Getting my feet wet

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Despite the initial setback faced by Gerakan and other Barisan Nasional component parties in the 12th General Election or better known colloquially as 308 because it was on March 8, 2008, there was a general sense of excitement that was also tempered with trepidation as Gerakan faced its 37th National Delegates Conference (NDC) on Oct 11 and 12, 2008.

There was much speculation on whether Gerakan would table a resolution to leave Barisan during the 37th NDC; but it did not happen because behind the scenes, party meetings were held to ensure this did not happen because then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was slated to officiate the conference and the party leadership wanted to ensure that he was not embarrassed.

The anxiety within the party was strong nonetheless, but with the help of party advisor, Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik, then acting president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was able to hold the ship steady and Dr Koh also enjoyed broad support from the central committee members.

Some weeks into my stint with Sedar Institute, I got acquainted with then Gerakan Youth Chief, Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong who would appoint me as his political secretary 6 years later.

Mah, struck me as a wise and intelligent man but with very self deprecating humour. One of the first things he said to me and if I recall it correctly, was “I am good with ideas but not very good with speech writing, so could you help me”, and I readily agreed.

I helped him draft his final address to the NDC as Gerakan Youth Chairman with the help of my superior, Ng Yeen Seen.

Mah made the clarion call for Barisan component parties to dissolve itself and merge into a single entity. This was a bold suggestion and but again, given the institutional inertia that constantly held Barisan back; again, it was not implemented for lack of courage and imagination.

In hindsight, one could argue if this was done in 2008 and the complete disintegration of Barisan would have not taken place in 2018.

I did not attend the NDC as I was travelling to the United Kingdom for my call to the English Bar and left hesitantly as I very much wanted to be part of the NDC.

However, that NDC started a tradition for me as I helped Dr Koh draft his inaugural presidential address and I have continued to do so. I have assisted in the drafting of 10 NDC presidential addresses so far.

To digress a little, I would normally take two days off work to get the first draft ready after spending considerable time with the party president to identify topics and issues the president would like to raise. After which, I would then read previous NDC addresses and also that of political friends and foes for inspiration. It was a tiring process but one I continue to enjoy.

Almost always, the first and the final draft would be very different due to amendments but it was a fulfilling process nonetheless.

After I returned from Britain at the end of October 2008, I returned to work almost immediately as so much was happening and that too really fast. Tun Abdullah announced he would resign as Prime Minister in March 2009 after the Umno elections and a successor would be elected as President of Umno and PM.

It was a near certainty that he would be succeeded by his then deputy Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. Najib was seen as moderate, eloquent and urbane. Many felt he could offer the reset Barisan needed. Dr Koh was close to Najib as well and this made it exciting for Gerakan as we believed that he would be supportive of the reforms we were proposing including the abolishment of the Internal Security Act, more freedom of the press and reforms to the laws for marriage and divorce after a slate of decisions by the courts that were seen as being contrary to the rules of justice.

Gerakan too was working furiously to set the reforms that were identified after the 35th NDC but there was some buzz too as the party had internally agreed that Dr Koh would accept to join the Cabinet if an offer was made.

It was not an easy decision because the immediate fear was that this would be termed as a “back door” entry as Dr Koh had lost in the Batu Kawan parliamentary constituency in GE12.

However, the logic was that the absence of Gerakan from the Cabinet would be very ineffective and the short-term odium by our detractors would be neutralised with long-term gains of being able to influence national policy and maintaining our role as the voice of reason.

Some months had passed but everyone got worried when the bid for the Deputy Presidency by then Melaka Chief Minister Tan Sri Ali Rustam was gaining traction and it was seen that he would actually defeat Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. Muhyiddin was seen as a safe pair of hands while Ali Rustam was infamous for his racial and religious rhetoric.

Ali Rustam was disqualified after being found guilty of money politics but this laid bare another weakness of Umno and Barisan, using the machinations of power to achieve political ends and setting bad precedents.

Another issue that got us all worked up was the picture scandal involving Bukit Lanjan assemblywoman, Elizabeth Wong. In February 2009, some photos were leaked that were allegedly of Elizabeth. All of us were aghast, despite being political opponents; no one’s privacy should be invaded.

There was also speculation whether Elizabeth would resign due to the scandal and if she did, would it necessitate a by-election and the Barisan candidate for that seat would come from Gerakan.

Some even floated the idea that I should be a candidate but I remarked I was only 23 and completely unprepared. Alas, Elizabeth fended off the attack rather eminently and the by-election did not take place.

But those months were about me getting my feet wet and it was exciting.


by Ivanpal Singh Grewal
Ivanpal Singh Grewal is a graduate in law. He is currently Gerakan Selangor Youth Vice-Chairman and Secretary of the Gerakan Political Bureau.

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