The pitfalls and the perils of the politics of patronage

Posted on November 24, 2010


Last Saturday, after Spurs had nicked 3 points off Arsenal at the Emirates, I headed off to the Friends of Pakatan Rakyat (FoPF) talk in London on the role of our youth in Malaysian politics.

The speakers were  Hannah, Nik Nadzmi and Ginie Lim.

Hannah and Nik, both first time state assemblypersons in Selangor, shared how they were eleventh hour choices to contest in the last general election.

I want to focus on Hannah’s story.

Hannah was identified as a candidate some two weeks before nomination day for the Adun seat of Subang, which, presumably, had already been allocated to DAP following negotiations between the DAP, PAS and PKR.

I checked with her a little while ago and she confirmed that she has been a member of DAP since January, 2007, joining Tony Pua’s branch.

She served on a committee and recalls that she may have been charged with looking into women’s affairs.

What you have here is a young party member who held no significant party position, whether at national, state level or divisional level, had no political pedigree or track record, who, presumably because of her strong academic qualification, strong religious convictions that guide her actions, her principled position on important national issues and her ability to articulate them well, was soon noticed by party leadership as excellent candidate material.

I cannot imagine that the party leaders would not have made discreet inquiries to assess her suitability before the decision was made to offer Hannah as a candidate in Subang.

Hannah’s entry into the mainstream of Malaysian political life as an elected assemblyperson of the residents of Subang, starting from a position as a political novice, is the very antithesis of all that the politics of patronage represents.

On hindsight, having the benefit now of measuring the performance of this young politician, the DAP leaders must be credited with the courage to go against the grain of party politics philosophy that, all things being equal, parliamentary and state seats would invariably go to party national, state and divisional leaders.

Did DAP leaders face a backlash from their grass root leaders and members owing to their choice of ‘lightweight’ Hannah as candidate?

I’ve just been told that this did not happen, but if it did, then this warrants a second feather in the cap of the DAP leadership for sticking to their guns and their decision to field Hannah.

DAP, though, did feel the backlash in Perak, when Jelapang Adun Hee Yit Foong, a three-term assemblyperson and a DAP member from the late 80s’, was apparently upset that she had been passed over in the selection of Perak exco members, losing out to younger Aduns.

Hee, it seems, felt that her years of loyalty to the party was being overlooked by the party leaders by her exclusion from the exco.

Never mind that she might not be the best for the job.

The politics of patronage relegates considerations of meritocracy, giving precedence to considerations of loyalty and utility to the party.

We all know what finally happened.

She, together with PKR’s Osman Jailu and Jamaluddin Mohd Radzi, quit their respective parties, and then announced themselves as BN-friendly assemblypersons, paving the way for the collapse of the Pakatan state government in Perak.

If Hannah’s suitability was discreetly investigated, was Hee’s, too?

And if not, was this because of her long-standing membership with the party, and probably holding some significant divisional and state leadership post?

Jamaluddin, apparently, had expected to be offered the MB’s post, before it went to Nizar, suggesting again that he probably held some high divisional or state leadership position within PKR.

Did PKR discreetly check on Jamaluddin’s suitability before he was offered as a candidate at the last election?

If not, why?

If Hannah was not the product of the politics of patronage, the same cannot be said of Hee, Jamaluddin and most other candidates at the last elections, from both sides of the political divide.

Remember Zakaria Deros from UMNO?

From a railway gatekeeper to state assemblyperson for Pelabuhan Klang in 2004.

Truly, Malaysia Boleh!

And when things got too hot to handle owing to Zakaria making the news once too often, he was dropped in the 2008 elections.

To be replaced by his daughter-in-law, Roselinda Abdul Jamil.

The politics of patronage.

You scratch my back, I scratch yours.

It is therefore heartening to read in Malaysiakini today PKR outgoing Deputy President Syed Husin Ali say that the party has its own process to screen potential candidates.

One hopes, though, that this was not the same screening process used to validate the candidacy of both Osman and Jamaluddin.

And Wee.

And Zul Noordin.

And Zahrain.