Since its inception, the DAP has been a political firebrand, not only for its “Malaysian Malaysia” campaign or its secular stance, but its chequered history: from being one of the alleged agitators of the infamous 1969 race riots to its fractious relations with former coalition partner PAS, an Islamist party.
Yet its dominance within the opposition camp and command of important state seats, coupled with its Chinese majority makeup, are anathema to ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, especially Umno. Even Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also Umno president, played the bogeyman card at the general assembly last year saying Islam would be belittled if DAP came to power.
I reached out to Zairil Khir Johari – DAP assistant national publicity secretary and Bukit Bendera MP – and we talked about the labels, the struggles as well as the inconsistencies levelled against the party, and why he – as a Malay – remains optimistic about the DAP.
Our full conversation via email, lightly edited for clarity follows.
Let's address the labels thrown at the DAP as reported in the media – that the party is anti-Malay, anti-Islam and racist, among others. What gave rise to these sentiments and what do you have to say about them?
We are not dealing with labels that were conjured up yesterday, but rather an ingrained perception built up over decades of propaganda by the Barisan Nasional government. This narrative is not necessarily logical – for example, they say DAP is a communist party and at the same time, striving to create a Christian state in Malaysia.
I’ve never heard of Christian communists before, but in any case, why would DAP even want to create a Christian state when Christians are themselves a minority within DAP? Even a number of the so-called Christian leaders in DAP that are named are not Christians.
These labels are not meant to make sense. They are merely meant to create a narrative of DAP as “the other”. The antithesis to Malayness. So everything that is a threat to Malayness is what DAP is – communist, Chinese chauvinist, Christian, etc. It is all meant to instill a sense of fear among the Malay community and this is how Umno stays in power.
On Chinese chauvinism, how then do you explain Lim Kit Siang’s defense of Hew Kuan Yau’s “screw the Malays” remark as not racist but vulgar and that while Hew was a DAP member, no action was taken?
I think those remarks were most unfortunate, but it has to be put into context as well. You can refer to my own comments on the issue in this write-up.
You joined the DAP in 2010 and you cited Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who told you Umno would not be the party for young and aspiring people who want change. But this was at a time when more progressive politicians within the party were climbing the ranks, like Khairy Jamaluddin.
So how different is the DAP from Umno? Couldn't you get that "change" by way of your Umno heritage coupled with the likes of Khairy?
Khairy is probably the only youth leader in Umno that most people can name, you included, I would wager. That doesn’t say so much about change and opportunity for the young. But more importantly, there isn’t much difference that Khairy or any other young Umno leader is doing. It’s still business as usual and the party doesn’t have young leaders in the main power centre of the party, unlike DAP.
Now, there are Malay members in DAP but a scarcity of Malay leaders. For example, you are the only Malay in the central executive committee. There are are only two Malay MPs: Ariff Sabri of Raub and yourself. Why is that?
Considering that the Malays are such a small proportion of the DAP membership, we are already over-represented in the leadership if you want to be technical about it. But the point is not about numbers. DAP is about capability and capacity. Of course representation is also a consideration but not the main one.
More importantly, it is far more interesting to note that we have many more younger Malay leaders at the third and fourth tier of leadership. We have Malay city and municipal councillors in Penang and Selangor. We have youth leaders, activists. They are not merely there to represent their race, but to bring in fresh ideas to the party.
Yes, I’m aware of members such as Aziz Bari, Young Syefura Othman and Edry Faisal Eddy Yusof. Speaking of these three, help me make sense why they had to be appointed to the Selangor DAP Committee in 2015 for the simple reason that none of the Malays who ran for the election won.
In fact when Aziz joined the party, he urged you guys to step up efforts in courting the Malays. Are the members themselves actually comfortable with ethnic diversity?
Internal party elections involve internal party dynamics, as with all other political parties. Whether members choose to elect a leader I believe has little to do with his ethnicity but more about familiarity and capacity.
I don't think anyone has the right to assume they will win posts in the party just because they are of a certain ethnic group. In my own personal experience, I don't face any problems from members just because I'm Malay.
I'll give an example – the first time I contested the chairmanship of my local PLC (parliamentary liaison committee), I lost. But two years later when I re-contested, I won. It was based on familiarity and my performance as MP that the local grassroots members chose to elect me. If it was because of my ethnicity, why did I win the second time and not the first?
Earlier you mentioned change and opportunity for the young, what are the odds of these younger, third- and fourth-tier Malay leaders moving up the leadership chain? Will we see another repeat of the 2015 elections or will there be a correction in terms of attitudes that favour these leaders?
Because you may say the party practices democracy and that leaders are appointed through elections, but you can't discount the attitude of members who may not be comfortable with the idea of a more inclusive leadership.
The younger Malay members are moving up the chain for sure. At local levels, at higher levels. This will all take time. To me, it is also individual effort. No one votes for someone they are not familiar with. So if you want to win party elections, you need to convince party members. Simple as that.
So, I noticed the DAP has not setup committees in Kelantan and Terengganu, where there’s a dense Malay population. Why?
DAP is first and foremost an urban-based party. Rural areas are not our forte, though we are trying to make inroads. We do have state committees set up in those states, but they are very small and not as active as other states. However, we have been increasing our activities in rural areas through programmes like Impian Malaysia, Impian Kelantan, etc.
These are targeted programmes that bring members and volunteers to help out in rural areas building infrastructure, doing community projects and so on. We find this kind of engagement to be much more productive than simply opening branches.
But how effective are these targeted programmes, especially in educating party leaders? I’d like to point out Kit Siang’s speech in Kota Baru. He talked about 1MDB, “saving” Malaysia from becoming a “rogue and failed” state, the logging problem, endemic poverty and also the state’s RM1.4 billion debt to the federal government.
I believe we can agree that these resonate with urban, not rural, voters. So are the leaders at the top even briefed about these programmes?
I think it's a fallacy to say these "national" issues do not resonate with more rural folk. We began organising 1MDB ceramahs in rural areas starting in Penang, and we have covered quite a few rural constituencies. Each time we got decent crowds turning up, and they were nodding along and many were shocked by the exposes.
The trick was to explain the issue in ways that they can understand. So we used PowerPoint slides with amusing pictures, showed them comparisons and tried to explain how significant the impact of the scandal was to their daily lives. I believe that if explained well, people are interested. Of course, if the explanation is technical, they won't understand.
Let’s make sense of the party’s stance which claims to be secular. You are working with the likes of Amanah and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Don’t they run counter to what you stand for – Amanah draws a religious line; Bersatu, an ethnic one?
In Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, a conservative party, is about to form a coalition government with the Green Party, a left-leaning environmentalist party. Both parties have obviously differing ideologies, but that does not mean they cannot work together.
That’s the whole idea of a coalition – if we all had the same ideology, then we would be in the same party and we wouldn’t have need to form a coalition. A coalition brings together people of different backgrounds who are united by a common objective and common manifesto. There is no contradiction.
But wouldn’t single party dominance be the way to go? Historically, the opposition has never been able to put forward a sustainable coalition. PKR veep Nurul Izzah Anwar said Pakatan Harapan is more of a common front than a coalition. So how is this time round different from previous coalitions?
Here's the thing: if your common goal is to remove Umno-Barisan Nasional or Prime Minister Najib Razak from power, what happens if you do achieve it? Such populists goals are at best shallow, meaning this could lead to another round of infighting among coalition partners.
How do you prepare for this? Just look at Bersatu. I doubt Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his son Mukhriz as well as Muhyiddin Yassin are anything different from the hardliners they were during their Umno days. I mean, even you guys opposed or criticised these three when they were on the other side of the political divide. Don't tell me all is well just because they appear to be on your side now.
It's all about the bigger picture. Do you agree that institutional reform is needed? Even if we are not the most cohesive of coalitions, the fact that we agree on a common manifesto that spells out some reforms that we will undertake, would that not be better than having no reforms at all?
For example, reforming the electoral system, renegotiating the tolled highways, the judiciary, police reform, removing Sedition Act etc. We don't agree on everything but let's work on the things we agree on. This is the way forward to an eventual healthy democracy in Malaysia. But if change never happens, then real reform will never happen.
Speaking of Islam, why didn’t the DAP support PAS in its effort to table RUU355? I get it, the DAP and PAS have never seen eye to eye here but PAS tabled the amendment through proper channels. Isn’t it ironic that a party which claims to champion democracy railed against another party which pushed an agenda through legitimate, democratic means, which in this case was through Parliament?
It’s obvious why DAP, along with many other parties and organisations including former prime minister Dr Mahathir and the G25 group of retired senior Malay public servants would not support PAS in tabling their bill. Obviously, a secular democracy as envisioned by our forefathers has no room for an expansion of religious laws beyond the reasonable boundaries of family and personal law.
Does the punishment of 80 lashes for adultery or worse, a life sentence for apostasy or jail time for practising Islam differently sound reasonable to you? It is PAS’s right to try to push through a law democratically, just as it is our right to oppose it. I don’t see where the problem is.
The problem is consistency. I believe you are aware of these problems, so I’ll get right to them. How do you explain Anthony Loke’s video on hudud? He may have denied supporting the Islamic penal code, but he was definitely convincing his audience hudud is not as scary as made out to be.
And, since we are obsessed with beer festivals, in 2008 former Selangor PAS commissioner Hasan Ali announced that beverages with 5.8% alcohol content would be restricted for sale at convenience stores and petrol kiosk shops in Muslim majority neighbourhoods in a bid to curb selling to Muslims.
DAP did not oppose the move but endorsed it as a state government decision. The party didn’t have problems with it then and the policy still stands in Selangor today.
The problem with hudud is that the polemic is emotional and completely misses the point. I have written extensively on this issue and you can refer to some of my statements. It is too complex to explain here. But what has changed is DAP now has a more mature and nuanced stand on hudud. While we still reject it, we do so on legal, constitutional and also with full appreciation for the fact that hudud has scriptural basis.
However, literal exponents of hudud today have missed the forest for the trees, and do not uphold the intentions of hudud and are more focused on the form. This is what we dispute. It is a far cry from "over my dead body". This is also very important, in the sense that DAP now recognises political Islam to be a dominant global force, and something that can be used positively rather than negatively.
Within DAP there are also people with different views where alcohol is concerned, and they are not based on religious factors. There is a national anti-cheap liquor movement headed by grassroots DAP members from Penang as well. At the same time, I am sure many in the party do not agree with easy accessibility to alcohol, mostly for social and socio-economic reasons. There are valid grounds for such thinking. It doesn't mean we agree with creeping Islamisation. In fact, we are strongly for a secular state.
Not too long ago Dr Mahathir said DAP was not eyeing the prime minister's post neither will Harapan allow the party to do so. That has to be the most ridiculous statement coming from the opposition camp, no? Considering DAP is the leading opposition party in parliament by way of seats.
DAP has the most number of seats right now, but we are in opposition so the question does not even arise. DAP does not covet the top job at this point of time, and we have made it clear many times. There is no problem in this – winning does not mean being number one. We win in a coalition. The coalition decides who gets the top job by consensus. That’s how it works.
In fact, I have always jokingly said from the beginning of my career, when asked why I joined DAP and not another party, I would reply that I joined DAP because I don’t want to be prime minister. It is merely a joke, but the real struggle of DAP is reform, and we want to be part of change and reform in this country. Whether it is by having the number one or number two or number three post, it does not matter as long as the objective is achieved.
How can that objective be achieved if you’re not in charge of the executive? Sure, there are certainly checks and balances but being PM allows you to assert more authority especially when making decisions.
Let’s scale this down to state-level: if the DAP had more Malay assemblymen, wouldn’t that have been advantageous, especially in situations such as the fiasco in Selangor over replacing the menteri besar not too long ago where the sultan asked parties to nominate their respective candidates?
In a multi-party democracy, it is not uncommon for parties to focus on their niche areas. For example, the Green Party in Germany focuses on a certain demographic of people who are concerned about environmental issues. The FDP appeals to business people who support more liberal, pro-business policies.
And they become part of governments, and they then influence the government by playing their role in the coalition. Just because no one from FDP or GP becomes the Chancellor doesn't mean they can't influence government policies.
Okay, let's wrap this up. First, what’s on the agenda in terms of bridging the gap between the party and the Malay community?
It’s an ongoing concern. I helped start Roketkini.com as a Malay language portal many years back, and this has helped in terms of disseminating information and news about DAP in Malay. We have active young Malay members, and we all organise engagement programmes with all communities, Malays included.
Second, could we seep DAP moving into non-communal politics as opposed to decades-old consociational democracy practiced on both sides of the political divide. If yes, how will you make it work?
I think DAP has always tried to move beyond communal politics. But the reality of Malaysia is also such that society is deeply divided along those lines. Our objective to reduce these divisions remain, and we are committed towards it. But it is not something that can be achieved overnight, much as we want it to.
It is a gradual process, and it will really only happen after a change of government, because government controls everything here in Malaysia – education, information, public service appointments, etc. Without breaking the chains of bondage there, we will never free the people’s minds.
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