Thursday, 24 February 2011

It has been 70 good years, Mr Opposition


DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang has been a defender and promoter of democracy, human rights, justice and equality. He remains the government’s leading critic.

DAP members and leaders have annually been marking the birthday of party adviser and undisputed leader Lim Kit Siang, who turned 70 on Sunday.

Where before his birthdays were low key and celebrated only among the inner circle, now big dinners and speeches are in order. Not only are the circumstances different, but the DAP has also grown rapidly in size after the tsunami of 2008 which changed the political landscape of the country and propelled it from a tight-knit opposition party into the ruling government in five states.

For hardcore DAP members, Lim is the man who made it all possible. The man who kept the party together during the long years of hardship; the man who went into ISA detention; the man who sacrificed for the party; and also the man who finally crowned it all with the 2008 successes.

Lim, who gave up an early career as a journalist, is as active in politics now as he was in 1966 when, as a 25-year-old youth, his career first took off after he became the national organising secretary of the DAP.

In the 45 years since, Lim has been a permanent fixture in national politics as the “Mr Opposition” in parliament, taking over the title from Tan Sri Tan Chee Koon, the opposition stalwart of an earlier era.
Lim, the MP for Ipoh Timur, remains the government’s leading critic, as he had been when first elected to parliament as MP for Bandar Melaka in 1969.

In the intervening years, he also grew into the job becoming the country’s leading defender and promoter of democracy, human rights, justice and equality. All his ideals are best encapsulated in the DAP’s long struggle under his leadership for a Malaysian Malaysia.

In that time too, Lim, born in Batu Pahat, Johor, in 1941, ruled the DAP with an iron fist, tolerating little dissent and keeping his flock in a tight circle around him to fend off the party’s many political enemies and survive numerous threats and challenges.

Lim managed to steer the DAP through endless upheavals like ISA arrests, election defeats, defections and show trials to survive and eventually prosper with the 2008 tsunami that brought the DAP from the cold into the government.

It was also under Lim’s watch that the DAP won 29 seats in parliament, its best ever showing and took Penang, defeating arch rivals Gerakan and MCA in a spectacular manner.

Lim’s crowning glory in five decades of relentless politics is to see his son, Guan Eng, capture Penang and become its chief minister, something Lim himself had tried to do for two decades and failed.

Lim took over an incipient DAP, a wing of the Singapore’s PAP after separation in 1965, and nurtured it into the country’s leading multi-racial and secular opposition party.

The DAP successfully filled the big political vacuum left behind by state action against left wing political parties like the Socialist Front and the Labour Party.

Although Lim tried to change its image in his two decades as party secretary-general until 1999 and later as chairman and adviser, the DAP remains mostly a Chinese party with very little Malay grassroots participation.
The failure to attract Malays is hampering the party’s growth as a national, multi-racial party with the potential to rule the country like the PKR.

Thus, the DAP, although a major partner in Pakatan Rakyat and a player in parliament and national politics, has to defer to a politically weaker and splintered PKR. Lim has developed a special relationship with PAS, each hoping to ride on the other’s coat-tails to Federal power.

Lim’s career is one upheaval after another but he faced his greatest defeat in the 1999 general election when Chinese voters, out of fear of an Islamic theocracy, punished the DAP. Lim himself lost in Penang but he bounced back in 2004 winning the Ipoh Timur seat.

His greatest achievement is taking the DAP back into an alliance with PAS but this time with the PKR led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim taking the lead role and assuring Chinese voters and others that the grouping that later became Pakatan Rakyat, is a safe bet.

After 45 years in opposition politics and after publishing over 30 books, Lim is an enigma.

While his political career is well-documented, only the bare outlines of his early life and his family is known even to his closest political allies except that he traces his ancestry to Zhang Zhou village in Fujian province which he visited in 2008.

Very little is known about his parents, his siblings, his early life and schooling and what really pushed him into politics. Lim has written about politics but not himself.

Lim is getting old and in apparent retirement after handing over effective power to others including in stages to his son, Guan Eng. Nevertheless, he wields tremendous moral authority and is the one person everybody defers to in the DAP.

“Lim’s role now in the DAP is to make sure the party stays united and behind Guan Eng as the acknowledged heir,” said a DAP MP who declined to be identified.

“He keeps an eye on everything and everybody and intervenes when necessary,” the MP said, citing recent squabbles between party leaders and factions in last year’s party elections as occasions when Lim had stepped in to keep unity and discipline.

As Lim ages, a new DAP is also taking shape. Success has attracted new members with the DAP growing to about three times its original size.

It has also brought new challenges to the party like power struggles over sharing portfolios and government largesse, allegations of corruption and a growing and restive grassroots.

While the DAP changes significantly, power in the party remains in the hands of an inner circle that is beholden to Lim.

With such deference, and given the tremendous moral authority he wields, Lim continues to be the effective ruler and final arbitrator in the DAP.

There is no let up for Lim even after turning 70.

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