Future of Malaysia is Pakatan, says Saifuddin

In the first part of the The Malaysian Insider’s interview with PKR’s election director Saifuddin Nasution last week, he talked about the outcome of the Penanti election. As expected, his party won, but he had hoped for PKR to get 7,000 votes, 1,000 more than the actual result. He says the party is analysing the result but can only talk about it after he presents it to the party leadership on June 7.

Meanwhile, in the second instalment of the interview, the former Umno leader and political secretary to Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar talks about how he was relieved to find that support for Pakatan Rakyat (PR) was not affected by negative press and how the informal coalition is heralding a new, more open political culture.

As election director, he talks about his job, his plans about writing a book on winning elections as well as the differences he has observed in the way Umno and PKR run their election campaigns.

The Malaysian Insider (TMI): Have you listened to the tape from independent candidate Aminah Abdullah?

Saifuddin: Yes I listened to it and how they (Aminah and the two PKR men) badmouthed others. I think I have some credibility to touch on it. I have been in PKR since its inception. I was among the first supreme council members back in April 1999 when we first formed the party.

For the last 10 years, these things have been happening not only in Penang but also other states. Why? Because who are the people and their background? Some are ex-Umno, myself, Azmin Ali, Anwar Ibrahim. We are ex-Umno. You also have activitists from NGOs. Irene Fernandez, Tian Chua, R. Sivarasa. You also have a group of people who are just purely reformists. They don’t care about politics. They just looked after the family, go to office and get a salary.

But after what happen to Anwar, the came in with no political experience. You also have academicians like Dr Mohd Noor Manuty. Differences here and there. People from the Umno or other parties, they are politically expedient. They can handle it well. People who are from NGOs or academics, they are very idealistic.

So when you listen to the tape, to me this is normal. The most important thing for leaders is how you manage differences. That is why I admire how Anwar handles it, not only in PKR but PR. How does he handle differences between (PAS president) Hadi Awang and (DAP strongman) Lim Kit Siang? I remember going through heated arguments involving fundamental issues before we came up with an agreement, like the position of the constitutional monarchs, Islam as the official religion and the Malay language.

Anwar told me one day that in one of his meetings with Tengku Razaleigh a few months back, Razaleigh said that he admires Anwar and said that “you did what I failed to do in Gagasan Rakyat (DAP and Semangat 46) and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (PAS and Semangat 46), because I failed to get a consensus on these issues of language, the Rulers and religion.”

In Barisan Nasional (BN), my last post was Umno Youth secretary and BN National Youth secretary. That time we had Ong Tee Keat, Chan Kong Choy, Zahid Hamidi and Hishamuddin Hussein. I experienced being in meetings together with them. The BN tendency is that they try to pretend there is no problem, they will sweep the problem under the carpet, they dare not face it.

But now in PR, the secretariat level is where most of the arguments happen. Representing PKR is me, Azmin Ali, Datuk Johari Abdul and Mustafa Kamil. We have Tony Pua, Liew Chin Tong and Anthony Loke representing DAP. And Kamaruddin Jaafar, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and Dr Hatta Ramli representing PAS. This is where we quarrel, we argue, we debate in order to make sure they can understand the policy of your party. You cannot be emotional. You have to be short, precise and articulate. That is how we came up with a PR budget within 3-4 days after Pak Lah presented the national budget.

To me this is the future of Malaysia. You don’t come up with a statement without thinking about other people’s feelings. We are very guided. Sometimes there are incidents like when Karpal (Singh) demanded Anwar resign. Even in Parliament, Anwar can still go to Karpal. This is the new political culture where people dare to criticise the top leadership. You think that the BN component parties, they dare to criticise (Prime Minister) Najib Razak?

In PR, I believe we have the opportunity to start a new political culture so I believe this is the future party for Malaysia. If we manage PR properly, you are strengthening the pull factor. And what is happening in BN is it is strengthening the push factor. You can see what is happening in PPP, MIC, even component parties in Sabah and Sarawak.

I don’t say that all PR MPs are perfect. Some are clowns, I know. But overall, they will look at us, even the government servants, that we are better prepared. We do our homework. We give very sharp, intelligent arguments and are very diligent. They can see that. If you go to the Parliament library during lunch time, you can see our MPs doing homework there. Or you can chat with the researchers in Parliament. Who fills up the blue form to ask for more information?

TMI: Is there any plan to register PR as a political party?

Saifuddin: You need to have a certain number of parties before you are allowed to register. Three is not enough. We need to have five to seven or something like that. Time will come where we will have more (parties in the coalition). Especially with parties from Sabah and Sarawak. Now we are comfortable having this loose coalition or political pact. The basic understanding is that when you go for elections, we have agreed to challenge BN one to one. That’s it.

We have also distinguished the areas for each political party, other parties should not demand for it. For example, Permatang Pauh. It is so special to PKR. Or Marang for PAS. Or Tanjung or Kota Melaka for DAP. We call it distinguished areas. And if you are an incumbent others should not ask for it.

We also look at the winnability factor. We have come up with clear guidelines. So when we go for negotiations, we are guided by this.

TMI: But then PAS Youth wanted to contest Penanti.

Saifuddin: Before the establishment of PKR, this was a PAS stronghold. That is a fact. We won this seat via a by-election in 1999 through Rahman Talib, our permanent chairman. In 2004, we lost. In 2008, we won it back. Because of that, PAS said why don’t we ask for the seat? But they followed the proper channels. The grassroots wrote a letter to the state chief who wrote a letter to Hadi who brought it up in the political bureau meetings. And we discussed it in PR. Finally we decided on the status quo. It is a challenge to satisfy everyone in a political organisation and two or three of them chose to voice it out through the media.

But for the long term, we are looking at the bigger agenda, to strengthen PR and take over the government in the next election. But PAS is supportive. PAS director of elections Mustafa Ali and deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa will have high tea with the voters. Penang PAS state chief Ustaz Salleh called me and asked for (PKR candidate) Mansor to join them.

TMI: I can see the cohesiveness between top PR leaders but will the PAS supporters follow their leader’s example?

Saifuddin: What is the difference between PAS and DAP and PKR? PAS is very regimented. Once you go in, you have to go through a series of training. I was trained by PAS when I was a student. They have a standard syllabus. Among things they really stress is loyalty to the leaders. First loyalty to God, loyalty to the Prophet, loyalty to the Quran and loyalty to party leaders so long as party leaders do not commit mistakes or sins. Every single member has to go through this. Once the instruction comes from Hadi or other top leaders, they abide by it.

In the last muktamar, you can see the debate was based on the motion by the Dewan Pemuda on whether PAS should remain in the PR. Those who were against the idea orchestrated the speakers. The first speaker was an ulama Zawawi, who is a hardliner, pro-muqabalah and pro-Umno. They were not allowed to put up speakers who were pro-PR. It was a one-sided argument. When it came to the wrap up, the permanent chairman invited the deputy Mursyidal Am Haron Din, who is also pro-muqabalah, to speak. But Nik Aziz, the Mursyidul Am was there, you should invite him, not the number two. But still they invited Haron Din. So they thought when it came to voting, the pro-muqabalah, pro-Umno would win. What they never expected was that before the voting, Nik Aziz would step up and ask for time to give a speech. He gave a beautiful speech. What happened after that — a standing ovation. Even though the debate from morning till evening was one sided, it needed only one person — Nik Aziz —to neutralise it.

TMI: Are you already looking at the Manek Urai by-election?

Saifuddin: Yes. Manek Urai is just next to my constituency of Machang. Datuk Seri (Anwar) just asked me to arrange a programme for him one day before nomination day. During the campaign period, he hopes to take part in the campaign for two-three days. So I have to mobilise PKR members in Kelantan.

TMI: How does cooperation work among PR parties?

Saifuddin: If the seat is contested by PAS, the campaign will be led by PAS and we will be invited. Our role is just to complement. We will follow the campaign strategy outlined by PAS. Same like here. PAS leaders who come here have to inform me.

In Manek Urai, you have close to 13,000 voters and nine polling districts. In the last election, PAS only lost one. So it is a safe seat for PAS actually. But this is a remote area, we call it Ulu Kelantan. There is no township there. We are looking forward to reciprocating what PAS has done to help us here.

I have the advantage of knowing almost all the top leaders in PAS. I have a very good working relationship with Tuan Guru Nik Aziz because I happened to work in a state department chaired by Nik Aziz. I had a board of trustees that included, among others, Husam (Musa) and I was the CEO. I also know Hadi, Mustafa Ali, Kamaruddin Jaafar and they know me. It’s easy for me to communicate with them.

TMI: Why were you working there?

Saifuddin: After I lost the 2004 election, I was jobless. Kelantan said, well you have experience, you have good networking, why don’t you come and work in a state government in Kelantan? So I said, OK, no harm.

TMI: What is the job of election director?

Saifuddin: The job description is very clear. The election director has to plan the entire campaign and make sure the execution is smooth. He also has to adjust the campaign to suit local conditions. He also has to coordinate the election directors from different states who will be put in charge of different polling districts.

The director has to make sure mobilisation is good, and work with the strategy and communications directors and ensure that the different party wings — supreme council, women and youth — don’t work in isolation.

It involves a lot of logistics, like setting up of the operation centres and making sure everything is prepared, even things like drinks and simple food so that when party workers come in, they have something.

We are not like Umno and BN. In PR, the director must be hands on and not only delegate. He has to be part of the working team. I was in BN for 9 years. I was political secretary to Syed Hamid Albar when he was law minister and also defence minister.

I worked for him in 1995 in the general election in Kota Tinggi so I know exactly how the BN machinery works. I took part in by-elections as well.

The BN election machinery, normally they rely on government departments to help — the Health Department, Education Department, Biro Tata Negara, military intelligence, police special branch. So they tend to be complacent. If they have 10 tasks to do, they will leave eight to the government departments. They will only handle two things — normally things related to finance and budgets.

As a result, now when we keep on telling people that elections means party vs party, not party vs government machinery, you can see how they have a handicap in this sense.

The election director is also answerable to the party president and political bureau. My reporting line is to the party president and political bureau. So you have responsibility and accountability as well.

You need to train party workers. Azmin (the previous election director) put up a very good system. I fine tune and polish. My ultimate aim is to come up with a manual on how to win an election in Malaysia. I am crystal clear on what are the activities involved.

TMI: What surprised you about Penanti?

Saifuddin: I have been here the last 3 weeks. What surprised me is BN’s decision not to contest. BN is always the favourite in elections, but now they are underdogs. Another thing that surprised me is that since March 2008, the level of support is still intact when there is so much negative publicity and propaganda on the state of PR.

Like the issues of corruption which involved the Selangor mentri besar and the special assistant to the MB, the crossovers in Perak, and here in Penang, where negative propaganda is that Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is sidelining the Malays and that there is no development in Kedah and Kelantan.

So for last 1½ years, some will feel that it might affect the PR. But when I came here and did a sampling and asked open-ended questions, I saw that the support remained intact. That I relate to the political maturity of the people. This really surprised me and sometimes when I see how aggressive the negative campaigning is towards us, I feel scared that this will affect our support. In the case of Penanti, I don’t see that happen here.

TMI: What have voters been telling you?

Saifuddin: They feel that the vacuum in the Malay leadership in Penang is huge and they are putting high hopes on PKR, especially Anwar, so that really glues them to support PKR. I spent time praying with people in the mosque and they tell me that they are very concerned about the future of Islam and Malays in Penang. They are worried of that situation, but they don’t have much choice as they feel their only hope is Anwar.

Fence sitters are restless in the sense that they have been patient enough waiting for for 50 years for Umno and BN to help the Malays in Penang. When we discuss the NEP or Malay agenda or whether Umno can help the Malays, a big percentage, 70 per cent, said no. When you talk about the Malays in Penang, you talk about poverty, joblessness and landlessness.

TMI: What do BN or Umno supporters tell you?

Saifuddin: People in Penanti have a perception that the JKKK (Jawatankuasa Keselamatan dan Kemajuan Kampung) is now more effective and serves everybody. Previously, they said the JKKK only helped their own families. Previously, the head of JKKK was the Umno branch chief. You give them power to distribute projects, for example, tar roads or paint suraus, they normally give it to their relatives. But now no.

TMI: Is it easy to tell an Umno supporter or fence sitter?

Saifuddin: Elections in Malaysia are very much constituency based. If you are one of my party workers, I station you in one polling district which has five localities. Each locality has, for example, 69 voters. With the help of the locals, you will surely know, who are these 69 people. They will know this kampung, this jalan, this lorong, this is Pak Mat, his name is Ahmad Abdullah, and this is an Umno stronghold. So you tick Umno. Then you know Aminah, she is a single mother, we’ve helped her before so she’s with us. So you tick PKR. The locals will know because they have lived together for years. This is a very micro process. But you can do it if you have enough manpower.

TMI: What are the statistics of the Penanti by-election campaign logistics?

Saifuddin: Since Umno is not contesting, we have put up 3,000 flags.

TMI: How many flags if Umno is contesting?

Saifuddin: 10,000. We have one main operation centre for each polling district and 41 posts. We have 50 to 100 party workers coming from each state, so I can say we have between 500 and 1,000 workers. And more will be coming.

TMI: What about the budget?

Saifuddin: This time, it is very small, not more than RM50,000.

TMI: That sounds very efficient.

Saifuddin: Well, we can get subsidised prices for the rental of canopies from party supporters. They may normally charge RM200 per day but for us, they may charge only RM100 for the whole campaign period.

The Malaysian Insider

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