I Accept Objective and Fair Criticisms

On Sunday, a Malay Mail Online journalist asked me two simple questions that eventually developed into a headline grabbing “Rafizi versus Ambiga” when the original report was reproduced by other portals.

While I do not want to drag this issue out any longer, it is important to clarify how the headlines had somewhat deviated from the actual context of the interview.

To be fair to the Malay Mail Online portal, the journalist included the background information that needed to go with the report to provide the right context.

I respect the editorial decision to omit a certain portion of my input (perhaps to cut the length), as I know I would have the right to clarify, if necessary.

Did PKR do enough work on the ground?

I was asked to respond to Ambiga’s tweets on Sept 1, 2017, criticising PKR for “not working enough on the ground to win the general election (in comparison to Umno and Bersatu).”

Ambiga also alleged that “PKR’s internal squabbles have dragged ‘them’ down.

My main comments were actually in relation to Ambiga’s view that PKR is more interested in engaging in internal squabbles, rather than working on the ground to win voters over.

First of all, the assessment is not fair and is not objective.

Every week, many PKR leaders work closely with party activists and volunteers around the country to energise the grassroots campaign. There are literally hundreds of small campaign activities at local constituency levels being carried out each week.

I have been spending the last 10 weekends non-stop on the road, visiting at least six to eight marginal constituencies around the country, especially in key swing states like Johor, Kedah and Negri Sembilan.

There are activists and volunteers who travel with me every weekend to remote rural and semi-rural areas to make sure our campaign is more personal and relevant to voters.

As I indicated in my answer to the journalist, in July and August alone, I had done 61 ceramah/campaign programmes covering 46 marginal constituencies contested by PKR, Amanah, Bersatu and DAP. The campaign videos that are carefully micro-targeted to profiled swing voters in these constituencies reached a cumulative 1.1 million views in two months.

Hence my remarks that her criticism that “PKR leaders seem to be more occupied with fighting each other instead of working on the ground” is completely unfair, biased and misinformed.

If only she had expanded her source of information on what is actually happening – outside the urban circle of Klang Valley, beyond the select few PKR leaders from the legal fraternity with whom she is acquainted – I am certain she would not have made the remark.

Unfair to common Malaysians working for change

While I am not at all offended by her view that we are not doing work, I cannot speak on behalf of the activists and volunteers (in the thousands) who sacrificed their time and money every week to campaign quietly on the ground.

After all, it is our strategy to work quietly on the ground without too much publicity because we had learnt some lessons from the last general election. Mega ceramah or rallies that attract tens of thousands of people do not necessarily guarantee an electoral win at marginal constituencies because, more often than not, people travel from all over the state to attend the mega ceramah.

More dangerously, if the mega ceramah is attended mostly by the Chinese or non-Malays, Umno can easily manipulate it to frighten Malay fence-sitters in these rural and semi-rural constituencies, by saying that the Chinese, through DAP, are going to take over.

While I understand her concern for the alleged lack of campaign visibility (hence her comparison that Bersatu seems to be doing more than PKR does. Bersatu’s campaign tends to revolve more around Dr Mahathir Mohamad, therefore they have to maximise his attendance by focusing on mega ceramah), I wish she had at least tried to be fair to the small, targeted campaigns in many constituencies that run quietly every week.

The biggest challenge of this general election for the opposition (whether or not we will have a straight fight against BN nationwide) is to energise the ground by getting more activists and volunteers to join the campaign early. Any unnecessary and unfair comments on their efforts understandably will dampen morale and are therefore counter-productive.

Difference of opinions goes both ways

I can understand Ambiga’s reminder on the need to respect the opinion of others and to uphold freedom of speech when she responded to news reports on the issue. In fact, if she can recall, I have listened to and relied heavily on her inputs and advice in some of the most controversial decisions PKR had ever made.

Prior to the Kajang Move, I met her personally at Bangsar Shopping Centre over lunch to listen to her views on the performance of the Selangor menteri besar then. At the meeting, she also passed a document that eventually formed one of the key considerations that led to PKR’s decision to remove Khalid Ibrahim through the Kajang Move.

Likewise, I am fully aware of her disagreement when Pakatan Harapan was formed. She was at the roundtable discussion chaired by Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and she made her views very clear then that an opposition coalition without PAS was not going to be effective.

This is what I meant by my remark “she had always been against Harapan from day one.” I didn’t mean that she is opposed to Harapan politically, as implied by the news headlines “Ambiga is anti-Harapan: Rafizi.” It was in the context that she never believed that Harapan stands a chance if PAS is not a part of it, let alone when Harapan has to fight both PAS and Umno in thee-cornered fights.

There were times I agreed with her opinions; there were times I did not. But I always listened, provided that the view is fair and objective. That is exactly what we both are fighting for: a mature and tolerant society that can exchange opinions freely, objectively and consistently.

On the point of consistency, this is where I might have a different view when it comes to the much feared “public spats over internal politics.” Everyone expects politicians from the same party or the same coalition not to criticise each other publicly over trivial internal matters that could have been resolved internally, especially when the issues are not really related to public interests.

However, the issue of whether or not PKR continues to beg publicly for an electoral cooperation with PAS is not an internal PKR issue. It is a public issue that affects every Malaysian. Especially when it is very clear that the chance a straight fight can be achieved is very remote and Harapan is running out of time to finalise preparations for the general election.

PKR has managed the split on this major issue quietly, within the confines of our meeting rooms over the last two years. Given the risk that the impasse within PKR may drag Harapan’s preparation, I would have thought that Ambiga, of all people, would agree that speaking out on the issue publicly is a necessity.

By doing so, not only do we uphold the freedom of speech we cherish dearly; we are also able to speak freely and allow a public discourse on this, which is actually a prerequisite to breaking the current impasse.

After all, public figures (be they politicians, NGO leaders and public officials) must be as transparent as possible in everything that we do. We have to be transparent about the assets we have, we have to be transparent about our lifestyle, we have to be transparent about our positions on key public issues such as the PKR-PAS electoral cooperation.

When the consideration has to be made between upholding transparency and freedom to speak freely on important public issues versus the need to portray a united party, I know I always have to choose the former. The obsession with maintaining a united front is precisely one of the key reasons Umno and PAS become what they are today.

Most importantly, if we always fall back to the excuse of party discipline to suppress difference of opinions within a political party, why do we cheer for Mahathir when he spoke against Najib Abdul Razak’s excesses? Or why did we stand by Mohamad Sabu and the progressive Muslim leaders in Amanah when they had to go through their difference of opinions with Abdul Hadi Awang publicly?

We cannot pick and choose when to crack the whip to enforce “party unity” selectively because it gives room for abuse the way Najib did with the Umno leadership.

The difference of opinions goes both ways. In fact, it goes in many different ways. Our society is learning to sift through the noise and they know how to judge public figures based on our consistency and the principle we uphold.

The three-cornered question

I maintain my view that any discussion or attempt to pursue negotiation with PAS for an electoral pact has to be minimised. Even if it were to remain an option, it should be relegated to the lowest of all strategies because it is highly unlikely that it can happen.

I wish Ambiga had reflected on the dilemma of Harapan activists on the ground preparing for the general election at this eleventh hour. It is a fact that more attacks against Harapan actually come from PAS than Umno on the ground.

I analyse the data on my social media (thousands of interactions on daily basis). The majority of attacks, innuendos and lies against Harapan actually come from PAS members (approximately 42 percent on average), despite the fact that all the issues I carry every day is about Najib’s largesse and incompetency. Irrespective of whether an issue touches on PAS or not, it has become a routine for PAS grassroots members to attack Harapan on the ground.

This is where I think some of my colleagues, Ambiga included, have failed to realise that the animosity cuts very deeply between PAS grassroots members and Harapan grassroots supporters. Even in the event of a straight fight, the votes are no longer transferable between PAS and Harapan parties (and vice-versa).

Instead of a numerical advantage that we hope for through a straight fight, a more calamitous scenario is probable. Any form of electoral cooperation between PAS and PKR (or Harapan) will disillusion the non-Malay voters who might interpret that as a pure political expediency at the expense of principles.

The votes between Malay voters of PAS and PKR or Harapan grassroots supporters are not transferable, given the deep cut caused by the venomous animosity since Pakatan Rakyat broke down. In the end, without the high support and the high turnout of the non-Malays and the “sabotage” of vote transfers of Malay voters of the respective Harapan/PAS parties, Najib will not have a problem winning GE14.

My decision to prioritise preparation for three-cornered fights over continuing efforts to woo PAS is not due to what I feel of PAS or anyone. Given the prevailing political atmosphere and evidence so far, we have no choice but to prepare for three-cornered fights. Fortunately, surveys consistently show stagnated support for Umno (which has been reduced to just below 40 percent among Malay voters) and a high support for the issues championed by Harapan.

If we focus on the right issues and prepare adequately with whatever the time left, Harapan can win Putrajaya despite three-cornered fights nationwide. The probability of that is much higher than the probability that PAS will change its mind anytime soon.

Let’s move on and focus on the bread and butter issues that can make life better for the people we claim we are fighting for.

RAFIZI RAMLI is PKR vice-president and Pandan MP.

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