By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Prominent libertarian think tank, The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs Malaysia, has announced that founding CEO, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, has left to undertake a new challenge in the realms of politics. The astute intellectual, who has many policy papers under his name and is also a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Isyak Institute, has for some time now studied the impact of the recently formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) on the electorate in the state of Johor and looks poised to stand under its name as a candidate for the upcoming general election. As a former intern at IDEAS, admittedly with minimal contact with my former CEO, I thought I’d use this opportunity to air my thoughts on politics once more.
To the uninitiated, of which there will be little as he is a popular commentator in politics and social issues, Wan Saiful is a powerful thinker. Over the years, he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to reach across the political divide to sit representatives of both sides of the spectrum down with civil societies and important social researchers to think about and come up with solutions to social issues within Malaysia. Much is to be said about the man’s ability to relate to all kinds of people, from multi-millionaires to lowly interns, such as myself, which garners a significant amount of respect. Juggling chambers of commerce in one hand and anti-corruption civil societies in another, the libertarian ideal cannot be better personified in such an understandable and relatable way than what is demonstrated by Wan Saiful.
But the greatness of Wan Saiful is matched by his goodness as well. Living a comfortable life in the United Kingdom, what compelled the man to return home is learned through word of mouth through those closer to him than I, yet one does not doubt its trueness. Simply, he believed leaving behind his life to start a small think tank in Malaysia was what this nation needed. He felt it was his responsibility to make Malaysia better through his beliefs of a limited government, the rule of law, free markets and individuals. This is not to undermine his co-founders, Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz and Wan Mohd Firdaus, who similarly contributed to IDEAS, rather this article focuses on Wan Saiful.
Throughout the years, though there were alternative lucrative offers, many that others may have accepted, Wan Saiful stayed true to his think tank, manoeuvring it through times easy and difficult. It’s no simple matter to run a think tank. A million matters are to be considered, from funding, to projects and deadlines, notwithstanding the strain it has on a small workforce and the quality of content delivered, in a land where libertarianism is not well-known and in an unaffiliated, totally independent manner, Wan Saiful has seen it all through grit and charm. It is hard not to admire such an individual, and his team, who do their jobs however thankless they may be.
When all is said and done, PPBM have achieved a master coup in getting Wan Saiful on board, as he brings such a wealth of quality and experience to the young party at such a crucial time. Having said this, it is unfortunate to say that the converse might not be so true. PPBM might try to dress itself in flowery language and progressive buzzwords but they’re basically a mirror reflection of UMNO. A party that defines itself to be the custodian of Malay and indigenous rights, which automatically separates this community from the rest for special consideration, it is still to be seen how effective it would be for improving race relations and social cohesion. The main problem in Malaysia is the pseudo second-citizenship divvied out to those who are not Bumiputera in blood, how this party would solve this is difficult to imagine. More than just making a certain community special, this strengthens identity politics, lessening the importance of policy strength and making social schisms in the populace the norm.
Some would say PPBM is a necessary evil, with those who are already comfortable with the notion of Bumi protection under UMNO needing a similar party that they can get behind to end Barisan Nasional’s dominance in the political scene. While this has a semblance of logic to it, the same can be said of the New Economic Policy, which was intended to uplift the economically poor Bumiputra community, but now has given birth to quite a toxic entitlement within the same community that undermines the involvement and ownership of non-Bumis. How progressive can a party be when it focuses mainly on one community? How well will it work together with others in its coalition who have a wider circle of concern? Will its initial backers withdraw if it gets too liberal and will this prevent the party from catalysing much needed change in the social makeup of Malaysia?
Where this ties in with Wan Saiful is that his think tank has long fought for a system where individuals are treated equally. How then has it occurred to Wan to join a party so diametrically opposed to this notion? Has Wan Saiful gone mainstream, abandoning his principles for power and behaved hypocritically? The simple answer is I don’t know but it’s highly unlikely. Wan Saiful is a man of principle, and would take steps such as to preserve his principles in the best way possible. Perhaps to achieve a greater goal, in this case a regime change, or perhaps to change the system from within, which will be easier with a regime change in his opinion, it was necessary to work together with this party. We don’t know, only he does, of his intentions and goals.
I’ve wanted to see someone like Wan Saiful in politics for a long time. Someone of his calibre deserves to be voted for on individual capacity alone. Which is why it breaks my heart to see him go to PPBM. In my eyes, it’s just like when Syed Saddiq joined the party, a once adamant voice for racial equality bolstering an essentially racist party. The difficulty in affecting change, whether due to too many old heads or the need to satisfy voters, I believe outweighs intentions and whatever positives planned after the regime change has to fall within the boundaries of identity politics. When there is a legitimate issue with the ethos of the party, how can it be sung praises for change when the mentality of society is likely to stay the same?
It is no secret that I am not a fan of PPBM. But I am young, an early 20’s guy who has seen little in terms of internal politics. What is my credibility when compared to the decades of experience a person like Wan Saiful has? When I haven’t even spent much time with the man, what do I know of his intentions or his influence? Maybe he can affect change, maybe PPBM itself is a positive force. With the large proportion of youth members, it is certainly a young man’s party. It would not surprise me to see some of these members rising up soon to capture the helm of it.
The reality of the situation is this, people like me, from an urban background, of a non-Bumi race, are not the target audience for this party. Due to this, it feels like a divisive force as it doesn’t really speak to us. Logically speaking, I don’t see how it will work, but stranger things have happened before. Besides, Merdeka was achieved through negotiations and compromise, not hard-stances, why should our politics be any different? Having said this, the aftermath of independence has seen racial dominance, social divide and an electorate rife with identity politics. I do not believe the right way to go is the way we have gone before, hoping for something different.
None of this takes away from Wan Saiful. The man is a determined individual who will try to achieve his ideals. And, according to his track record, achieves and surpasses them most of the time. If there is anyone deserving of a vote it will be Wan Saiful. Even if it does mean PPBM get a vote, we need sensible politicians in our parliament. And I’m not just saying that because he used to be my boss.
Arveent Kathirtchelvan is the Founder and Chief Coordinator of #Liberasi.