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Making sense of crossovers, Part 1: The state of PKR

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is a multi-racial political party in Malaysia founded in 1999 following the arrest and persecution of Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim on what many believe to be fabricated charges. Its early goal was to fight corruption in the government and judiciary, and free Anwar from prison.

The granfalloon strategy

Kurt Vonnegut introduced the term ‘granfalloon’ in his book, Cat’s Cradle (1963). He defines a granfalloon as a proud and meaningless association of human beings. This is a bit subjective, but one example is the bond we make with people based on where we grew up or where we worked. Have you ever been to a party and met someone from your hometown or alma mater? Did you then take an instant liking with that person? At that moment you became part of a granfalloon.

Sharing a hometown with someone doesn’t mean anything really – does it mean that you share the same activities, values, ideology or beliefs? Yet it provides an easy way for us to be a part of a group and start to bond. As part of a group we can then demonise those on the outside, further enhancing this bond we share.

A bond founded on a meaningless association.

The Opposition have long touted their selves as being morally superior to those in the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN). They see themselves as championing the cause of the just, a worthy fight indeed. BN on the other hand champion the cause of their individually represented races, a cause that seems archaic in the global economy we live in today.

Between championing the cause of justice and equality and championing the cause of your race, which sounds better? There’s no denying the former sounds better. So that became an unofficial part of the recruiting strategy – ‘if you want equal rights, if you want a judiciary free from corruption, join PKR’.

But what does it mean to be part of PKR?

In 1999 it meant supporting the release of Anwar from prison.

By 2004 Anwar’s incarceration had resulted in waning support from all but the most diehard supporters, who were focused on fighting for social justice and freeing Anwar.

In 2008 it meant supporting a change of government long seen as corrupted, and making Anwar the next Prime Minister.

But what does it mean in terms of action? During elections PKR members turn out in droves to lend their support, but what about the intervening years? Are these branches and divisions (organisational entities within the party) doing community service and other activities to promote the party name? No, they are not.

They gather together in coffee shops and chit chat about current affairs, perhaps trading stories about recent acts of corruption by BN. They have some infighting for ‘positions of power’ like Branch Chairman. Without activities such positions are symbolic, yet they reinforce the sense of belonging.

Outsiders who show interest in the coffee shop gatherings are shunned, but once they join PKR they are welcomed with open arms. So members sign up without even knowing what the party manifesto is or how it intends to achieve its goals.

That is the power of a granfalloon – it is easy to create and self-sustaining. It feeds the human need to group together and feel popular, even more strongly if there is a perceived threat e.g. a government that can have you jailed for speaking your mind.

A party that grew too fast

PKR is a young political party that has yet to establish a firm identity for its members. Here is a list of groups within the party (there are overlaps of course):

  1. Close friends of Anwar
  2. Activists (human rights/civil rights)
  3. Former BN members (mostly UMNO)
  4. Power hungry people looking for fame

It is the last two groups that people should take notice of. In 1999 party membership was high, after all Anwar was seen as the next Prime Minister. His sacking, the sodomy trial and incarceration made a lot of people angry. This was also a time when people from UMNO entered the newly setup PKR.

This should come as no surprise. It is not believable that the majority of the party is made up of people who were never involved in politics before. This causes problems because the former UMNO members in PKR still retain the culture of UMNO. These are people who are interacting with the grassroots and teaching them the wrong things, not out of malice but out of ignorance.

By 2004 on a national level things had become quiet, but after Anwar’s release from prison PKR started to grow again. There is no denying that his personal charisma is very strong. In the wake of the March ’08 elections, membership has increased exponentially. Being part of the ‘winning team’ is quite a confidence booster for a new member and a great opportunity for the power hungry.

PKR started with a growing membership base that then shrank and at this moment is growing very rapidly. At each stage the infrastructure was not set up to condition members on what the party ideology is and what the party’s stand on the issues of the day are.

That is why today you find PKR members acting as boorish as their BN counterparts. They have no idea how they are supposed to behave or what they are supposed to do. This lack of guidance shows in PKR State Assemblymen (ADUNs) and Members of Parliament (MPs) today. There are racists, religionists, and power hungry people focused on fame.

A cult of personality

Throughout its history, PKR’s life has revolved around Anwar. Its members have a blind devotion to him that has caused many to lose their objectivity. Look at the party structure, which from lowest to highest level is:

Branch > Division > State > Supreme Council > President > Anwar (Party Advisor/De facto leader)

Anwar’s word is law within the party and nobody is willing to criticise anything he does. It is accepted fact that Pakatan Rakyat (the DAP-PAS-PKR coalition) would not exist without him. Party members, even ADUNs and MPs are at his beck and call. They have to drop what they are doing if he wants their presence. They know this reinforces the cult perception, yet they do so without question. It shows a leadership that is weak. Effective leaders know when to question their superiors and public dissent can sometimes show strength, not weakness as commonly believed.

The legion of supporters at the Permatang Pauh by-election in August ’08 demonstrated this cult behaviour quite well. Anwar contested in a safe seat and won, yet supporters talk about the election as though the entire nation voted for him, not Permatang Pauh. That it was a political tsunami, like the March ’08 elections where voters voted against what was expected. When intellectuals within PKR say such things it shows how blind they are.

This creates a bad perception of the party for outsiders. Power should not rest in one individual. Should anything happen to Anwar the fragile alliance of Pakatan Rakyat will be put in jeopardy.

The party needs strong leaders with a strong public presence, to show that it is an organised, well-functioning body and not just a group of followers whose lives revolve around one man. It needs a well established culture like its counterparts in Pakatan Rakyat. There are individuals who are starting to push for an establishment of this culture – hopefully their efforts succeed before things fall apart within the party.

Note: PKR was originally called Parti Keadilan in 1999, and merged with Parti Rakyat Malaysia in 2003 to become Parti Keadilan Rakyat.


Making sense of crossovers

This series of articles tries to analyse the unending efforts of the Federal Opposition to take over the government by getting BN MPs to join them. Their goal is to get at least 31 BN MPs to change their allegiance on September 16th.

Part 1 looks at how PKR grew and the state it is in now, as they are the prime mover of the crossover ‘operation’.

Part 2 discusses the many justifications heard to support the crossovers.

Part 3 discusses the moral and democratic issues and suggested alternatives.

Part 4 describes ways to prevent and encourage crossovers.

Part 5 offers some parting thoughts and views on recent events

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Written by ak57

September 16, 2008 at 12:48 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] Part 1 looks at how PKR grew and the state it is in now, as they are the prime mover of the crossover ‘operation’. […]

  2. […] Part 1 looks at how PKR grew and the state it is in now, as they are the prime mover of the crossover ‘operation’. […]

  3. […] Part 1 looks at how PKR grew and the state it is in now, as they are the prime mover of the crossover ‘operation’. […]


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