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by C. Peng


As KeADILan heads off to its much-anticipated annual general meeting this weekend, it is facing a horrendous blitzkrieg from the mainstream media and voices of doubt from the public about its survival. More than once the party is being compared to the short-lived Semangat 46. Some say that the party is on the verge of breaking up due to the publicised signs of disunity and factionalism; while others worry about the ability of the party's leadership to steer the party through this dark moment of crisis.
I beg to differ.

While both KeADILan and Semangat 46 are new Malay-based political parties formed after a political crisis in the country (Semangat 46 was formed after UMNO was declared illegal by the Court in while KeADILan was formed after Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim's sacking), that is where the similarities end. As a matter of fact, the parties differ greatly between each other.
Semangat 46, or in its full name Parti Melayu Semangat 46, as the name suggest, was an UMNO splinter made up largely of the party's team B supporters led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah that failed to gain control of the party in its 1987 party elections. When UMNO was declared illegal and the leaders of team A (led by Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir) registered UMNO Baru, those in team B grouped together to form Semangat 46. The party's name owes to the year of UMNO's founding in 1946, and its supporters claimed that the party was upholding the original principles of UMNO that was compromised under Dr. Mahathir's autocratic reign as the President of UMNO and the country's Prime Minister.

While Anwar was indeed UMNO's Deputy President and a portion of the party's rank and file were formerly UMNO members, such as Lunas assemblyman Saifuddin Nasution, former Vice President of KeADILan Marina Yusoff and Youth Deputy Chief Mustafa Kamil Ayob - KeADILan as a party is a totally new, different organisation. Approximately 70% of the party's members are Malays, but it is not a Malay nationalist party like UMNO or Semangat 46. There are a significant amount of non-Malays holding posts in the party, and more as members. This adds credence to the party's bid to introduce Politik Baru into the Malaysian political scene, a non-racial ideal to establish a civil society in the country. Most of the members, Malays and Non-Malays alike were previously apolitical, and it was the political crisis following Anwar Ibrahim's sacking that prompted them to be involved in partisan politics, and the establishment of KeADILan provided them with that platform. Some were members of Islamic groups ABIM and Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM); some were NGO activists, some were academicians and artists, some workers and common Malaysians - and this diverse background is what makes the party's members special and unique, hopefully capable of rising above the hodgepodge of communal politics that is gripping Barisan Nasional right now.

Another hotly debated issue is the supposed 'factionalism' of the party. Many are saying that the party is being split into two hostile camps, the ABIM camp and the non-ABIM camp; with the ABIM supporters trying to ABIMise the party as they tried to do when they followed Anwar into UMNO. There is great excitement generated from the contest in key party posts. People are saying that sooner or later, KeADILan will crack from disunity and intense politicking.

For Malaysians, especially used with UMNO's politics, it is not surprising that we are having that mentality. Democracy and healthy competition are something that is good for an organisation, to a certain extent. Contrast this with UMNO, a party where the leader discourage competition (sometimes, he bans his post from being challenged altogether); supposedly for the sake of stability and continuity; but most probably because he feels threatened by the competition and would like to keep an iron grip on the party. Twenty years is a bit too long for continuity, don't you think?

When the party does decide to allow competition for its post, it succumbs to shameless lobbying that involves millions of ringgit. A party that was formed by activists and teachers to liberalise the nation from the yoke of colonialism is now led by businessmen and corporate figures that do not think twice to use bribery and unethical methods to get their posts. Holding posts in UMNO equals to access to shady business opportunities, power and influence. Money politics is so prevalent in UMNO that even Mahathir admits it.

However, competition in KeADILan is generally a healthy one. Most of those who are competing are genuine political activists that believe in Reformasi and are guided by idealism. For them, holding posts in the party means an opportunity to contribute to the cause and make a difference in the system; it means an opportunity to alleviate the country's politics after the disgraceful handling of Anwar Ibrahim's case. After all, very much unlike UMNO, being actively identified with the party spells disaster for many. The top leaders are threatened with the draconian Internal Security Act. Businessmen associated with the party stands to lose government contracts and workers can lose their jobs. So what could motivate KeADILan's activists to participate actively in the party's first elections if not sheer commitment and idealism? If indeed, as the doomsayers would like us to believe, the party has no prospect and is about to be disbanded, why would intense competition take place?
KeADILan seems to be alive and kicking.

Many people are also casting doubts on the party's leadership, in particular Datin Seri Wan Azizah. True, she is a political novice, being pushed into the political world a la Corazon Aquino, by virtue of being Anwar Ibrahim's wife. However her critics fail to notice how much she has learned since taking the lead of the struggle, and how different she is to many so-called shrewd politicians in the establishment that have surrounded themselves with many Yes Men that only know how to say "Yes Dato' Seri Dr PM sir," but are out of touch with the grassroots. Many of those who are close to her acknowledge that she has, since the establishment of KeADILan, been meeting people day in day out, almost non-stop from early morning to late at night, a draining political marathon driven by sheer determination and commitment to the struggle.

We must not forget that Wan Azizah is Malaysia's first woman party leader. All that UMNO can show is a Ketua Wanita while KeADILan has even had a female Vice President. This move to put Wan Azizah as the party's President, her status as Anwar Ibrahim's wife notwithstanding, is a display of strong resolve from KeADILan to overcome the social stigma and cultural reservations attached to a woman playing a leading role in the country. It shows KeADILan's further commitment to New Politics. In the coming AGM, all 120 KeADILan divisions only nominated her as the President, without any curbs on competition whatsoever and this is a strong mandate from the grassroots for her to continue to lead the party.

This is not to say that KeADILan is the perfect party that is not without weaknesses. For those who expected the party to be without defects and would not face any challenges whatsoever, do not realise the real meaning of perjuangan. As a new party, manned by many political debutants and advocating a new form of politics to challenge something that we are so used to all these years, it is bound to face teething problems and difficult challenges. Its influential leaders are being detained under the ISA. Any movement, any political organisation, is bound to face its up and downs, but we must not lose faith at it without understanding the situation.

Look at the African National Congress in South Africa, it was formed in 1912 and had to face Apartheid that was institutionalised by the National Party after the Second World War. Later it faced draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act (doesn't that sound familiar) and Prevention of Communism Act that led to many of its leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu being jailed, while President Oliver Tambo was exiled. It was only in 1990 that Mandela was released along with his comrades, after 27 gruelling years in prison that the party gained momentum and managed to form the government in 1994. It took ANC 82 years to gain power and remove the racist system of the country.

KeADILan is only three years old. We should be patient and not lose our desire for change. Change and reform are inevitable; it is only a question of when.

C. PENG is a young college student interested in reform and who dreams of a new Malaysia.