Tunku Aziz and the Dewan Negara

By Josh Hong

That Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim’s senatorship will not be renewed came as no surprise to me.

NONEIn all probability, the Tunku (right) has been persuaded by the DAP leadership to step down in order to lance the boil over his recent remarks over the Bersih 3.0 massive protest, which clearly raised more than eyebrows.

But the Tunku’s stance against street protest is nothing new. If anything, it is only in line with his political thinking over the years.

Coming from a prominent background (distantly related to the Kedah royalty) and having been very much a part of Malaysia’s high society (with distinguished services at Guthrie Corporation and Bank Negara in the past), the Tunku is most unlikely to become a so-called anti-establishment politician.

This, together with his relatively liberal and diverse family roots, decidedly ruled out the possibility of his joining either PAS or Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which at one time was popularly perceived as made up of a bunch of rabble-rousers and law-breakers.

But the Tunku truly made his mark as a respected public figure with his anti-corruption efforts while helming the Malaysian chapter of Transparency International. In his role as a corruption watchdog, the Tunku fearlessly spoke out against the opaque processes and corrupt practices of both the Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administrations, albeit always stopping short of calling for a change of government.

It was also completely characteristic of his mainstream political ideology, ie. reform from within the system, that the Tunku had rarely commented critically on controversial legislations such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, although he should have known the continued existence of these laws had severely impeded any genuine effort to weed out corruption.

Not to mention the daily street protests at the height of Reformasi, at which he no doubt looked askance, and I personally know of several social activists who dismissed the Tunku for his elitism and disapproval of any attempt to rage against the state machine.

In an interview with The Nut Graph, the Tunku related how his father was a stickler for rules who would not tolerate it if his son cycled home without a lamp. This anecdote illustrates his father’s fastidious adherence to the rule of law that certainly has had a powerful impact on the Tunku’s future political understanding.

But the Tunku did (and still does) harbour political ambitions, perhaps not aspiring to be a government minister of sorts but at least to be able to effect policy changes to some extent. Umno, that is universally known to be corrupt to the core, was out of the question, leaving the DAP the only viable option.

Indeed, it would take an enormous amount of courage for someone with dignity and prestige as the Tunku to join Umno of the present days.

In some way, the DAP’s ideology matches that of the Tunku. When the left-wing forces were boycotting what they saw as sham elections in the 1960s, the DAP filled the vacuum by contesting in most of the winnable seats and becoming the largest opposition party in parliament, a position that it went on to hold for the next three decades.

Again, the party’s faith in what the leftists and socialists would describe as capitalist parliamentary democracy reflected that of the Tunku’s.

A scrupulously principled man

It was beyond doubt that the DAP needed him – a towering and respected Malay – to counter claims that the party is anti-Malay. Unfortunately, the scrupulously principled man is unsuited for a country in which rules are bent and laws enacted to serve the purposes and benefits of the ruling coalition.

Meanwhile, the political developments over the past 15 years has triggered a sea-change in the Chinese-based DAP.

NONEHaving gone through the baptism of fire (ie teargas and water cannons) on the streets together with PAS and PKR and – most importantly – with national power no longer an ultimate pipe dream but actually within reach, the party is ready to opt for what social activist Hishammuddin Rais calls Pilihan Jalan Raya, meaning one should be ready to take to the streets if all other avenues to free and fair elections are blocked.

This seismic change in the DAP has now put the Tunku at odds with his party over the Bersih 3.0 march. He had hoped to use the DAP platform to articulate his thoughts and influence policy directions as a senator, but his view on peaceful street protest only shows that he is far behind the party’s leadership and rank and file.

Needless to say, for a national leader to come out with a statement that contradicts glaringly the collective decision of Pakatan Rakyat is creating unnecessary but potentially damaging ripple effects within the opposition front. One also has reasons to believe the DAP must have come under tremendous pressure to do something about the Tunku, given the resolute decisions of the other coalition partners to sack Zulkifli Noordin and Hasan Ali.

Judging from the Tunku’s track record, I am not prepared to rush to the conclusion that he is just another Trojan Horse. Most likely, the Tunku not only appears to be out of step with his party but also out of touch with public sentiments.

Lest we forget, Dewan Negara, unlike Dewan Rakyat, is an unelected chamber, and its members are no more than political appointees who are expected to toe the party line. In view of this, while discontinuing the Tunku’s senatorship may seem arbitrary, it can hardly be said that it is tantamount to denying him of his freedom of speech.

After all, the Tunku can remain a DAP member and continue to speak out without fear and favour, although it will certainly make his position as a vice-chairperson quite untenable.

But this episode – along with issues of other senators whose appointment now hangs in the balance – also exposes the democratic deficits of the upper chamber as a whole. It would have made it a daunting task for the DAP to withdraw the Tunku’s senatorship had he been elected in the first place, for he would then be able to cite popular mandate as his defence.

Hence, while it is high time that both the government and the opposition consider having an elected Dewan Negara, political calculations however determine that this will not happen for years to come.


JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

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