One by one, the component parties abandoned the Barisan Nasional (BN) ship, taking precautionary measures before it hit the iceberg. The BN parties that were the first to leave were from Sabah; Sarawak soon followed suit, announcing their intention to form the Gabungan Parti Sarawak coalition.
Last week, Gerakan became the latest to leave the coalition with its central committee noting that it needed to chart a new political trajectory for an inclusive Malaysia.
May 9 was a watershed moment for them. However, as will be explained below, this political trajectory should not be “new” but rather a return to the party’s original mission of multiracialism and critiquing the policies of the ruling government should this be needed. The fact that the party did not win a single parliamentary or state seat gives it a good opportunity now to do some soul searching.
Gerakan’s journey has come full circle. It was founded in 1968 as an opposition party not affiliated to the then-Alliance Party, which is now BN. Its breakthrough came in 1969 when it won most of the seats (16 out of 24) in Penang’s state legislature, in addition to making significant gains in Perak and Selangor.
Among the founders of the party were the late Syed Hussein Alatas, who, with the other founders, ran in the 1969 election campaigning for the reduction of Bumiputera privileges and the fight for social justice. With regards to the latter, Gerakan maintained a strong stance against political corruption that would compromise the well-being of Malaysians. Social justice also meant that political parties on both sides of the spectrum had to have a common vision for the country, even if they did not see eye to eye.
Syed Hussein himself emphasised that an opposition party was not simply a tool to oppose the ruling government for the sake of opposition but rather existed to provide checks and balances for the government. If the ruling government was doing good for the country, it should be praised, even from the opposition. If it was not fulfilling the needs of its citizens, then its policies ought to be criticised.
In keeping with its multiracial stance, the party’s first central committee comprised six Malays, six Chinese and three Indians, as opposed to the racial composition today where a strong majority of the party are Chinese. Gerakan was a party created to serve all races.
Disputes over short- and long-term aspirations soon created rifts within the party. Another of its founders, Dr Lim Chong Eu, felt that cooperation with the Alliance Party was necessary so that the party could deliver on its promised economic projects with the help of financial assistance from the latter.
A few members of Gerakan felt this move betrayed the party’s position against Umno’s race-based politics. Eventually, in 1972, Gerakan joined the Alliance Party with members such as Syed Hussein leaving to form the left-wing Parti Keadilan Masyarakat Malaysia (PEKEMAS). Some four decades later, steering away from its multiracial ideals seems to have cost Gerakan, which registered significant losses in the 2008 general election and of course the one this year.
For now, Gerakan can only serve as an independent opposition party as a monitor to check Pakatan Harapan, simply because it does not have any seats in Parliament. A return to its early glory days would require its leaders to reconsider how it can serve the country in a way that upholds its vision of multiracialism and social justice.
May 9 was a turning point for many, Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike. Gerakan would do well to go back to the drawing board and recapture the ideals of its founding members. The future of Gerakan lies in Gerakan’s hands – it is up to them if they want to represent the voice of multiracialism and progressive politics as they intended in 1968. Where Gerakan sought to assume the role of a political counterweight against sectarian politics in 1968, it can still do the same today.
Imad Alatas is an FMT reader.
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.