Introduced not only by the country's national anthem, but also to the
strains of the Rolling Stones' "I can't get no satisfaction," Malaysia's
newest political party was officially launched at the Sime Darby
Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur Wednesday.
Kita, the People's
Welfare Party, announced its president, Zaid Ibrahim, aims "to bring
back the politics of goodwill and compromise that started this nation 54
years ago… so that politics and public service can be made honorable
Neither of the current alternatives would do, he
said. The governing Barisan Nasional coalition "will always be
autocratic and authoritarian," while the opposition led by Datuk Seri
Anwar Ibrahim "says and does whatever it takes for the sake of winning
There was grand, idealistic talk of defending the
secular nature of the 1957 constitution, ending discrimination, fighting
ideas of "superiority and hegemony" (a reference to the Malay
supremacists who would consign the country's Chinese and Indian citizens
to permanent second-class status) and ensuring that there were "equal
opportunities for all, regardless of caste, colour or creed."
words indeed for a new party, however laudable – especially given that
the Barisan and its predecessor, the Alliance, centered around three
parties representing the country's main races, the Malays, Chinese and
Indians, have won every national election since independence. Many would
ask, too, why Zaid needs to start another party. Doesn't the opposition
coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, stand for more or less the same program as
Kita? Moreover, Pakatan's success at the 2008 general election, when it
won control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and denied the Barisan the
two thirds supermajority in parliament that had allowed it to amend the
constitution, is in the past.
Now that the political tsunami has
receded, there is much debris left behind for Pakatan to deal with. In
February 2009 it lost one state, Perak, back to the Barisan. There have
been constant disagreements and bickering over the demands of one of its
constituent parties, the Islamist PAS, for hudud (Islamic) laws
and an Islamic state to be implemented if they came to power – anathema
to its left-leaning coalition partner, the mainly Chinese Democratic
Meanwhile Anwar, the leader of Pakatan's other
member, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and of the opposition overall, remains
bogged down in another sodomy trial. (The first was after he was fired
as deputy prime minister to Dr Mahathir in 1998, and resulted in a
conviction, subsequently overturned. The latest charges surfaced in 2008
and led to the current trial which has been going on since last
February and shows no sign of ending; it is due to resume next month).
Zaid be doing all he can to help Pakatan Rakyat rather than setting up a
new party that will appeal to the same constituency, thereby risking
splitting precious opposition votes?
It would be fair to say
that Zaid divides opinion. The founder of the country's biggest law firm
and renowned for his outspoken defense of human rights, Zaid was hailed
as proof that the Barisan was serious about reform when he was
appointed by then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Law Minister
in March 2008. He resigned after six months over the continued use of
Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act, and was welcomed into the
ranks of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat the following June.
month, however, he quit PKR as well in a row over internal party
elections. While standing for the deputy presidency in November, Zaid
alleged serious irregularities with the voting process and turned
angrily on Anwar. The election was being rigged and PKR had become a
vehicle for its leader and his cronies, he said, adding that the current
accusations of sodomy against him were undermining the opposition's
cause. As if that wasn't enough, Zaid told me in an interview after his
resignation that he thought Anwar was "guilty as hell" in any case.
have accused Zaid of arrogance and poor judgment. PKR didn't end up
looking like furthering his own ambitions, goes the argument, so he has
set up a party (technically, relaunched and renamed a tiny previous
grouping) that will. On the other hand, PKR's whiter-than-white
reformasi mantle is now beginning to appear striped with dynastic purple
now that the party is led by Anwar, its president is his wife, and has
as one of its new vice presidents his daughter.
ruthlessly honest analysis of Malaysia's problems, particularly the need
for a re-evaluation of the position of the Malays, his calls to an end
to rent-seeking and for the building of a new meritocracy that does not
unduly stress race or religion, is almost unmatched. Perhaps the only
other Malay politician to advance something similar convincingly is
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the veteran finance minister who is, unusually
for an UMNO MP, fondly regarded and admired across the spectrum.
Significantly, he wrote the preface to Zaid's latest book, "I, too, am
What are its chances? Kita has already been dismissed as
a "mosquito" party – a minor irritant, but whose bite has no
significant impact. Asked what effect it would be likely to have, one
leading UMNO MP said it would have none, apart from appealing "to a few
people in Bangsar" – a dismissive reference to the Kuala Lumpur enclave
with a long and occasionally notorious reputation for liberalism and
If that is brave UMNO talk, the opposition
coalition may have more worries. Even if Kita does not field many
candidates in the next general election – its ambition in that field is
so small that Zaid admitted to me that they may not win "any seats at
all" – in Peninsular Malaysia, it could still cost Pakatan dear.
key industrial state of Selangor, for instance, is already on a knife
edge. The Pakatan state government has dealt poorly with a number of
issues recently, appearing divided and handing the Barisan propaganda
victories over signs bearing the logo of Prime Minister Najib's
1Malaysia policy, the question of whether Muslims should be allowed to
work in establishments that serve alcohol, and the appointment of a new
state secretary that has led them, disastrously, to be portrayed as
being disrespectful to Selangor's sultan. It is not implausible that a
few votes siphoned off to Kita could lose Pakatan its proudest gain of
the 2008 election.
Zaid's goal, however, is more both more modest
and yet more ambitious than insults suggest. His "moderate, democratic
and liberal" party, he conceded, was not about to try to win the next
general election. "We are in this for the long haul," he said. "Kita is
not just a political party; it's a movement, it's an ethos to be handed
down to future generations. This is about real change in the way we do
business. Because what we have now just isn't working."
And he does have a plan. "The answer is the middle class here," he told me during our interview. Well, that's Bangsar at least.
a more imminent change, he said, look east. "The answer is Sarawak and
Sabah." He elaborated yesterday. The people of Malaysia's Borneo states,
who have provided a "fixed deposit" for the Barisan government in terms
of MPs for decades, should stop voting "for a regime that has denied
them for the best part of our independent years."
non-Malay and non-Muslim than the Peninsula, but with considerable
numbers of the indigenous peoples who are legally privileged along with
the Malays as bumiputras – sons of the soil, they can be "the lynchpin
of change," said Zaid. "They can determine if Malaysia is to remain a
cosmopolitan multi-ethnic democracy or be ruled by the politics of
hegemony. They can determine if Malaysia is to remain a free, secular
democracy or a tyranny of the majority."
Zaid has not only a
plan, but an ally in the person of Jeffrey Kitingan, a former PKR vice
president who announced the formation of the United Borneo Front to
campaign for a better deal for Sarawak and Sabah on the same day Zaid
unveiled news of Kita last month.
As Kitingan pointed out
recently: "West Malaysians take up 166 seats in parliament which are
fragmented almost 50/50 after the 2008 elections. If all 56 Sabah and
Sarawak MPs amalgamated and had the Borneo Agenda at the forefront of
their hearts and their minds, they will be able to have a greater say in
All pie-in-the-sky? Maybe. But look at the
proposals so far, and what you find is a new, loose alliance that speaks
to a genuinely multiracial audience, that promises to safeguard but
also give a fairer deal to all bumiputra, whether Malay or not, while
ending discriminatory practices against Chinese and Indians and
acknowledging their contribution to Malaysia. Oh, and guaranteeing the
superiority of civil law over shariah courts and protecting freedom of
Zaid talked a lot yesterday about the country's
founding prime minister, the genial, tolerant Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Actually, he is going further than the Tunku would ever have dared in
terms of urging a unity that does not over-privilege one section of
society, or its faith, over another. It sounded, in fact, rather a lot
like a new Malaysia. Were it not already the title of someone else's
policy, he could even have called it a One Malaysia. Now there's a
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman (UK) and divides his time between London and Kuala Lumpur.