(Also published on Malaysiakini)
The recently concluded 16th DAP Congress held at the Penang International Sports Arena (Pisa) was my first as a DAP member. It was also my first time seeing a DAP national election up close. The following are some of my observations which may not have received the necessary attention in the media, whether mainstream or online.
DAP as a national party
With 2,576 delegates (an increase from 948 in 2008), 150,000 members (from 84,000) and 1,128 branches (from 311) and with representatives from all 13 states in Malaysia, this congress represented the coming of age of the DAP by firmly cementing its status as a national party and a significant political player on the national stage.
The 29 parliamentarians and 82 state representatives from 10 states and the Federal Territories makes DAP the 2nd largest political party in the country in terms of elected representatives. The capacity crowd at the congress venue, which included 700 observers, was the largest in party history.
With greater political influence comes greater scrutiny, which is probably why this congress was covered by approximately 100 members of the press core. And with this scrutiny, also came more discussion and headlines, including critiques against the DAP’s election system and the subsequent results.
In a sense, this kind of spotlight and scrutiny should be welcomed since it means that the party matters in the public’s eye and is an important part of the larger political landscape.
DAP’s election system
DAP uses an election system which differs from that of other political parties in Malaysia. Rather than featuring direct contests for the top posts in the party, the 20 top vote getting candidates are elected into the Central Executive Committee (CEC), with up to 10 additional members who can be co-opted.
After being voted in, the 20 top vote getting candidates will then allocate among themselves the various posts such as the national chairperson, the secretary-general, the national treasurer, the national organising secretary, the national publicity secretary, the international secretary, up to five national vice-chairpersons, and various deputy positions.
This system has been criticised as not being democratic since there are no direct contests whereby delegates can decide who specifically they want to lead the party. While this can theoretically happen, for example, the 20th vote getter being appointed as chairperson or secretary-general, this has, as far as I know, not happened before.
Furthermore, this ignores the many positive aspects of this election system, advantages which may escape the attention of the casual observer.
Firstly, it avoids the destructive internal struggles of direct contests. Battles for top positions in a political party are often winner-take-all affairs since there is usually just one winner. These contests often feature two candidates which usually translate into a party being split along two ‘camps’.
Mud-slinging and poison pen letters are part and parcel of such campaigns. It can even lead to a party fracturing as was experienced by Umno in the fight between Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in the 1987 party elections.
Such contests may be necessary when a party needs to select its candidate for a presidential elections or when the head of the party will hold the position of the prime minister. But in the context of the DAP, where the head of the party is not automatically entitled to any elected position, the need for such a contest is much less urgent.
Since there are 20 positions to fill, national elections do not have the typically ‘dog-eat-dog’ flavour that is more common in winner-take-all party elections. It is not so easy for someone to ‘kill off’ their political rivals since delegates can choose candidates from various rival ‘camps’.
For example, the more ‘independent’ minded and outspoken DAP leader who is also the Selangor speaker, Teng Chang Kim (right), regularly receives support from a majority of delegates including many whom also support the top party leaders.
Indeed, this election system actually encourages more interaction and ‘horse-trading’ between leaders and delegates in the various states. In straight fights, leaders and the members whom they ‘control’ usually have to choose one side or the other, but when there are 20 seats to fill, it is possible to field requests for support from different leaders within a party.
Secondly, this election system is actually friendlier towards minority groups compared to straight fights. States with a smaller number of delegates may not be able to have leaders from their states elected into national offices if it was a straight contest since representatives from states with larger delegations would have the natural advantage.
The non-Chinese, who are in the minority in the DAP, may not have such an easy time to win positions at the national level in direct contests. Under this election system, delegates would usually reserve at least one of their votes for a candidate from East Malaysia (and increasingly, one for Sarawak and one for Sabah) as well as at least one vote for a Malay candidate (although this was not the case for all delegates this time round). This system increases the chances for minority candidates to gain representation into the top leadership of the party.
In the 2009 party elections, for example, four Indian and one Malay candidate as well as one Sarawak candidate were among the top 20 vote getters.
Thirdly, this system builds consensus within the leadership since they have to come together to decide and allocate the various assigned posts. While there may be a minority who are not fully satisfied with their positions, there is usually consensus among the majority.
While this system is not perfect – no electoral system is – there is much to be said about its positive characteristics which may be lost amidst the current focus on who was and who was not among the top 20 vote getters in the recently concluded election.
Interpreting the results
The immediate reaction to the party election results has focused on the lack of Malay candidates among the top 20 vote getters. The highest Malay vote getter was Senator Ariffin Omar who placed in 37th position out of 63 candidates with 348, votes followed by Ahmad Ton (left) who came in 38th with 347 votes (Ahmad Ton came in 12th in the previous party election in 2008).
Only three Indian candidates made it to the top 20 (the casualty was Professor P Ramasamy). While it is somewhat regrettable that an insufficient number of delegates had the political maturity to vote in the long term strategic interest of the party, what has been ignored is the fact that delegates are ‘spoilt for choice’ in terms of the leaders to choose from.
The last elections were held in August 2008, just five months after the historic March 2008 general election. The newly elected representatives in the party had not had time to establish themselves yet.
In the more four years since that election, many of these newly elected representatives (as well as some of the more seasoned hands) have had many more opportunities to serve the party at the local and state levels and also to raise their profile nationally.
The result is that the leaders who have served the party at three levels – raising important issues in parliament and/or at the state legislature, speaking at and organising fund raising dinners to bolster party funds, and working hard during the by-elections especially the Sibu by-election as well as the Sarawak state elections – have seen their support increase within the party.
For example, Anthony Loke, who raised important issues in parliament and was part of the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reform and who also oversaw a successful transition in the Dapsy (DAP Youth) leadership, increased his position from 11th place to 4th.
Tony Pua (standing, left in photo), who has featured prominently at the national stage in terms of issues raised, and who has also worked the ceramah circuit tirelessly around the country and during the by-elections, went from 13th position to 8th. Teng Chang Kim established himself as a firm and even handed speaker of the Selangor state assembly as well as the chairperson of the Selcat, as well as a regular on the ceramah circuit.
Similarly, Liew Chin Tong and Teo Nie Ching, both first-time elected members of the new CEC, have had active records in parliament and played key roles in the 2011 Sarawak state elections in the Sibu and Sarikei areas respectively. The ever popular Nga Kor Ming, who draws thousands to his ceramahs, also saw his position rise from 16th to 11th.
Most of this takes place away from the public view but is common knowledge among DAP leaders as well as most of the delegates. This is perhaps one of the reasons why many of the delegates felt compelled to vote for the candidates who have done this sort of ground work rather than to cast their votes in a more ‘traditional’ sense in favor of minority candidates especially those whom they may not be familiar with.
Over time, with the right opportunities to raise their national profiles, it is very likely that candidates such as Senator Ariffin and Zairil Khir Johari would find themselves being voted into the top 20 in the next party elections (Both of them have been co-opted into the CEC).
This is not to say that there were no internal party ‘fights’ which caused some candidates to lose support. It is possible that the ‘godfather’ and ‘warlords’ tussle in Penang may have cost Professor Ramasamy some votes, causing him to fall out of the top 20. But there are multiple other reasons besides inter party rivalry which explain changes in the support levels of various candidates.
Teresa Kok, for example, who fell from 6th to 18th, used to occupy the unenviable position of national organising secretary who is responsible for matters such as the formation and organisation of branches as well as membership issues. Those leaders who experience problems in setting up new or reviving old branches will inevitably blame the national organising secretary, rightly or wrongly, which meant that Teresa took most of the flak for this unhappiness.
The overall results only saw three threecomers into the top 20 – Vincent Wu, Liew Chin Tong and Teo Nie Ching – but they were already CEC appointees after the 2008 party elections. Of the three who fell out of the CEC – Ahmad Ton, Prof Ramasamy and Tan Seng Giaw – two, Prof Rama and Tan Seng Giaw, were appointed into the new CEC.
Joining Prof Rama, Seng Giaw, Senator Ariffin and Zairil are Jimmy Wong and Edwin Bosi, both from Sabah, John Brian Anthony, who is from Sarawak and is the head of the Dayak Consultative Council (DCC), Leong Ngah Ngah from Pahang, V Sikakumar, the former Perak speaker, and Thomas Su, also from Perak.
The 30-person CEC line-up has representatives from all the major communities in the country – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak and Kadazan – representing the party’s aspiration to represent all communities in Malaysia. Although the ‘ideal’ mix of leaders (as well as members) is still far from being representative of the country, this lineup makes the party leadership one of the most representative in the country (the other being PKR).
The road towards remaking DAP into a more inclusive party needs to continue with the fielding of winnable and winning non-Chinese candidates including and especially Malay, Dayak and Kadazan candidates. Once these candidates have been elected into office, they would be in a better position to attract more non-Chinese members to join the party.
Baby steps were already taken when DAP fielded its first Dayak candidate in the 2011 Sarawak state elections. But major strides are expected and needed in the next general election.
ONG KIAN MING is DAP’s election strategist.