP had exploited Chinese issues.
DAP was more than happy to ride on its reputation as a champion of all things Chinese but their troubles in the wake of their success in Penang and Perak drummed home the point that their Chinese image had become a liability.
All those years of attacking Umno, the NEP, Islamic policies, the civil service, the police and, more recently, the MACC have come home to roost.
The targets of their criticism have one thing in common – they are largely associated with the Malays and Islam. Their attacks have been akin to Malay-bashing and the party has, rightly or wrongly, acquired an anti-Malay reputation.
Last year, the party launched its Malay website, Roketkini. It is not the most original of names but it is quite an interesting site although critics say that it sounds like a Malay apologist for a Chinese party.
It is quite obvious that Roketkini’s purpose is also to debunk Malay prejudices against DAP, defending the party against notions that it is anti-Islam, supports the Islamic State, is trying to promote a Christian Prime Minister, has communist leanings and so on.
Malays in the party find themselves always having to explain themselves to their Malay friends. For instance, former vice-chairman Zulkifli Md Noor still gets puzzled looks after 30 years in the party. Some of his friends think that DAP uses Malays like him as tokens and that the party is not sincere in giving them real roles. His detractors see him as a DAP poodle.
They said that if DAP genuinely wanted to promote the Malays, people like Zulkifli should be given winnable seats. Instead, he has contested three general elections in seats where he was pitched against big guns and where he had little chance of winning. In 2008, he even had to make way for a well-connected Indian candidate even though he had been doing work in that particular constituency.
But Ariff is definitely not going to be anyone’s poodle. For instance, his blog is called Sakmongkol AK47 – Sakmongkol is the name of a famous kickboxer whereas AK47 is a Russian-made firearm.
He described his first few interactions with DAP as a culture shock but as he said: “Just because I am in DAP does not make me less of a Malay, I’m still a loyal subject of the Rulers.”
During a party retreat in Seremban last year, Lim Kit Siang had urged members to correct their image by attracting young, liberal and progressive Malays.
“We’re not only targeting former Umno members, we’re also looking for fresh faces without any political history,” said Loke.
DAP, said social historian Dr Neil Khor, is by constitution a non-sectarian party.
“They have to practise what they preach. They have been dominated by a Chinese type of thinking. I think they are trying to say that, yes, we can’t deny that we have become an ethnic Chinese party but we are pushing for a more multi-racial outlook,” said Dr Khor.
The latest Malay recruits will probably be made candidates in the next general election. The question is whether they will be tested in Malay seats where they will have to struggle to win or given safe, Chinese-majority seats.
“If they pull it off, it will be a real game changer for DAP,” said Dr Khor.
Everyone is watching what the party is planning to do in Perak. Pakatan Rakyat politicians have convinced themselves that they will take back Perak and the talk is that DAP wants to have their own Malay candidate for mentri besar. They have been badly damaged by attacks that although they won an overwhelming number of seats in the state, they had to surrender the mentri besar post to PAS.
Not everyone in the party is thrilled about the entry of Ariff, Aspan and Hata. First, there are the suspicions and stigma attached to party-hoppers. Then there is the concern about whether they will be able to adapt to the party’s way of doing things.
A few of them are also concerned about the Johor-born Hata. They saw how he bit the hand that fed him and his ferocious flogging of his then employer shocked many people. They are worried the firebrand could easily turn around and bite DAP if things do not go his way in future. They can see that this is a guy who goes for broke.
They want the party to recruit more Malays like Zairil Khir Johari and former Transparency Malaysia chief Senator Tunku Aziz Ibrahim. They have no baggage and do not ask too many embarrassing questions or cause trouble in the party.
Zairil, whose stepfather is the late Umno veteran Tan Sri Khir Johari, is seen as a rising star in Penang where he is the Chief Minister’s blue-eyed boy. The Internet chatter is projecting him as the next deputy chief minister. But to be fair to him, he is a genuinely likeable person, humble and hard-working.
“All these people joined without any pre-conditions. They may or may not be candidates in the general election and we do not have carrots to dangle,” said Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi.
The party constitution specifies at least two years of membership because anyone can be considered as an election candidate but it can be waived by the central executive committee as in the case of Ooi, who joined the party about six months before the 2008 election.
The short-term take on this is that DAP is trying to dilute its Chinese image which is becoming a liability in its quest for power. But the new recruits are more likely to impress DAP’s non-Malay ground rather than the Malays whom they are trying to attract. No one can quite see Malays rushing to join DAP in the near future and especially given the way DAP leaders attack Malay institutions.
But in the long term, this is an astute party that has begun to tap into the changes taking place in the urban areas and among urban Malays.
The Malay population is growing very fast and will soon dominate the electorate map in such a way that future general elections will be largely a Malay fight. Any party that wants to stay relevant will have to be acceptable to the Malays in one way or another.