SEPT 1, 2003 MON

Malaysia's DAP: A new hope?


FORMER Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP Lim Guan Eng may be out of mainstream politics but he apparently keeps a rather high profile in Malacca, his home base since his conviction for sedition four years ago.
Although he is now just an ordinary DAP member, he is known to hold up to three or four press conferences a week. His press conferences are what some local reporters have termed 'one-plus-three PCs' - that is, he would call the media regarding one issue and ramble on to three other side issues.
Many reporters find so many press conferences in a week from a single politician rather excessive, but they are thankful that Mr Lim does not read out his statements in that stiff Soviet-style of his more famous father, DAP national chairman Lim Kit Siang.
The younger Lim is far more informal and conversational but no less demanding.
'He can be very bossy. He will actually call and scold you if he does not like your report,' said one reporter.
Mr Lim Guan Eng has added about 10kg to the lean frame he had the day he walked out of Kajang Prison in 1999 to a hero's welcome, but his trademark slicked-back hairdo, like his father's, remains unchanged.
Reporters covering him say there is no doubt that he is 'gearing up' for a comeback. He has been moving around, attending political dinners, especially in the southern states, and maintaining his ties.
But his rather coy response is: 'I will cross the bridge when I come to it.'
The prohibition on his holding political office ends next Aug 25. He will probably miss the next general election, but some in the party think that when the ban ends, he will step back into DAP politics as though he was never away.
The younger Lim, in other words, may be the answer to DAP's problems after dismal showings in the last two general elections.
The party has been making the news for all the wrong reasons in the last few months - a power struggle in Selangor and some pretty intense disagreements with Parti Keadilan Nasional over a couple of seats in the same state. At the same time, it is not sparing any punches for Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) on the Islamic state agenda.
PARTY leaders admit openly that they are going through challenging times.
'It's been a difficult time for us. We have not lost direction but we haven't been able to convince people about what we are doing,' said party adviser Chen Man Hin.
DAP Wanita chief Chong Eng said: 'From 1990 to now, it has not been easy at all. These last few years have been the hardest.'
They blame an unfriendly media, limited financial resources, the clampdown on ceramahs (political gatherings) and the ban on the public sale of party newsletter The Rocket. 'It has been like a political desert,' Ms Chong said.
But a large part of the troubles the DAP is going through now is also its own doing.
Joining the opposition coalition in the 1999 polls turned out to be a costly mistake because its cooperation with PAS alienated its traditional Chinese support. On the other hand, quitting the coalition has left it somewhat of a pariah in the opposition camp.
DAP now faces the prospect of going into the next election on its own, and by disassociating itself from PAS, its leaders hope it will regain its old Chinese ground.
But according to social activist Tang Ah Chai of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, the younger and more idealistic Chinese seem to be more drawn to Keadilan than DAP. This younger cohort comprises largely tertiary-level students and those just entering the employment market. The group is not extensive but is potentially influential.
'They are the post-New Economic Policy 10 generation. Keadilan seems more multi-racial to them because it has a real mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians. Also, Keadilan has younger leaders whom they can relate to,' said Mr Tang. The DAP is quite aware of this and is said to have held discussions on the issue.
'After the 1999 elections, DAP leaders said they wanted to reform and to recruit new blood. But we don't see any sign of that. It's obvious they are in crisis,' said Mr Tang.
DAP leaders have been quick to blame external factors for the party's decline but are less eager to admit they themselves have been sluggish about change and are frustrated by internal tensions.
The party has its share of infighting. For instance, there are two rival factions in Malacca: one headed by state party chief Sim Tong Hin and the other by Mr Lim Guan Eng. Their political animosity is an open secret.
In Selangor, intense rivalry for control of the state only came to a conclusion recently. Earlier this year, Mr Teng Chang Khim, a popular and savvy assemblyman, was ousted as DAP Youth chief.
'There is no sign of recovery... and my friends are always asking me when DAP is going to close shop,' said Mr S. Neelamekan, a DAP life member who is critical of the party but fiercely loyal to Mr Lim Kit Siang.
It is a sad juncture in history for a party that almost single-handedly played government watchdog from the 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s. 'The younger generation is not attracted because it does not know the sacrifices our leaders made,' said Mr Neelamekan.
DAP's decline began in the 1990s after the Barisan Nasional's liberalisation policies on the economy and tertiary education, which took the pressure off two of the most explosive issues among the Chinese and cut the ground off from under the DAP.
And that was when the party came out with the dramatic tagline: Reform or die.
The party is far from dying but, at the same time, if there has been reform, it has not been very visible. Some say change and rejuvenation can only take place when veteran leaders move on, otherwise the party will just age with the top leadership.
But there are few signs of that happening in the party.
Seniors like Mr Lim Kit Siang, Mr Karpal Singh and Dr Tan Seng Giaw are likely to contest the next election. 'Why not? They can still contribute. The criterion is not age but capability,' said secretary-general Kerk Kim Hock.
THE irony here is that DAP leaders who had called on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to make way for younger leaders are now themselves planning to stay on even after Dr Mahathir makes his exit in October.
Mr Lim Kit Siang shows no sign of retiring. His website churns out two to four press statements a day. Mr Singh has also begun moving about in Penang in what local reporters think is a hint of his electoral intentions.
Part of DAP's inability to break out of its rut must also be attributed to the leadership of Mr Kerk, who succeeded Mr Lim Kit Siang as secretary-general after the latter was defeated in the 1999 polls.
It has been a daunting task for him right from the start. First, there were the outsized shoes of his predecessor that had to be filled, and then there was the political doldrums the DAP had sunk into.
But perhaps his biggest hurdle has been the emergent clout of PAS and Keadilan.
The DAP has been eclipsed by the political flair and tactics of these two fellow opposition parties. On the opposition bench in Parliament, MPs from PAS have stolen the thunder from DAP MPs both in terms of issues and the standard of debate.
The DAP also found itself surrendering the opposition leadership in Parliament to PAS, which has the most number of MPs.
Mr Kerk is a decent and diligent politician and his world view has matured greatly in the years since he has taken on the secretary-general's job. He is very pleasant and approachable but has been less than inspiring.
Mr Kerk recently caused a flutter at Mr Lim Guan Eng's 42nd birthday when he likened him to a dragon that would come back. He went on to say that the younger Lim could even become an MP and party secretary-general.
Both men have known each other since their undergraduate days in Monash University, Australia, and some have interpreted Mr Kerk's remarks as indicating his willingness to step aside for Mr Lim Guan Eng when the time is right.
Still, politicians will be politicians and it is difficult to see Mr Kerk letting go of power so easily. His supporters say his push for the three-term limit on top party posts would suggest that he intends to say on for a while longer.
The next general election will determine the party's future as well as Mr Kerk's, who will be leading it in his first polls as secretary-general.