Reconciliation, tukang cerita style

The Star, May 14, 2013

It’s all about moving around and listening to people, looking beyond factionalism and mere politics to underlying themes that shape the world we live in.

FIVE years ago, after the conclusion of the 12th general election and having witnessed the sudden expansion of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, I realised that I knew almost no one from their ranks. Having grown up in an almost exclusively Umno and Barisan Nasional environment, the thought of meeting people from the “other” side had always seemed vaguely ludicrous and slightly crazy.

But having studied the results closely and staving off my nascent snobbery, I decided that I needed to get a better grip on the new political forces that would be shaping the country; in short, I had to “follow the story” even though I did find both Lim Kit Siang and son a little bit intimidating. So that’s how it all began, my venture across the tracks getting to know the players from Pakatan. To this day most of my friends from Umno find my friendship with Pakatan’s leaders as something eccentric – a sure sign of weakness and, or stupidity. I mean why would I want to mix with people with no power or money? Has the tukang cerita gone crazy?

And yet, as the Prime Minister himself raises the idea of a grand “reconciliation” I see that what I’ve been doing over the past five years is not dissimilar to what he’s talking about because reaching out and learning about the “other” is what reconciliation is all about. However, my openness would not have come about had it not been for all the time I’ve spent in Indonesia. Years of following politics in the republic, of experiencing how public sentiment both rises and falls with surprising consequences, has taught me the need to engage with leaders from all sides of the political spectrum.

I’m as comfortable with Golkar (they’re not unlike our own Umno since so many of them are wealthy), Susilo’s Democrats (currently undergoing a massive overhaul after a spate of corruption scandals) and Ibu Megawati’s PDIP (traditionally the party of the wong cilik or little people). In Indonesia, concentrating on just one party won’t get you very far especially since power has become so diffused and scattered. So you learn to be more subtle and sophisticated in your reading of how trends are emerging, acknowledging at the same time that popular themes – anti-corruption, pluralism and/or professionalism – tend to benefit different parties and leaders in different ways.

Sometimes, figures are lucky – riding a wave of disapproval with incumbency and high-handed leadership into power – witness the continuing rise of Jakarta’s stupendously popular governor, Joko Widodo or Jokowi. Another thing I’ve learnt over the years is that as a writer I do not determine the course of events, I merely record and at times provide a means of understanding their relevance. Once I get too involved emotionally in one candidate or another I make mistakes – my judgment goes haywire and I misread the circumstances. Still, with Indonesia’s vast array of political offices from Kebupaten and Walikota (district and city) to province and national, there are always electoral contests to be followed and examined.

I’ve been across much of the country, discreetly calculating the different factors at work, whether I’m in Bali – as I am now observing the undeniably tense stand-off between the incumbent, a senior former policeman, Mangku Pastika supported by SBY’s ruling coalition and his former deputy, a strongman local politician, Puspayoga whose tagline in this Hindu island is the slightly disconcerting (at least for Malaysians) “Pas untuk Bali” – “pas” in this context being “perfect” and not Parti Se-Islam Malaysia. But to return to Malaysia, from 2008 onwards, I spent a lot of time meeting and interviewing opposition leaders because I didn’t really understand or know them.

I can still recall gate-crashing Teresa Kok and Gobind Singh Deo’s celebratory dinner somewhere in Puchong and Kok’s courteous, straight-forwardness as well as the rapturous reception accorded to Gobind’s father, the wheelchair- bound Karpal Singh. Similarly, many years later I can recall listening to Khairy Jamaluddin debating with the newcomer, Rafizi Ramli, in London. Impressed by Rafizi’s charm and supple intelligence – he began his argument by praising Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – I resolved to get to know him better, if only to understand how he thought.

Similarly, I was to spend a great deal of time listening to and learning from the toxicologist-turned PAS leader, Dr Dzulkifly Ahmad, who even let me tag along when he called on the eminence grise behind Indonesia’s enormously influential Islamist party, Parti Keadilan Sejahtera, Ustaz Hilmi Awaluddin in Bandung. Whilst “Doc Dzul” (as he’s better known) failed to be re-elected in Kuala Selangor, I for one have embarked on a journey of discovery with regards to the driving factors behind the rise of the Ikhwan (or Muslim Brotherhood) and their global offshoots. Whilst this is definitely NOT my world, I’d be a poorer writer and observer had I deliberately avoided these critical forces in Islamic contemporary history and politics.

In fact, Dr Dzul has promised me that he’ll bring me to Egypt and even Tunisia to gain a greater understanding of these trends and now that he’s freer I’m sure we’ll be winging our way to Cairo. So, what’s my point? Well it’s all about moving around and listening to people – looking beyond factionalism and mere politics to underlying themes that shape the world we live in. I’ve stepped out of my privileged cocoon and learnt a great deal from the people I’ve met.

It’s been humbling and enriching – besides how many cafe lattes can you consume on the terrace of Bangsar Shopping Centre? Just talking to one side, because that’s all you know and, or approve of is self-defeating.

Such narrow-mindedness leaves us divided and bifurcated as a nation and a polity. Our country is changing and we must adapt to these changes, especially if we hope to understand and learn from these remarkable new socio-political and cultural trends. So for me as a writer, and hopefully for all of you as readers and active Malaysian citizens, let the dialogue begin and the grand reconciliation take root.