Liew Chin Tong bares all on Pakatan implosion, DAP’s perception problem
In straight talk with The Vibes’ Eddin Khoo, the DAP strategist delves into PH’s rise and fall, Malay v non-Malay anxieties, and how much Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad really knew about the Sheraton Move
Updated 5 hours ago · Published on 07 Feb 2021 8:00AM
KUALA LUMPUR – Part of the Reformasi generation of young cadres who joined DAP following the watershed events of 1998, Liew Chin Tong is widely regarded as one of the principal strategists behind the ascendency of the party. Twice MP and former deputy defence minister, the present senator, in an exclusive interview with The Vibes’ Eddin Khoo prior to the imposition of the emergency, speaks extensively on the ideals and realities of The Great Reset in Malaysian politics.
Eddin Khoo: DAP was granted permission to postpone its party elections last year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, what kind of watersheds do you perceive for the party at this juncture of its history?
Liew Chin Tong: I think the most important watershed in the party’s history was the 2008 general election, and the subsequent leadership team that was formed following that. DAP had suffered defeat upon electoral defeat in 1995, 1999 and 2004. Suddenly, in 2008, we won in places we never thought we could win, and we gained power in Penang. Many of those who were elected in 2008 are now in their late 30s and 40s. Some of us had been elected in our mid 30s – I was elected at the age of 31. This generation is now at their prime.
There is the strength of the DAP with (Lim) Kit Siang’s and (Lim) Guan Eng’s generation, there is what I would call the 2008 cohorts, and there is an even younger generation who are now in their early 30s who were elected in 2013 and 2018. So, within DAP, we now comprise four generations. I believe this is a generational affair and, hopefully, this third generation will play a more important role in the party elections.
EK: DAP comes under a great deal of scrutiny and there exists a public perception that nothing very much changes within the party. How credible is this perception and what kind of reforms within are actually needed at this time?
LCT: DAP has been a significant force since 2008 but no one actually bothers to understand how our party elections work. The DAP elections resemble a parliamentary system. It is an indirect election. You elect CEC (central executive committee) members who elect the secretary-general, and that is how the party functions. It is a not a presidential system.
EK: DAP appears mired in a contradiction – on the one hand, seeking to reach to a wider community, yet at the same time, having to yield to its ethnic Chinese base. How difficult is it, for you in particular, negotiating this very delicate balance?
LCT: On the one hand, we are happy to be held to a higher standard. We should be perceived as a party that has many Malays, many non-Malays, and to be a party that not only focuses on identity of ethnicity but that looks at other identities, in pursuit of common ground.
DAP has now established its footprint in all states in the country, which is quite unique for a political party. DAP has indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak as elected representatives. I think this is quite remarkable.
But to deal with the question of tension between ethnic groups, I think more needs to be done as a party to educate Malaysians that, even as there are Malay anxieties, there are also non-Malay anxieties. Among concerns raised by some DAP members is that, just because there are Malay anxieties, non-Malay anxieties cannot be ignored.
What we are saying is that we are not ignoring anxieties; we are saying Malaysians – whether Malays or non-Malays – at some point should feel comfortable and be less concerned with particular anxieties, and seek common ground.
The process we are facing is a reflection of what the nation itself is facing. If we can eventually comfort everyone in DAP that it is fine to be open, that we don’t need to focus on anxieties but on building something together beyond ethnicity while understanding these anxieties, then we can deal with things as a whole.
These anxieties are, in fact, a reaction to living in a multi-ethnic society. It is something we will have to deal with together. So, I am not taking the approach of saying anyone is wrong to talk about protecting a certain identity, what I am saying is, let us recognise that there are, indeed, anxieties but, at the same time, we can move forward once we have acknowledged what the nature of these anxieties are.
EK: You portray a highly idealised context: it is not that it cannot happen in our country, it is that all the elements of communalism, ethnicity and religion are so easily instrumentalised. It would take a cataclysm to initiate, in your words, a “great reset”…
LCT: Covid-19 is the greatest catalyst you could possibly get in a century. While much of what I say appears idealistic, fundamentally, we need to recognise that we do have differences and that we need to find a mechanism to manage these differences.
The idealised version of the world under the old regime is that we are not different, we should be assimilated, that if you are not prepared to be part of my “vision”, you are out. But I think we have come to a stage where we need to see differences as strengths and capitalise on managing them. Running a government is not about enforcing uniformity; running a government is about managing differences and making differences work for everyone. I think that philosophical change is important, otherwise we will continue to be stuck at attempting to dominate each other, and that will just not work.
EK: To some, the events of May 9, 2018, described initially as “euphoric” turned out to be a missed opportunity, even a mirage. How would you rate the DAP’s performance while in government?
LCT: Given it was our first opportunity as members of the federal government and given the constraints we faced, I would say we did quite well. We were getting used to learning about the bureaucracy, working within a coalition, working within a system in which there is not a single dominant force, and in a context in which DAP was being accused of being a predominant force among the Malay ground, while accused of being silent and subject to Dr Mahathir’s interests among the non-Malay ground.
It was difficult, it was a steep learning curve, we made mistakes, there are things we did well, there are things we didn’t do well; I think we will have to leave that for history to judge…
EK: Among all the constraints you mentioned, you did not speak of the perception that DAP was very arrogant: is that a complete misperception or was there some truth to that?
LCT: I would say that we were in an environment in which we did not control the narrative. It was an environment of free speech, a post-truth situation where everyone else was trying to shape perception, while we, perhaps, spent the least time shaping public perception. We did not believe in propaganda and we did not engage in propaganda and so, we became the recipients of this perception shift by other people. I think moving forward we will have to engage the public in shaping public opinion, not as propaganda but communicating in a more concerted manner, explaining what we stand for and how our values have a positive impact on ordinary Malaysians. I think we were working very hard on policy but may not have communicated our values and aspirations. That communication gap was quite apparent. But it was not only us… Basically, we were in a new situation, and everyone was grappling with how to communicate within a pseudo-free environment where everyone else was just running propaganda aimed at sniping at us.
EK: One of the strengths of the opposition since 2008 is its ability to work the ground: how can an alliance like this lose that skill so rapidly?
LCT: It is easier to shape public opinion as a protest movement, but it’s difficult to manage interests when in government. In the opposition, you can stir up emotions, but in government, you have to manage interests. We (Pakatan Harapan) were actually a grand coalition – Pakatan, on the one hand, and Bersatu at the other end. It was a grand coalition of parties that were previously not together, but when moving towards governing, it took great effort to put together a concerted position.
Still, I think we perhaps didn’t work hard enough to get everyone on the same page. That process came too fast and I don’t think we spent enough time getting everyone to agree on a single agenda and focus within a short span of time.
As in any other change of government, when you run as the opposition, you are very much a protest movement. This is not unique to Malaysia. But when you govern, you have to govern coherently. That transition happens in other countries more smoothly because they are established democracies.
We were trying to do two things: we were trying to transit from a permanent opposition to governing, while also pursuing democratisation. (The year) 2018 was not just a change of government per say; 2018 was also democratisation – for the first time, we defeated a one-party state. We were trying to create a state that was non-partisan. We were trying to conduct various reforms so that the state eventually becomes a neutral party in a democracy.
I had warned much earlier – in March and October 2019 – that Pakatan could end up a half-term government because the other side was all about burning the house down. It was not interested in playing the role of the opposition. We didn’t do fantastically well, but I think within these constraints, when history judges us, we will be judged fairly.
EK: What was your relationship with Dr Mahathir like?
LCT: He is a good listener. I think he has some clear grand ideas about the region, about Malaysia’s place in the world that not many other people share.
I enjoyed talking to him about defence and how to perceive Malaysia’s role in the region. I don’t particularly enjoy talking to him about the economy – some of his economic ideas are stuck in an era when Malaysia pressed down wages to export to the US. We were doing very well at some point but these recipies may not necessarily work for the future. And, I think Dr Mahathir is stuck in not being able to recognise that Malays are now 70% urban. But its not only him; many other Malay leaders and others think that Malays are essentially a rural population with no agency, therefore, they need to be represented by politicians presenting this idea that Malays are weak, are being bullied… That idea is not helpful in the political discourse.
I was trying to convince Dr Mahathir that actually, more than 70% of Malays are urban, and even those in rural areas are sophisticated and have their agency. As a nation, we should tap into this agency and recognise that every Malaysian deserves a better future and that we will have to rethink our economy so we can move forward as a nation towards a better future for everyone.