GEORGE TOWN (May 9): Soon after Gerakan's disastrous outing in the 12th general election in March 2008, party president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was seen to be working hard to quell internal calls for the party to leave the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition altogether.
There was a general feeling that racial politics and the high-handedness of Umno, as the lead party in BN, had dragged Gerakan to its worst ever electoral defeat.
Gerakan won only two of the 12 parliamentary seats it contested, and four of the 31 state seats. It lost all its contests in Penang, completely relinquishing its hold over the state that it had ruled since 1969.
As party leaders, veterans and the grassroots debated over what direction Gerakan should take – whether it should start again on its own or stay on with the BN – Koh entreated the rank and file to be "rational" and not be overwhelmed by emotion.
The upshot was that the party remained in the coalition. Some signs of reform did appear in the BN leadership when Datuk Seri Najib Razak took over as Umno president and prime minister in April 2009.
The 1Malaysia concept was introduced in the BN federal government, and there were signals of a more progressive multi-racial approach in BN, as well as greater consultation by Umno with component partners in the coalition.
So it came as a total bombshell when the results of the 13th general election were announced on May 5. Gerakan fared even worse than before. If party members were shaken by the outcome of March 2008, this time they were left numbed.
The party won only one parliamentary seat – Simpang Renggam in Johor – of the 11 it contested, and three state seats out of 31 across the country. The state seats were Pemanis in Johor, Sidam in Kedah, and Tanjong Papat in Sabah.
In Penang, it once again lost all seats, and with bigger margins. Rubbing salt into the wound was the ignominy of having to lose the deposits for two seats – a situation never faced by a BN party before.
Morale sunk to such a low level that some grassroots leaders were reported to be closing their service centres. If in 2008, Gerakan members were questioning the relevance of the party, this time they were left with no doubt.
In fact, shell-shocked members seem to be at an utter loss at what to do with the party now.
Racial politics and power transgressions
Gerakan secretary-general Teng Chang Yeow, who lost the Bukit Tengah state seat in Penang, put it this way: "The Chinese have rejected Gerakan once again. And I don't think the Chinese want us to represent them anymore."
While there may be a grain of truth in that, Teng's take on the matter through a sharp ethnic perspective may well be indicative of a key factor that has contributed to Gerakan's slide in Malaysian politics.
For when it was formed in March 1968, Gerakan was conceived as a multi-ethnic political party pioneered by intellectuals and reformists. Its first central committee comprised six Malays, six Chinese and three Indians. With this formula, it thundered on to win the Penang government in the general election of 1969.
But today, as the party reels from its worst electoral showing, its own secretary-general is alluding to its defeat in terms of the failure to represent the Chinese race in Malaysia.
For the last two decades, Gerakan, though having a minority Indian membership, has been widely viewed as being a Chinese-based party, which is a vastly different than what it was in its early years.
This, and the widespread perception that it is subservient to Umno in an administration that is seen to be abusing its power, is among the key reasons that have been cited for the party's unpopularity.
In this regard, it certainly did not help that Najib, as prime minister and BN chairman, visited Penang to announce that the federal government would implement projects like the monorail – if BN is returned to power as the state government.
Many Penangites took umbrage, viewing this as unethical intrusion of political canvassing in what should be clear-cut government policy to unconditionally serve the needs of the people.
It did not help matters that the monorail was actually introduced by the federal government in the 9th Malaysia Plan in 2006, but was held back in the plan's mid-term review two years later, after the Penang government was taken over by Pakatan Rakyat.
Another issue was the harping on the sweetener by local Gerakan and MCA leaders that the federal government would consider restoring the state's free port status if BN wins the election. The status was actually abolished by the federal government in 1969, which was then under the BN's precursor, the Alliance coalition.
Teng himself stressed that projects like the free port would only be looked into if BN is given the mandate. "Now we are not given the mandate," he told reporters on the night of May 5. "The condition was there if we win".
Asked if announcing federal projects and making them conditional on BN winning the state government had made the voters feel that they were being held at "ransom", he replied: "I don't think so. It (voters' rejection of Gerakan and MCA) is a nation-wide trend."
Post-2008 anxiety turns fatalistic
In any case, Teng took immediate responsibility for the poorer performance of BN than in the previous election, and said he would resign as the state BN chief and as Gerakan secretary-general.
But the issues that were being raised about Gerakan's future post-2008 are being addressed again, this time with a more sombre and fatalistic tone.
If five years ago members were asking whether Gerakan was irrelevant, today they are acknowledging that indeed it is.
"If you look at the present context, we are irrelevant," said former secretary-general Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye, who lost the race for the Tanjong Bunga state seat to DAP's Teh Yee Cheu.
"We need to be a Malaysian party, we need to take a multi-racial line," he said. "We have to take the middle path."
Chia however aired concerns about "extremist politics", especially that was being felt through the online media where the party has faced vitriolic abuse, which he says has contributed to divisiveness and has seen to Gerakan's downfall.
Interestingly enough, the party's former Penang state executive councillor, Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon, had made a telling prognosis about Gerakan's situation following its 2008 trouncing in the polls.
"One major reform, and one which had been advocated earlier by the party's Youth chief, is for all component parties to merge to form a truly multiracial BN," he wrote in March 2008.
"The second is to stay and seek reforms from within. Besides doing away with racial appeals, it will avert the seeming lack of parity in the relationship between Umno and the rest.
"Should it fail to achieve this within the given time span, it must then consider leaving BN and independently develop the party as a multiracial social democratic party."
Perhaps it is now too late for Gerakan to go it alone to rejuvenate its political destiny in the short and medium terms. The opportunity to do so was there five years ago, but the party decided not to risk taking it.
Discarding racialism and autocracy
In this light, the onus of Gerakan's survival, and indeed of other BN parties like MCA and MIC, lies in the hands of an unlikely force – Umno.
"The lesson is that Umno has to move to the centre and move away from racial politics," says DAP's political education director Liew Chin Tong, who won the Kluang parliamentary seat in Johor.
"This election was a tsunami of first-time and second-time voters who voted for the opposition, with Malays voting overwhelmingly for Pakatan Rakyat," he says.
That means more and more Malays will reject Umno as newer generations of voters with the same outlook emerge in the future, he stresses. "Umno has to make it (multi-racialism) work or they will lose the next election," Liew adds.
There must be a concrete and convincing seismic move by Umno to significantly discard its racial policies and stance, as well as its authoritarianism while in government.
Failing which, it would be best for Gerakan to finally go it alone to regenerate itself. This would mean it must hark back to the original spirit of multi-racial intellectualism and reform that its founders had inspired.
It could then choose to substantially diminish its political function, and play an alternative role, perhaps as an intellectual or social outfit, in a new Malaysia.