Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s elections and its present-de-facto-and-maybe-future-de-jure leader’s Jelajah Reformasi 2.0 roadshows touring the country have overlapped commemorations of the party’s fifteenth anniversary on 4 April. This is counting from the formation of Parti Keadilan Nasional in 1999 rather than its merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia in 2003, which must disappoint those who would rather commemorate the latter’s establishment as Partai Ra’ayat on 11 November 1955.
PKR has beaten the electoral records of three parties established by former UMNO leaders: Dato’ Onn Ja’afar’s Independence of Malaya Party and Parti Negara, and Semangat 46, the final party of two former Prime Ministers. However, PAS too was also founded by former UMNO members in 1951, and as a matter of historical interest one can argue that due to UMNO’s de-registration and the formation of UMNO Baru in 1988, the oldest political party represented in the Malaysian Parliament today is MIC, founded in August 1946.
The recent history being retold by supporters of PKR is personal, however: recalling emotions felt at the time of Reformasi and reminiscing the journey travelled, in language that suggests diehard loyalty like that of an old school or football club.
Even for those of my generation who hold no party affiliation, the story of PKR cannot be ignored. I had just started sixth form in England when I watched the Opening Ceremony of the 1998 Commonwealth Games. It was such a pride-instilling event, but as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Ja’afar officiated, the commentary mentioned a political protest occurring nearby. I was in my school’s chapter of Amnesty International at the time, and soon I was getting asked about what happened to my former Deputy Prime Minister.
Later, at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I encountered the activist crowd within the Malaysian student community. I signed an Abolish ISA Movement petition (which piqued the interest of Special Branch), and attended every LSE event that featured Malaysian politicians, including Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, who I recall interacted with a student in the Melanau language. On another occasion I joined DAP National Chairman Lim Kit Siang in the London Underground to go eat at Mawar restaurant in Edgware Road after he had addressed students. This was in addition to the events organised by the government: it was at one of the High Commissioner’s Hari Raya Open Houses that I first met our then Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Mahathir Mohamad. (Eventually I did see Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim speak at my university after his release from prison.)
Almost every other student I met was either inspired or disgusted by political ongoings at home. Many of those eventually entered the corporate world – but if you look at the rising stars across political parties, particularly PKR, you can trace the genesis of their stardom to university days, where they were activists and organisers of student forums: early editions of what has become ingrained in overseas Malaysian student life whether in the UK, USA or Australia (though occasionally there are silly setbacks, like the dis-invitation of Tony Pua at the upcoming Malaysian Summit of Australia in Melbourne, even though I was on the same panel as him during MASCA Victoria’s Malaysian Aspiration Programme in Melbourne in 2010!).
Since those formative days, many once ardent fans, members, supporters, bloggers and commentators have lost steam, have chosen academia or civil society, or switched sides altogether. Still they were all influenced by narratives that were sparked by Reformasi, and they can rightly take credit for helping to open up Malaysian politics and making our democracy much more competitive now that it was fifteen years ago.
But there is still too much emphasis on personalities, too much shaped by personal vendettas, too much dependent on patronage from the top, and too much disregard for the principles that formed this nation in chasing the popular vote. Disconcertingly, when I ask PKR members to tell me what they really believe, there is a bigger deviation in their answers than when I sample the same size of UMNO, PAS or DAP members.
So to those party loyalists who have not yet lost steam and are contesting in the party elections next week in an impressively democratic process at all levels except at the very top, I hope for their sake that a more ideologically rooted future is on the cards. Reformasi 2.0 doesn’t have remotely the same organic spontaneity or visibility as the original did, but if it really is about fixing the country’s institutions and can translate into legislation that can make it happen – rather than being about personal aggrandisement – then its contributions to Malaysian politics could, fifteen years from now, potentially rival the original’s.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS