Wong Chen

Interview (3/3): Wong Chen on anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 3 of 3)

Q&A with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015. On Malaysian Parliament, 9 March – 9 April 2015 session - anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 3).

Q. People are angry with opposition MPs who did not turn up for the vote. What is your opinion on this?

Every MP is responsible for his/her own action, or in this case absence. They should face their constituents on this matter - their constituents have a right to question them and to know the truth. I got a lot of calls from reporters asking me to state who were absent. I got many postings on Facebook asking me to reveal the absentees. I also got hammered for no reason too.

I did not keep a list but I know for certain about the presence or absence of those seated near me. Some of the lists being circulated on the internet are clearly wrong. Raja Bahrin of Kuala Trengganu was definitely there for the vote and throughout was instrumental in the POTA fight.

Some lists reflect who were there for the day but in fact were missing for the actual vote. Only Parliament records can confirm the vote list. I wouldn’t venture to make a list from my memory but I will vouch for those seated near me.   

Q. Were they properly alerted to these crucial matters (POTA and Sedition Act amendment), so they could come back to vote?

Yes, we have a dedicated WhatsApp group for Pakatan Rakyat MPs. So, they would have received notices. The Chief Whips would have also SMS-ed them. For those overseas or outside KL, they probably could not come back in time to vote.

Q. But why not rush back? Why even be outstation or overseas in the first place? The POTA bill were on your desks a week beforehand. Don’t all MPs plan to be at all the Parliamentary sittings? How many days do you have each year for this?

Look, I cannot speak on behalf of those absent. Whatever reasons they have for being outstation or overseas they need to answer to their own constituents. We are in Parliament for roughly 80 to 90 working days a year, divided into three sessions.

Q. Your observation – what are typical reasons for being missing from their seat in Parliament (other than being sick)?

They may have important “official engagements”, who knows? That’s the most overused excuse. It’s a bit like “melawat sambil belajar” (a study trip). But I don’t believe anyone had official engagements at 2.30 am. I believe Parliament must be a priority, especially so when debating legislations. During question time and less significant policy level debates, you can arguably take some time off. These events are when ministers answer your questions. In most cases, the ministers actually try very hard not to answer your questions.

However, you should never ever be absent when legislations are tabled, especially so involving crucial legislations such as POTA and the Sedition Act. My own practice is to decline any invitations when Parliament sits. I enjoy my Parliamentary work with fellow MPs and at this time, I am quite happy to leave my staff, who are very competent in helping with all the sundry complaints of potholes and clogged drains.

Even during legislative work, of course, you cannot sit there in your chair every second of the sitting. It is common to sometimes take an hour or two off during a full day’s legislative sitting especially if you’re not scheduled for debate or not an expert on a particular subject. Most will hang out at the Parliamentarian’s lounge or head out for a meal as the food in Parliament can be quite awful. Importantly, we also have out of chamber things to do like discussions with others MPs, work with our researchers, drafting and so forth. But all these activities should be done in premises of Parliament.

For instance, when I debated on the Securities Commission Act amendment, a somewhat specialised matter, a lot of MPs took breaks and the hall was three-quarters empty. But MPs should always be nearby, to rush back to vote. It is practice for MPs who want to push the matter to a vote, to give other MPs at least one hour’s notice beforehand. When the vote comes, there is a two minutes warning by a bell to alert MPs back into the chamber.

Q. You clearly have no answer for your missing brethren. OK, so, how can the opposition ever defeat a contentious UMNO-BN bill?

That’s not quite fair. But I can understand people’s frustrations.

How can you defeat a legislation? You can never defeat the UMNO-BN administration in a straight vote as they have 60% of the seats in Parliament. They only need 51% to pass any legislation. They need 66% to amend the constitution, which is why they are stuck on the issue of electoral boundary redelineation.

There are basically three key ways to defeat a bill. One, is to win BN backbenchers over to go against the Najib administration. This very rare event happened last November last year, when the BN backbenchers asked the government to withdraw the bill on MPs pay. They regarded Najib’s proposed pay rise as insufficient, since it was lower than the pay of a state assemblyman. Many backbenchers were furious and as such Najib had to withdraw the bill.

Second, is to get external people to pressure the government. For instance, last year, in the investment panel issue, I provided information to the media, rating agencies, academics and the business community on Najib’s bill. They in turn pressured Najib to drop his plan for an investment panel within the income tax department. So we achieved a positive result. The contentious investment panel clause was removed. Many regarded it as an unusual and dubious thing. My office and I worked very hard on this issue.

Third, is to convince the Speaker that the Najib administration has failed to follow procedures of the Standing Order, hence the bill cannot procedurally, be tabled. We tried the third move on the Sedition Act amendments but the Speaker rejected Gobind’s sub judice argument and instead supported the Najib administration.

MPs standing to be counted on the Sedition Act amendments vote (Photo: Wong Chen)

Q. What other important bills were there in this sitting?

In addition to POTA and the Sedition Act amendments, there were two other significant bills presented to us during the sitting: the KWAP bill deals with the civil servants pension fund; and the bill on the creation of a Malaysian Aviation Commission.

These two bills saw the consolidation of the Prime Minister’s powers. He will have a lot influence over the decisions that these two bodies make. In the KWAP bill, the Bank Negara Malaysia (central bank) representative was removed from KWAP board for reasons unknown. The type of investments KWAP could make, were broadened to include derivatives and unlisted entities (these offer less transparency).

In the Aviation Commission bill, which decides on licensing for the operation of airlines, ground maintenance and aerodomes (in my estimation a RM 20 billion industry since Air Asia is valued at RM 6 billion and MAS at RM 4 billion). The commission allows for nine members on the board, with one appointed by the Ministry of Transport and the other eight appointed by the Prime Minister. Najib has powers to decide everything about the Board including selection of its members, their remuneration and their sacking.

Q. It’s been a long interview, any last words?

Many people feel a loss of hope as they see all the odd things happenings at the top. Some people grow used to these abuses by UMNO BN and now believe there is no other way. When several Pakatan MPs failed to do their job in Parliament, it compounds that sense of hopelessness. Many are already upset with the stagnant economy and the fall of the Ringgit. GST comes along. Then draconian laws passed in Parliament. It is all very sad and sickening. People keep asking how much lower we can go. People even stop me on the street to ask if they should leave Malaysia for good. I just shrug and then say we must stay and we must fight.

An exclusive interview with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015.

This is Part 3 of 3.

Read Part 1 here, /khoryuleng/2015/04/interview-wong-chen-on-anti-terrorism.html.

Read Part 2 here, /khoryuleng/2015/04/interview-wong-chen-on-anti-terrorism_14.html

Interview (2/3): Wong Chen on anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 2 of 3)

Q&A with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015. On Malaysian Parliament, 9 March – 9 April 2015 session - anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 2).

Q. Was the POTA legislation rushed? What's with the 12 hour debate into the wee hours?

POTA was not only rushed. It was bulldozed through. Apparently, Malaysia is about to be attacked by terrorists. That’s what the IGP said a week ago. Therefore, BN needs it, and they need it now. The bills was so needed that it had to be passed at 2.30 a.m.

The Malaysian Parliament isn’t anything like many others in the Commonwealth and legislatures elsewhere. There is little use of bi-partisan select and standing committees. There is almost no consultation with experts on draft bills. No public hearings. The bills pop up on our tables at Parliament just days before the debate.  At the so-called committee stage, there is in fact no committee; it is just another round of floor debates where questions and opinions are often greeted by more heckling.

For POTA, the Pakatan MPs were determined to record our objections to key problematic clauses of POTA in the Hansard. We mounted a strong challenge at the policy level and also at the committee stage debate. On my count, the debate went on for 12 hours.

What was also disappointing was the fact that even the two MPs of Gerakan (part of BN) voted for POTA. One of Gerakan’s main pillars was its stance against ISA. But their two MPs voted for it.

Q. Were any BN MPs concerned about the POTA provisions?

In my opinion, overall no. Not from the content of their speeches. The BN MPs argued a simple line: we need these extensive powers to fight terrorists. And then they promised not to abuse it.

People ask me, can you trust their promises? Najib’s administration has so far arrested 150 under the Sedition Act within the space of a year. Others point to other examples of empty promises - the ISA. The ISA was created by the British to fight communists and UMNO-BN kept it on and used it too. Out of the 10,000 odd people arrested under it, the majority of detainees were in fact non-communists but political opponents of the government.

As far as I’m concerned, the MPs from BN failed to demonstrate any deep understanding or real concerns about human rights. They probably voted out of blind loyalty, and they voted as a bloc. I suspect a good many who did not take part in the debate are unaware of the real substantive issues. I was particularly upset with the senior members of the backbenchers – all the BN Tan Sris and Dato Seris - for they should know better. They should be the seniors defending the constitution. You shouldn’t be an MP for three or more terms and pretend that legislations such as POTA and the Sedition Act are okay and acceptable.

During the debate, we also tried another strategy. By pointing out obvious flaws in the drafting. But these guys must have some sort of shame deficit, they rammed the legislation through anyway; warts, flaws and all included. From their actions, I’ll say that the BN MPs also couldn’t care if the world laughed at how bad the drafting was. 

Q. Do opposition MPs ever vote to support UMNO-BN legislation?

No, not that I can recall. In my two years as an MP, probably not even once. But we do not have a blind loyalty bloc vote policy, not in PKR and not as Pakatan Rakyat. We have room to agree to disagree. We are expected to think for ourselves, whilst bearing in mind our common policies and visions for Malaysia. These policies are set out in our Manifesto and also in our annual Alternative Budget.

For instance, 2 days ago, I debated on the matter of the Securities Commission bill. I praised the appointment of Ranjit Singh as Chairman. I saw this as an example of meritocracy. I said that the fact that the SC has financial independence is a big contributing factor to its success. I also said I had no problems with most of the proposed amendments. But, I asked for two changes. One to ensure that any external experts or advisors to an SC meeting shall first declare their interests and if they do have, then obviously they shouldn't act as an expert. The second change I wanted, was that after declaring an interest in a matter, a member of the SC must not be in the meeting and must not vote. Nothing political about my reasonable suggestions. But the UMNO-BN bloc voted against my suggestions. In turn, I could not support the legislation without my changes. As such, supporting or opposing a legislation it is not always a clear cut, black and white matter.

Q. So what about the Sedition Act - what are issues with this piece of legislation?

The amendments to the Sedition Act were put in at the very last minute and we were all caught by surprise. The bill was presented on our tables at 9am, two days before the debate. Two days! That’s an ambush. You can’t morally legislate such an important bill with two days notice.   

On the fateful day, I was first in Parliament at about 8.45 am. On my desk, staring back at me was the Sedition bill amendments. I took photos and WhatsApp the same to Pakatan MPs. There was a particularly nasty clause: the Najib administration wanted to disallow bail for anyone charged under this act. They sought to remove the discretion of judges in granting bail. They tried to transfer that discretionary power on bail to the attorney general. It was just so wrong on so many levels. YB Rafizi Ramli, who is facing 4 sedition investigations was mildly shock when I informed him of the clause.
This means that if you’re arrested by the police for sedition and if the attorney general is of the opinion that you are threat, you will be detained in police lock-up until the trial is over. Effectively, you could be in jail until trial completes in 2 to 4 years. UMNO-BN wanted to elevate the crime of sedition to a non-bailable offence. Do you know what crimes are not bailable? Kidnapping and murder. Come on, is criticising the government on the same league as murder? We immediately alerted the Bar Council, International Commission of Jurists and the United Nations on this issue.

My research officers and I then went into an emergency meeting with several MPs and started planning our next steps to try to stop the bill. YB Gobind Singh came up with a brilliant idea, arguing that the amendment to the Sedition Act is sub judice because the legality of the entire Sedition Act is currently under consideration of the Federal Court. To avoid sub judice, we asked UMNO-BN to at least defer the amendments until after a Federal Court makes a decision.

We then informed the three Chief Whips (PKR, DAP and PAS) of our plans and asked them to quickly contact the Speaker and the Minister to try to convince them to withdraw the amendment bill. In the meantime, we devised a strategy to buy more time for more bi-partisan discussions.

Several MPs approached the Sabah and Sarawak BN backbenchers. Apparently, we got support from some. To our surprise, Bung Mokhtar spoke against the bill. He is the wiliest of all BN backbencher. For instance, last week he was sympathetic of “Sabah Sarawak Keluar Malaysia” (a Sabah and Sarawak secessionist group) and this week he called them “Orang Gila” (crazy people) and asked the police to arrest all of them. By nightfall, we heard that the Minister had agreed to withdraw the most onerous elements of the bill. To be safe, we nevertheless filed our own committee stage changes to the bill.

The next day, we were informed that the Najib administration had indeed removed the clause on “no bail” but they retained many more terms which are clearly abhorrent. I was particularly upset about their refusal to remove the clause on youthful and first time offenders. The Najib administration pushed through a clause that says youthful offenders (aged 18-21 years) and first time offenders cannot be shown any leniency by the courts. Therefore, they must serve a minimal jail term of 3 years up to 20 years for sedition, if found guilty.

 Debate notes on the clause on youthful and first time offenders (Photo: Wong Chen)

Whereas POTA has been packaged as a bill against terrorists, the Sedition Act has no such pretense, it is clearly aimed against citizens who want the right to exercise reasonable free speech and or carry out peaceful rallies.

This amendment bill was pushed through at 2.30 am after some 12 hours of debate. I lost my temper with several UMNO leaders and berated them over declaring war on Malaysian youths. I reminded them that we were all 18 years old at one time, and we’ve all been rebellious over something. As such, youths should be given special dispensation and not face the full weight of the law. I asked them if they knew what they had just voted for, to which I got blank faces. I asked them if they had children or grandchildren and to think of them.

Q. Some people ask if this the end of democracy in Malaysia (such as it is)? What do you say?

In my honest opinion, I’ll say it’s moving towards the end. We don’t have a free mass media other than the internet. But we are used to living with that. However, when they pass draconian laws, I’ll say that we are 70% to the end. Thank God we still have some good judges and some professional policemen.

There is a joke going around in the halls of Parliament that PM Najib has finally fulfilled his “1 Malaysia” dream. SOSMA was introduced after the Lahad Datu incident – sending a strong message to the people of Sabah and Sarawak. Then, he introduced PCA or the Prevention of Crime Act – targeted at so-called triads, essentially sending a strong message to the Chinese community. With POTA, he sends another strong message to the Malays and the Indians. It is Najib’s “1 Malaysia” dream fulfilled, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban and Kadazan all living in fear: semua sama-sama akan kena.

An exclusive interview with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015.

This is Part 2 of 3.

Read Part 1 here, /khoryuleng/2015/04/interview-wong-chen-on-anti-terrorism.html.

Read Part 3 here, /khoryuleng/2015/04/interview-33-wong-chen-on-anti.html:
•People are angry with opposition MPs who did not turn up for the vote. What is your opinion on this?
•Were they properly alerted to these crucial matters (POTA and Sedition Act amendment), so they could come back to vote?
•But why not rush back? Why even be outstation or overseas in the first place? The POTA bill were on your desks a week beforehand. Don’t all MPs plan to be at all the Parliamentary sittings? How many days do you have each year for this?
•Your observation – what are typical reasons for being missing from their seat in Parliament (other than being sick)?
•You clearly have no answer for your missing brethren. OK, so, how can the opposition ever defeat a contentious UMNO-BN bill?
•What other important bills were there in this sitting?
•It’s been a long interview, any last words?

Interview (1/3): Wong Chen on anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 1 of 3)

 Q&A with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015. On Malaysian Parliament, 9 March – 9 April 2015 session - anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 1).

Q. What were the important events at the recently completed Parliamentary sitting?
The two biggest events were the tabling of the Prevention of Terrorism (POTA) bill and the amendments to the Sedition Act. There were 13 legislations presented for this sitting, 7 of which were related to POTA. POTA is a new legislation, so other existing legislations relating to criminal justice needed to be amended to sync with POTA. The 7 related bills included matters concerning criminal procedure, penal code and evidence.
POTA has provisions for detention without trial (renewable every two years) for an indefinite period. The amendments to the Sedition Act were intended to give extensive powers to the police and widen the definition of "seditious tendencies". If passed, these two bills will erode the rakyat’s already fragile and limited rights. Many worry that this points to the Najib administration becoming more authoritarian and less tolerant of criticisms.
Q. What do you mean if passed? Aren’t these laws passed after the two 12 hour sessions in Parliament?
Before a bill becomes an act there are two further stages. After Dewan Rakyat (the lower chamber of Parliament), a bill needs to go to the upper house or Dewan Negara. After that it needs the Agong's (ruler, the head of state) signature.
The upper house is majority controlled by the Najib’s appointees and if the ruler refuses to sign, it will become law irrespective after one month.
In terms of expected timing, these bills will become law within the month of April. Our fear is that these legislations may be used against the people for the May Day rally. It may even be used against Dr.Mahathir to stop his increasingly brazen questions about Najib.
Q. Can you highlight how these legislations were debated in Parliament? What did you do?
Since November last year, when UMNO-BN introduced the White Paper against ISIS, we knew that a legislation against terrorism will be prepared. However, not a single person from Pakatan Rakyat or the Bar Council was consulted on the drafting of the anti-terrorism bill. So, two weeks before the start of the recently concluded Parliament session, I asked my two researchers to start looking at the anti-terrorism legislations of Australia and the UK. They researched a pile of data and policy points. At the start, none of the MPs seemed interested except for Raja Bahrin of PAS.
On the first day of the Parliament session, I had breakfast with Raja Bahrin, MP for Kuala Terengganu. We usually breakfast together. There is only a handful of MPs that get to Parliament before 9.30 am. We talked about POTA and decided to do a few press conferences to alert the public. We started by alerting the public that MPs had yet to receive the draft bill.
The bill was finally put on table a week before debate. Since I was assigned by PKR to analyze the bill, my researchers worked harder crafting arguments for MPs to use. I also worked with Ooi Heng (the parliamentary researcher for PKR) and he arranged for a special briefing by the Bar Council, open to all Members of Parliament. Despite the open invitation, only Pakatan Rakyat MPs attended.
Around 20 MPs attended the briefing, which I co-chaired.
Thereafter, I called for a meeting of Pakatan MPs to attend a drafting session to put our alternative amendments to POTA. That was on Saturday 4 April 2015 in the PKR HQ. The YBs that attended the drafting were Sim Tze Tzin (PKR - Bayan Baru), William Leong (PKR-Selayang), Manivanan Gowin (PKR – Kapar), Hanipa Maidin (PAS –Sepang), Lim Lip Eng (DAP Segambut) and myself. My two researchers and Shao Loong of Institut Rakyat (the PKR think tank) also attended. I chaired and presented suggested amendments, William Leong and Hanipa gave a lot of feedback.
Saturday 4 April 2015 meeting on POTA bill (photo: Wong Chen)

YB Sim Tze Tzin then drafted and faxed our amendments to the Parliamentary secretariat. He has experience with such amendments. Our amendments were a tactical move to slow down proceedings and also force our version to be debated. We were hoping to slow down proceedings so to buy time for our MPs to try to “turn” some BN backbenchers. By submitting written amendments, BN backbenchers could then read our proposals and duly consider the issues. Throwing oral arguments across the floor will have limited impact compared to presenting a written document. We hoped some would support it instead of the Najib administration’s bill.
Q. So what did you propose?
We are not soft on terrorism. We wanted a law that balances the need to protect citizens from terrorism and at the same time upholds rule of law and justice.
So we looked at the UK and Australian models. They have been actual targets of terrorist attacks. They are on constant high alert. Yet their laws are grounded. In the interest of fighting terrorism, they forgo minimal civil liberties and adopted a pre-trial detention system. Their authorities have powers to detain a suspect. However the maximum detention time is only up to 14 days. Thereafter, they must either set him free or charge him in court. UK and Australia are prime targets of terrorist attacks, yet their MPs saw the need to protect democracy and find a practical solution to security threats.
We liked what UK and Australia did. Tough on terrorism but without sacrificing a whole lot of civil liberties. So we basically adopted their laws in our counter-proposal to Najib’s version. We proposed a similar 14 days pre-trial detention. In truth, I would have even gone beyond 14 days to 28 days, if BN had counter-proposed, which they didn’t. Anything would have been better than indefinite detention without trial.

Pakatan Rakyat’s amendments submitted for the POTA bill (photo: Wong Chen)

Q. What’s in Najib’s POTA bill?
The Najib administration proposed a system of detention without trial. POTA also allows normally inadmissible evidence, to be admissible. What does that mean? Hearsay or illegal confessions (however obtained) will be admissible in POTA. POTA also states that there will be no judicial review, whatsoever. Habeas corpus will not be allowed.
POTA has a Prevention of Terrorism Board, the bulk of the members do not have any pre-qualification requirements. The Chairman needs only 15 years experience in the legal field to qualify. This means that a banking lawyer of 15 years can lead the POTA Board! We asked for the Chairman to be at least a High Court Judge with experience in the criminal division. Our request was rejected. 
The Board also has powers to make up any rules or procedures whenever they like. There is also no oversight by Parliament, POTA only answers to the Home Minister and ultimately the Prime Minister who appointed him. But the biggest threat is the matter of indefinite detention without trial.
When a suspect is arrested under POTA, he may be detained for a period of two years, renewable every two years for an indefinite period. This is basically ISA 2.0. We took the stand that this system would ultimately create more terrorists because you cannot fight terrorism by smashing the rule of law.
For instance, what if the Najib administration catches a misguided 18-year old who supports ISIS? They could detain him and deny him his basic rights to a trial. Give him no access to a lawyer, no access to his family. He will simply disappear. When the authorities eventually release him, he may have become so angry and filled with hatred that he might just become a terrorist. When a man is denied justice or a fair trial, he might fight his oppressors harder.
We looked at history, how unfair detentions in Northern Ireland had in fact created more sympathizers and IRA fighters. The same too in the recent Egyptian crackdown on the Islamic Brotherhood. Our greatest fear is that POTA may end up creating more terrorists.
Q. But isn’t this about existing terrorists?
No, POTA is extremely wide ranging. It isn’t just restricted to containing terrorists who carry guns and bombs. Terrorist activities are given such a wide definition that it will include people who “support” terrorist groups. Support is such a vague term, and certain parts of the bill has wordings that refers to financial contribution and purchase of merchandise as terrorist activities. Thus, that categorizes someone who buys or sells ISIS t-shirts or ISIS flags as a terrorist too.
Several PAS MPs alerted me that the US treats Hamas as a terrorist organisation. In Malaysia, Hamas is accepted by many Muslims as an organization that tries to help Palestinians. Every Friday prayers, right across Malaysia, thousands of people donate to Islamic charities, which direct these donations toward the rebuilding of Palestine. What happens if Malaysia follows the US stance and declares Hamas a terrorist organisation? Combine this with such a wide definition under POTA, many thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Malaysian Muslims may be regarded as terrorists. Why create a law that makes thousands vulnerable to potential arrest and detention without trial? Some ask if this is intended to instill fear. History teaches us that a government that rules by fear will not be a government for long.
When my researchers dug deeper, we also discovered that not only some Muslims may be targeted, but some Tamils are also potential targets. The Tamil Tigers are currently classified as a terrorist group under Malaysian laws. The Tamil Tigers are very popular amongst the Tamil population in Malaysia. So with POTA, wearing a Tamil Tiger t-shirt will categorize you as a terrorist.

As I said earlier, if POTA is used against such supporters - putting them in detention without trial, and depriving them of legal rights under POTA - they may emerge hardened in terrorism. But if you give them a fair trial together with rehabilitation efforts, you stand a much better chance to return them to normalcy. 

An exclusive interview with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015.

This is Part 1 of 3.

Next, read Part 2 - Interview (2/3): Wong Chen on anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more (Part 2 of 3) /khoryuleng/2015/04/interview-wong-chen-on-anti-terrorism_14.html
  • Was the POTA legislation rushed? What's with the 12 hour debate until the wee hours?
  • Were any BN MPs concerned about the POTA provisions?
  • Do opposition MPs ever vote to support UMNO-BN legislation?
  • So what about the Sedition Act - what are issues with this piece of legislation?
  • Some people ask if this the end of democracy in Malaysia (such as it is)? What do you say?
Read Part 3 here, /khoryuleng/2015/04/interview-33-wong-chen-on-anti.html:
  • People are angry with opposition MPs who did not turn up for the vote. What is your opinion on this?
  • Were they properly alerted to these crucial matters (POTA and Sedition Act amendment), so they could come back to vote?
  • But why not rush back? Why even be outstation or overseas in the first place? The POTA bill were on your desks a week beforehand. Don’t all MPs plan to be at all the Parliamentary sittings? How many days do you have each year for this?
  • Your observation – what are typical reasons for being missing from their seat in Parliament (other than being sick)?
  • You clearly have no answer for your missing brethren. OK, so, how can the opposition ever defeat a contentious UMNO/BN bill?
  • What other important bills were there in this sitting?
  • It’s been a long interview, any last words?

Khor Yu Leng has researched and written about the political economy of Felda and Johor-Iskandar and voting outcomes in GE13 (with a focus on rural voting behaviours). Some highlights here: /khoryuleng/2014/04/malaysia-political-economy-of-felda-and.html. These works were published in Kajian Malaysia / Journal of Malaysian Studies in 2014 and a book by ISEAS in 2015. She was Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in 2013. She is married to Wong Chen.


Interview: Wong Chen on a controversial tax bill, how Parlimen Malaysia works, baiting and walk-outs (update 1)

25 June 2014: Interesting developments in the Malaysia fiscal scene bring us to interview again (in an unexpectedly short space of time) Wong Chen, MP for Kelana Jaya. He broke the story on the IRB Act proposed amendment. Over the years I've been loosely following Malaysia fiscal and state-controlled pension investment programs.

29 June 2014: Update 1 comprises inclusion of link and summary of Prof Mukul Asher's analysis.

Picture of The Edge Malaysia business weekly which features the IRB amendment story as follows “Oh no, not the taxman too? Everyone fears the taxman coming after their money. Now the taxman has to worry about people coming after his money. Read our Cover Story on the controversial proposal for the Inland Revenue Board to invest part of its money in stocks and bonds….”

Related posting: ISEAS Perspectives - The Tough Task of Narrowing Malaysia’s Fiscal Deficit by Khor Yu Leng Here's is my review of key risks in Malaysia's fiscal situation and the likely problems in addressing them. These include concerns about patronage affecting the bond market. http://khoryuleng.blogspot.sg/2013/10/iseas-perspective-tough-task-of.html

Other analysis: Professor Mukul Asher's view here, http://asiancenturyinstitute.com/economy/673-malaysia-should-not-mix-tax-collection-with-wealth-generation; concluding that "The 2014 Bill could hamper the task of Malaysia’s Fiscal Policy Committee (FPC), setup in June, 2013 to manage or to help ensure fiscal sustainability and long term macroeconomic stability. In its 2013 Article IV consultation report, the IMF had suggested that the FPC should progress towards greater operational independence, improve professionalism, enhance transparency of fiscal operations, and contribute to better quality public policy debates on Malaysia’s public financial management....  The 2014 Bill however is likely to lead to heightened perceptions of Malaysia’s fiscal risk, and to concerns about Malaysia’s international competitiveness. In the current uncertain and gloomy global macroeconomic prospects and heightened financial and capital market risks, the timing of the 2014 Bill is therefore also wrong...."

An exclusive interview with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat*, Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, Selangor, 20 June 2014.

*Parti Keadilan Rakyat is led by Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition that includes the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Seislam Malaysia (PAS).

Q. On 12 June 2014, you broke the story of a new investment fund proposed via amendments to the Inland Revenue Board (IRB) Act. What was this all about?

The current Inland Revenue Board (IRB) Act allows the IRB to create a fund called the IRB Fund to make investments. The proposed amendments by the Finance Minister sought to create an Investment Panel to replace the IRB’s powers on all investment matters. If the amendments are passed, the IRB will give away its investment duty and powers to this proposed Investment Panel.

In addition, the amendments sought to expand the Investment Panel’s power to invest in any type of investment as long as it is approved the Minister of Finance (currently PM Najib) including IPOs. The amendments are peculiar because the IRB is a tax collection agency and not a sovereign wealth fund. What was even fishier: the amendments propose that the Minister of Finance be given direct and indirect powers to appoint 6 out of 7 members of the Investment Panel. The inclusion of the Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia (the central bank) as the 7th member, was a dead give-away that this fund would not be a small thing but likely to be a multi-billion Ringgit fund. Why else would the Governor be called to such duty?

In business circles, when we talk about creating an “Investment Panel”, it is understood that billions would be involved. I immediately had a bad feeling about this and decided to hold a press briefing.


Q. Who did you discuss your concerns about the amendments to the IRB Act? Who was most interested?

I spoke to a professor of public policy, who is a world renowned expert in fiscal matters. He was very surprised to hear about this approach. Within the party, I consulted with Rafizi Ramli (MP for Pandan) as this was a matter of national importance and he has a strong corporate and management accounting background. I alerted several Malaysia financial news editors and international ones including the Financial Times, Asian Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. Most importantly, I contacted the international rating agencies. I thought they would be interested as it is a national fiscal issue, where tax revenues could be tapped at source and the Finance Minister could pursue more off budget projects. My immediate suspicion was that this looked like the proposed formation of the next 1MDB. In fact, the IPO clause might have seen the IRB Fund also being used to invest in the soon to be listed 1MDB.

Q. What was Barisan Nasional’s rebuttal or clarification? Do you accept what they say?

Three days after my press conference, the 2nd Minister of Finance made a statement, which was reported in Sin Chew that that no tax revenue would be used by the Investment Panel. He said that the IRB Fund would only comprise of moneys from 1.5% on tax revenues after deducting salaries, bonuses and operating costs of the IRB.

First, an important digression. This is the first time the BN government has confirmed what everyone has been suspicious about, that the IRB is being incentivized by a commission rate to collect more tax. According to the Minister, the current commission rate is 1.5% of total tax collected. We must remember that 1.5% rate is not law and it is not fixed by legislation. This rate could vary on executive orders, up or down.

Let me illustrate the point. This year the IRB targets to collect RM140 billion in tax. IRB will be paid a 1.5% commission rate on the collection; i.e. thus for 2014, the IRB will get RM2.1 billion for its operations and investments. There are 11,000 IRB staff. Do the math and you will see that for each officer, RM190,000 is spent on them for operational costs, salaries, bonus and investments. That’s why the IRB officers have been working extra hard.

Now back to the Minister’s point on the IRB Fund. The Minister is saying that the IRB Fund will come purely from the 1.5%. So after deducting salaries and bonuses and operating costs, the leftover is to be used for investment. So how big is this leftover? In 2011, (this is the latest figures publicly available) the IRB Fund for investments stood at RM255 million, all in fixed deposits with licensed banks.

So what the Minister basically said is that I was wrong in my allegations and that the Fund will continue to be relatively small at around RM255 million and that this is not a 1MDB sized type of fund. That this IRB Fund is merely a small fund for officers of IRB and thus not a big deal.

What the Minister said is not the full story. When I first read the bill, I saw the genius of the drafting for these amendments. Whoever drafted this is one smart fellow. The current section 23 of the Act, allows the IRB Fund to increase in size not only from internally generated commissions alone. So the IRB Fund is not just about the 1.5% commission.

Furthermore, it states that the IRB Fund could increase by way of receiving grants from the Finance Minister. The IRB Fund could also load up on debt. This really raised the eyebrows of senior KL bankers that I spoke to. The IRB Fund could also increase in size by virtue of a catch all phrase of “all other moneys lawfully received”. In other words, legally the Minister of Finance can increase the IRB Fund into the multi-billions.

That is the genius of the amendments, if you slack off as a lawmaker and just read the actual amendments, you will miss out the full picture. The key is to read the whole Act and put in context these amendments to the current sections. I read with great alarm that the IRB Fund could be the next 1MDB by using the existing section 23 combined with the formation of the Investment Panel and the powers to invest in anything under the sun.

Look, if the fund is really so small as stated by the 2nd Finance Minister, the Bank Governor will not get out of bed to attend an Investment Panel meeting. If the IRB Fund is so small, why go through the trouble of legislating to create an Investment Panel, why not just appoint a Chief Investment Officer in the IRB. Why must the Finance Minister take the trouble of making sure he has powers to appointing 6 out of the 7 Investment Panel members? Lastly, if the amendments are harmless, why did BN withdraw the bill?    


Q. Barisan Nasional has the numbers in Parlimen Malaysia to vote en bloc to approve any bill or amendment. Why do you think they held back from pushing through the amendments to the IRB Act?

Good question. Yes, BN has more than 51% majority (they have 60%) and could have easily pushed it through. What stopped the Finance Minister? Well I spoke to several BN backbenchers and urged them to be ready to do the right thing if push comes to shove. I also spoke to the Public Accounts Committee members and they were very concerned.

However Malaysian politics is extremely partisan. When push comes to shove, even the most “concerned” backbenchers will vote for the government. Since I started my term last year, I have not seen any BN backbenchers ever vote against the government. No abstention even. Not even during the vote on the new ISA provisions in the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA). I remember vividly how MCA had publicly said that they will vote against the PCA bill and a few days later, I saw all of the MCA MPs sheepishly stand to support the PCA bill. In other words, I don’t think Najib will give two hoots to what MPs like me think about his IRB amendments. I also don’t think he cares much for the views and opinions of his own Backbenchers.

So, I suspect the real reason why Najib withdrew this controversial bill must have something to do with questions raised by international financiers and rating agencies. PM Najib has proven to react and retract positions if it has international repercussions. This matter was picked up by Malaysian financial papers as well as international newswires. So when it comes to the international finance types, he sits up and listens.   


Q. Since you’ve been in Parlimen Malaysia, how many times do you think Barisan Nasional has pulled back in this way?

I can remember only once. The Prevention of Crime Act (PCA) was withdrawn when the heat was on. It was then reintroduced with superficial amendments in the following Parliamentary session and was just steamrolled through. So it is very important that we remain vigilant on this IRB bill when Parliament sits again in October. We need to start a solid campaign in September.


Q. Many people seem to think that your party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is the least organized among the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition. How did you come to identify this major issue ahead of the others?

Haha, are we the least organized? Well at the grassroots level, yes we have room for improvement. We are a truly multi-racial party so we find it more difficult to attract support. This country is very polarized, racially and older folks (with money) are more willing to support single race parties. Thank God the trend is changing slowly and as such PKR has seen steady growth in grassroots support in the last few years.

Let’s be blunt about this. Good organisation requires money and we don’t have any. So, to be fair, I think we are doing the best we can with limited funds. Most of our staff are severely underpaid and most are doing partial voluntary service. You can’t sack a volunteer for under performance.

As for the PKR MPs in Parliament, we are well organized. We have a pre-counsel every Monday lunch to discuss and portion out the bills to be debated. For the last session, I was assigned three bills, the Supplementary Budget bill, the IRB bill and the Anti Money Laundering and Anti Terrorism bill.

Anwar Ibrahim chairs our meetings and provides guidance and leadership. The Chief Whip, Azmin Ali (Gombak) is a capable organizer and is tasked to communicate to the Speaker and BN MPs. These behind the scene talks are crucial to ensure that Parliament functions properly. He is supported by his deputies, Sim (Bayan Baru) and Darrell (Penampang). Rafizi, Gooi, Laksmana Imran, Abdullah Sani, Dato Johari, Zuraida, Dato Idris, Hee, Jayakumar, Nurul Izzah, Dr. Azman, Dr. Tan, Manivanan and others are regulars at such meetings. Our think tank, headed by Ooi Heng prepares our talking points. My own office also has a dedicated researcher. Everyone gets a chance to speak and argue out points. It’s a little bit like being knights of the roundtable. It is a privilege. Meetings are filled with humour as MPs try to be witty. But, we do take the work seriously.          

How did I get to break the IRB story? Well pure chance, I volunteered to do it. Nobody had a chance to read it prior to the meeting since it was presented to us that very morning. So when the Whip asked who wanted to do this bill, there were no other takers. I volunteered since I worked on tax issues at the last Budget. I guess I lucked out. 


Q. How does the opposition coalition coordinate their strategy and tactics in Parlimen Malaysia?

There is no formal arrangement, except when something big happens. The chief whips of each party work together and coordinate on important matters. The whips also sort out the order of debate for Pakatan Rakyat. The only time the MPs from all sides get together are for events and presentations. We also work closely in crafting the Alternative Budget via the Pakatan Rakyat Secretariat, which is chaired by PKR. However, most strategy and cooperative planning are done on personal initiatives.  

Personally, I take the initiative to talk to my counterparts from Pakatan Rakyat. In the last session, my researcher and intern presented our findings on the Anti Money Laundering bill to 3 PAS MPs, 2 PKR and 1 DAP. I issued an open invitation and the 6 MPs responded.

The PKR office is on the 14th floor of the Parliament building and PAS’s office is also on the same floor. I would meet PAS lawmakers while waiting for the lift, which is notoriously slow. So in the 3 to 5 minutes waiting and being in the lift, we would discuss issues coming up for debate. It helps a lot that I grew up in Kelantan!

I also go to Parliament at 9 am. I usually have long breakfast meetings with another early bird, Raja Bahrin from PAS. Occasionally, I will also drop by the PAS Parliament office to catch up with Dr. Hatta, Khalid Samad and Mahfuz. I get on well with Dr. Hatta, he has a dry witty sense of humour, and he’s very smart. With DAP, I work closely with Charles Santiago on the TPPA and I am friends with Dr. Ko and Julian Tan (we are at the junior seating positions, at the farthest back corner away from the Speaker).       

Q. What is the quality of debating in Parlimen Malaysia? I hear that some of the new MPs are bringing a new approach?

Old school and new school debate differently. The old school guys can latch on a single point, most likely a controversial news item and milk it for 10 minutes. They have the gift of the gab. These are confident and gifted orators. Most speeches in Parliament last between 10 to 20 minutes. Occasionally, the Speaker will allow you to talk for 30 minutes.

I have also seen some MPs digress on policy debates. Last year, there was a bill to increase the fees and finance of Muzium Negara. It is a very simple, insignificant and non contentious bill. But to my surprise a lot of MPs stood to debate the matter. Back then there was a breaking news story about a contractor who destroyed a historical site in Kedah. I saw several MPs make a link of this hot news item to the fact that Muzium Negara had antiquities, so that “allowed” them a link to debate at length about the contractor’s desecration. No one talked about the actual amendments to the fee structure of Muzium Negara.     

Rafizi is pioneering a group of younger PKR MPs to actually stick to the point when debating. He was a debating champion in MCKK. I can’t speak for my fellow MPs, but I try to do thorough research before speaking. I will basically keep to the actual amendments and not digress too far. I use a simple speech structure: 1/3 focus on the history and social context of the bill, 1/3 on the actual amendments and their direct impacts and the last 1/3 on my critique of the bill and if any, suggestions for improvements.    


Q. There was a recent walk-out of opposition MPs. There are also a couple of MPs who seem to enjoy being barred from Parlimen. Some say it’s childish to shirk your duties in this way. Isn’t there a better alternative to such walk-outs and baiting?

The issue of Surendran and the Speaker seems to be something beyond a question of standards or professionalism. Many of us are beginning to feel that the animosity might now be personal in nature. I don’t think Surendran enjoys being suspended but he has strong views on how Parliament should be. A lot of us respect that, but it is not a very practical approach.

Most of us will work within the confines and challenges of the system. We have to be smarter and work harder to catch out the Ministers. Occasionally, like the IRB matter, we can actually swing views and win small victories. Ultimately, you are elected to serve your constituents. You have to choose your own path on how best to serve your community.

Walk-outs happen. When you are in Parliament, and you see grave injustice and one of your own brother MP is being persecuted, you don’t really think - you just react. There is no room for restraint or gentlemanly behavior in such instances. You are not at a society ball sipping tea, this is political warfare with the full might of the government bearing down on you.

The stress that Pakatan Rakyat MPs put up with, having our Parliamentary questions rejected, having to receive inane and deceptive answers from Ministers, having to put up with heckling without protection from the Speaker. All these builds up inside you. It builds up during the Parliamentary session, so by the time we reach the last day of the session, when suspensions are handed out, we are all in a foul and combative mood. So when an external event, such as the recent suspension of Surendran happens, and you are seeing all these injustices unfold, you react. There is a cathartic release of sorts in a walk out. It is a show of solidarity and a moment that binds all Pakatan MPs together, to remind us that we fight for fairness and justice. A walk out is probably the most civil action we can take. I think we are still very far from Taiwanese punch ups.  

Other interview: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - Interview: Wong Chen on electoral politics in rural Malaysia and Teluk Intan; http://khoryuleng.blogspot.sg/2014/06/interview-wong-chen-on-electoral.html

Interview: Wong Chen on electoral politics in rural Malaysia and Teluk Intan

An exclusive interview with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat*, Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, Selangor, 5 June 2014.

Some background and other views on Teluk Intan by-election here: /khoryuleng/2014/05/dap-suffers-loss-at-teluk-intan-by.html

*Parti Keadilan Rakyat is led by Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition that includes the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Seislam Malaysia (PAS). DAP has long been Chinese controlled and oriented, and is strong in the urban sector, benefiting from malapportionment just as BN-UMNO benefits in the rural sector. PAS is an Islamic party and it is strong in NE Peninsular Malaysia. In the 13th General Election (GE13) on 5 May 2013, the opposition won the popular vote but BN-UMNO retained power, particularly by falling back into its semi-urban and rural strongholds, substantially losing power in the urban sector.

Q: Teluk Intan; what is your take on the semi-urban and rural voters?
First off, I wasn’t in Teluk Intan for the by-election. So my comments here are mostly based on news and feedback from politicians who were there. I also speak from my experience campaigning in rural Bentong, Pahang. 

I spent a year and half, from 2011 to 2012, working the ground. Bentong is about one hour north of Kuala Lumpur by highway. This is a semi-urban and rural constituency with similar demographics to Teluk Intan, with 47% Chinese voters, 42% Malay voters, 8% Indian voters and 3% Orang Asli voters. It is a large parliamentary seat with four state seats (DUNs) and several FELDA settlements. The bulk of the Chinese are in Bentong town along with a sizeable Malay population of civil servants. In addition there were also a lot of small rural Chinese villages. Indians were mostly living in rubber estates and in towns.
I campaigned everywhere, getting to know the imams, village heads, estate workers, Chinese local tai-kors. I organised friendly football games to get to know the youth in the Felda settlements. This attracted the entire village to come out to watch the game. I also attended weddings and funerals. I like to believe that I got to know the social structure of the place quite well. The first six months was exploratory and I fumbled around, but subsequently the villagers believed that I was there for the long haul and started to welcome my visits.

Q. It sounds like you were intended as potential “parachute” candidate. How did the local politicians take to that?
I was asked by PKR HQ to contest in Bentong, to take down the MCA leader (then deputy leader) Liow Tiong Lai. They chose me because I am a Chinese with a Kelantanese background. Liow himself is from Melaka. My Kelantanese creds was supposed to give me a swing of Malay rural voter support.

However, I found myself spending 60% of my time fighting local PKR and local DAP politicians who really disliked the fact that I was “parachuted in.” I was even physically threatened by some PKR people. It was all a bit funny, in retrospect. DAP and PKR in Bentong had been fighting tooth and nail for years over which party should contest in Bentong. My presence had united them. For the first time ever, they worked together- but to get rid of me!
In contrast, the PAS team was supportive and proved to be genuine ally in my efforts to engage with the people of Bentong. Eventually, this 2008 PKR seat went back to DAP in 2013 and Wong Tuck (not a relation) stood as the candidate and lost. I was sent to Kelana Jaya and won. I am happy to be serving in an urban area and I still have fond memories of my time in Bentong.

Q. How were you able to engage with Malay and Chinese voters in Bentong?
First, you need local introducers to take you to the people of influence. You need to make deep connections with them. Not just superficial ones. This can only be done by spending time to dine with them, attend their functions, and by talking to them one-on-one. Once you convince this person - be it the village head or local boss - that you are genuine, they will then take you to meet the village. It takes about three visits to break the ice.

Malay rural folk are shy at first. They are wary of strangers, more so than urban people. They have their own way of doing things – certain mannerisms and etiquette. They shake hands in a gentle way. I had to relearn a few basic things – to speak in a softer manner, not to be so direct, to eat with my hands, and to greet people in the proper manner. Since I am unable to talk much about Islam, I chose to socialise with them by playing football.   
In the rural Chinese villages, the local guys are quite rough, and I used a different approach. For the Chinese kampungs, I will walk into the local coffee shop and start debating. You need to have a straight forward approach when dealing with them. You need to swear, spit and laugh. On my second visit, the folks there bought me drinks. The bantering is crude but they liked the fact that I was extremely direct and unpretentious.

Q. What political logistical issues do you see in a semi-urban / rural constituency?
Time. You need a lot of time. And you need to use of a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get around. You need a driver and a team. Getting to a rural Felda settlement in Chemomoi took me 3.5 hours from KL. To-and-fro, that’s 7 hours travelling and you have 3 hours to do some work to engage the public there. So, when I didn’t have the support of Bentong local PKR politicians – it was hell. I was coming home way past midnight because the Malay kampong ceramahs start at 9pm, after prayers.

Clearly, you also need money – for the driver, car and team. Moreover, rural folks expect you to come with an entourage (“rombongan”) to prove that you are a big man and hence, electable. This means that you have to pay for three cars to accompany you. Initially I advanced money for fuel and food and nobody showed up! It is imperative to build a reliable local team. It took me close to a year to get the team together. So in the Teluk Intan case, and everywhere else, you cannot parachute in for two weeks and hope to win over the hearts and minds of the people.

Q. What do you think drives non-urban Chinese voting behaviour?
Chinese folk in Bentong are worried about their illegal land status. They worry about the prices of rubber and palm oil. Most are relatively comfortable – that’s why they haven’t left the village. They make decent income and they await the return visits of their children from the cities during holidays. They hardly interact with other races. And when they do, it is mostly on a friendly basis. They do not see national issues, such as Hudud to be a reality in their life. Conceptually they understand, but they do not see it as part of their world. Hence, I don’t think it is a deciding factor in their voting. More important to them are basic economics and wanting to maintain a peaceful life. They wile away their time with minor vices – mah jong and illegal 4D betting. Some like to fish. Most like to talk about politics – contrary to their laidback life, they are very well informed. So I would say economics first then other issues. In a non-contentious economic cycle year, then it all boils down to whether they like you or not.

Q. What are important issues for non-urban Malay voters?
In a candidate, they seek someone who is one of them – a local, a Malay of some standing and from a good family. I leveraged on the fact that my father is a Datuk. Therefore, they assume that I must come from an important family. A candidate with a large network of family ties will guarantee a rural win. So, if you don’t come from there, you better be the best friend of the guy there with the biggest family network.

Malay voters are also worried about palm oil and rubber prices. About 30% are religious and the rest are just normal folks. Most are also well-informed about national politics. A typical Malay Felda smallholder is in his early late 50s to 60s. He has Indonesian workers that he will send to work on his farm from 8am and pick up at 2pm. He is free to chat with other 60 year olds from 9am to 2pm every day. They are professional conversationalists. When I was there, the biggest topic was Sharizat’s cow scandal. They loved to hear my views and bought me drinks. They are generally a happy lot. They were earning around RM3,000 per month. Palm oil and rubber prices were good. The biggest impact that I made on them was to show them a video of the Bersih 2.0 rally with the police beating the protestors. At a ceramah, they requested that I replay the 3-minute video in a continuous loop, about 10 times. I believe they are not prone to sensational images, but I really connected with them on the basic issue of fairness and justice. They will elect you if they like you, and they will tell their friends to elect you. They liked a Chinese who could speak Kelantanese and could eat with his hands.

Q. Given your knowledge and experience of the above, how do you interpret the Teluk Intan by-election outcome?
Teluk Intan was a gamble by DAP. They have a national agenda to attract Malay members and voters en masse, contingent upon Dyana winning. Mathematically with a 7,300 majority, DAP should not have lost. The unintended consequence of this election is DAP had given a new lease of life to Gerakan, giving them a ministerial post to their president. 

Based on my own experience in Bentong, my suspicion is the local DAP team were not fully on board. They probably did not do enough to ensure her victory. This doesn’t mean that this was deliberate, but likely that there was not enough local buy in. Local folks are also suspicious of snooty urbanites telling them what to do. I suffered hell in my early months in Bentong only to find out 6 months later that I had not “asked permission” from local warlords in the proper manner. I was accused of “tak beri salam” before starting work in Bentong.
I personally believe that the DAP election team would have performed better under the guidance of the likes of YB Liew Chin Tong, who is humble, hardworking and understands rural folks. In GE13, he proved himself by capturing several Chinese rural seats in Johor.  

Being a parachute candidate, Dyana shouldn’t be supported by a parachute election team. Only the locals could introduce her and get her the needed support. She had a national image campaign and became a media darling. Unfortunately, the media fawning did not translate to localized support. So, the campaign team will have to bear responsibility. I thought she worked hard, kept her composure and smiled a lot. To really ensure rural victory, you just have to clock in the time with a slow-slow approach and you have to work on the personal touch. In other words, was Dyana embedded there months earlier, when YB Seah became very sick?

Q. Some people ask if rural Chinese are unable to vote for a young Malay girl. What do you think?
Sadly, racism and racist attitudes define Malaysia. The Chinese do not have an absolute moral high ground on this matter. It is pretty clear from the numbers that race was a factor. The Chinese majority seat will prefer a Chinese representative. Is that racism? If we turn the tables around, we have to ask if a Malay majority seat would want a non-Malay candidate.

But I don’t think rural folk are more prone to racism than urban folk. If DAP had fielded a well-regarded local Malay personality, someone from Teluk Intan, I suspect the results would have been better. Whilst the “local boy” factor does not mean much in the urban setting, it means the world in a rural setting.
I will venture to guess that Dyana’s Achilles heel emerged at the very late stages of the election campaigning – Perkasa. Her mother was exposed as a founding pro-tem committee member of Perkasa and Dyana herself helped her mother with memberships. I suspect that her initial denial and subsequent admission let a lot of DAP loyalists down. There was talk that the revelations shook the core cadre of the local machinery. After all, many KL-ites were also questioning her past and asking why no thorough background checks and/or early disclosures were made.

Q. Was Hudud a factor?
Hudud is being pursued by both PAS and UMNO via the so called joint study committee. Dyana was against Hudud. So if Hudud was a factor, logically she would have gotten more Chinese votes. For the Malay campaign, I was told that DAP relied heavily on PAS’s machinery. There was talk that PAS did not really want to support an anti-Hudud and non tudung wearing candidate. However, the numbers do not support this theory because the Malay votes actually increased a bit. I was told that the projected percentage Malay swing was 6% but she only managed half at 3%. I think it is somewhat unfair to blame PAS for this shortfall. Ultimately the DAP election team has to plan and execute according to the political landscape.

Rural folks and Hudud? Are Malay rural folks more religious? I really don’t think so. It is true that religion is a very big part of their lives but it does not necessarily translate to votes. If all rural folks were religious, PAS would be in Putrajaya today. Rural folks are primarily and largely economic driven. Whilst they are not buying Bursa stocks and pondering about derivatives, they worry about real economic issues of inflation, the price of fertilisers and what their rubber and palm oil will get them.

Q. What has the Opposition learned from Teluk Intan and how do you move forward?
We need to go back to basics. We need to defend our urban seats. This means good governance and better delivery. Walk the talk. Selangor needs to buck up. Most importantly, Pakatan Rakyat needs to stick together and not take divisive positions. It is crazy that having won the popular vote, we are now acting as if we had failed miserably in GE13.

Moving forward, to win Putrajaya, we need to win some 30 rural seats. Teluk Intan taught us a few things. Local candidates are best. Try not to parachute in a candidate for a rural seat. If you do, you need ample time to settle in. You need local support and in lieu of that, you need resources to build up a fresh election team. There are no real vote banks in Peninsular rural areas. That being the case, it means that all seats are in fact winnable. The team that plans well, works well and works hardest will win.
An exclusive interview with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 5 June 2014.

Some background and other views on Teluk Intan by-election here: /khoryuleng/2014/05/dap-suffers-loss-at-teluk-intan-by.html

Khor Yu Leng has researched and written about the political economy of Felda and Johor-Iskandar and voting outcomes in GE13 (with a focus on rural voting behaviours). Some highlights here: /khoryuleng/2014/04/malaysia-political-economy-of-felda-and.html. These works will be published in an academic journal and two books in 2014-2015. She was Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in 2013. She is married to Wong Chen.