UNDERSTANDING DAP is not just important to party members or its allies. DAP’s significant influence and the size of its parliamentary presence today means that the media and the public needs to get it right to avoid misjudgment.
I am often asked why is DAP’s “president” not elected directly by delegates? For a start, DAP has no president. Following the tradition of left-wing parties, DAP’s No. 1 leader is the secretary-general.
In the DAP, the secretary-general is someone like the CEO of an organisation while the chairman is akin to the chairman of the board. The chairman exercises checks-and-balances over the CEO through the board meetings – in the DAP’s case, it would be the central executive committee (CEC) meetings.
The secretary-general/CEO has no absolute power. He has executive power for operations but when it comes to policies he has to abide by the collective wisdoms of the CEC/board. Yet, not having an all-powerful party president is a blessing for DAP. Just look at Umno under Najib Razak and you would know what I mean.
Delegates at the DAP National Congress elect 30 CEC members and from whom a secretary-general, a chairman and other office bearers are elected. I recently read that a confused DAP leader implied that this system is “undemocratic” and presumably needed to be “reformed” to one that allows delegates to elect directly a president like those in Umno, MCA, PKR and etc.
My reply is simple: do you want to abolish the parliamentary system that Malaysia practices and replaces it with a US-style presidential system simply because you believe the parliamentary system is “undemocratic”?
We elect 222 MPs in Parliament and from whom a prime minister is elected. In the case of DAP, the delegates elect 30 CEC members and from whom the secretary-general is elected.
I am of the view that more parties in Malaysia will come around and adopt a parliamentary system like that of DAP’s as such a system allows for a more collegiate and coherent working relations within the leadership. It can also prevent a lone ranger like Donald Trump from hijacking the entire party’s platform out of nowhere or like how Najib held his party ransom.
Umno state leadership
DAP has no parliamentary warlords while the state leadership is democratically elected by members. Perhaps Umno may want to learn something about this from DAP.
It is a fact though that Umno and MCA used to have powerful state leaderships. It was a sort of state’s primacy over national. But all these were made impossible after the 1959 general election.
The then Kedah Umno chief was Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who quarreled with then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman over the question of qualification for candidates. Dr Mahathir insisted that only persons with certain educational qualifications should be fielded as candidates, which would limit the pool severely.
After the Alliance lost Kelantan and Terengganu in the 1959 general election, its response in general was to use the power of the federal government to dispense favours and to fight parties such as PAS.
Internally, Umno removed the layer of elected state leadership and allowed the party president to appoint state liaison chiefs and committees to prevent future recalcitrants like Dr Mahathir to take charge of the party’s state chapter. Ironically, when Dr Mahathir became prime minister, he found the system very useful.
With Umno controlling most state governments from 1959 to 2018, every single prime minister had effective control over chief ministers and menteri besar through his power to appoint or remove Umno state liaison chiefs.
This is the root cause of Malaysia’s overly-centralised federalism, which may now see some new impetus for change given that the power of the central government is now fragmented. The prime minister now comes from Bersatu while the menteri besar of several states are from Umno. I can foresee that if the prime minister were to call a snap poll, most Umno menteri besar would not follow suit.
Umno divisional warlords
When Umno removed state leadership elections, the party moved election to one level down, which is the parliamentary divisions. Umno is now stuck with the divisional warlords.
One of the most important reasons why Umno atrophied at the grassroots level was because divisional leaders do not want to see smart and capable new entries to challenge them.
Najib managed to survive in 2015 even after his 1MDB crisis through his control over the majority of the divisional leaders. These leaders are sort of warlords in their own fiefdoms.
Many have overstayed their welcome and were even rejected by voters. But they stayed on because even without being elected, they could still use their positions as divisional chiefs to extort Najib for contracts or have access to constituency development funds deprived of the elected opposition members.
Umno didn’t know how to deal with this when it became the opposition after the 2018 general election, and it is now merely a “passenger” in Muhyiddin Yassin’s government since the Sheraton Coup.
DAP’s small but effective grassroots organisation
Unlike most other political parties in Malaysia, DAP did not follow Umno’s 1960 move to curb state leadership. DAP’s state leadership is elected, and occasionally fiercely and democratically contested.
In most parts of DAP’s history, the party hardly has more than a handful of branches in its respective parliamentary constituency. A powerful divisional level was a luxury when DAP was a permanent opposition party.
DAP’s party structure at the parliamentary level is called a “liaison committee” which used to be elected but will soon be led by existing elected reps in the areas when the amended party constitution is enforced. The role of the parliamentary level is purely for coordination purposes.
I can foresee that Umno will eventually come around to reinstate state party elections and to remove or at least reduce the powers of divisional warlords. Otherwise it will not be able to compete for talents when renewals and rejuvenation for the purpose of winning general elections are almost impossible for Umno.
I welcome Malaysians to study DAP more as it is now an important force in national politics. Not that everything in DAP is perfect but to judge the party one must first do justice by knowing how it functions and why it is structured in such a way. – January 3, 2021.
* Liew Chin Tong is former deputy defence minister and DAP political education director.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.