I don’t know why exactly I am in politics, but I cannot imagine myself wanting or living another kind of life.
It seems an intuitive decision – I’ve not completely ruled out alien abduction as a toddler as a reason –, to be a willing volunteer to the abstract convolution which is Malaysian power. An unusual decision, for someone from my side of the railways tracks – the poorer side of Malaysia.
Unusual because senior Malaysian opposition politicians usually hail from well-off families or even better dynasties. So seeking success with no means seems an odd fit.
It is an unforgiving place Malaysian politics for those with modest means.
Failing to have wealth, one relies on wit and a massive sense of humour to survive the labyrinth.
I laugh a lot, mostly at myself.
I was raised in a warm and loving family, but it was not a political home.
None of my immediate family members were interested in politics, let alone involved in it as I was growing up.
I still remember sitting down as a ten year old waiting for early morning results for the 1982 general elections, where Mahathir was seeking his first mandate and the in-fighting in PAS from the late seventies in the Hussein Onn years was about to show if the Islamic party was in free fall. I did not catch the nuances, but there was a sense of something important being decided, and I had to watch it.
When a 13-year-old checks out biographies of Jomo Kenyatta, histories of American democracy and the Bolshevik Revolution, from the national library, while his reluctant older brother slips out for a smoke and tea at the back of the facility, Malaysian fathers tend to worry – about the young man and his ambitions.
Which is why my father sat me down when I was fifteen. He started to notice my ideas and the way I spoke to people about “these ideas” which strongly suggested the direction I was heading to. So he told me that I was choosing a very unrewarding and hurt-filled journey. I kept quiet mostly as he advised me to be careful about the future. He would have been far happier to see me dig in and get a proper degree and a career that give you things like home, cars and stability.
Let me tell a bit about both my parents, so it would be clear why I was a source of consternation for them.
Between my late mom and dad there is nine years of schooling in total. Between the villages their families originate from in Tamil Nadu, there are only 20 kilometres.
Mom was a housewife and dad drove government officers during the day and random strangers in a taxi in the evenings.
Their children represent, and carry on their aspirations of always wanting to do better. Their better was seen in terms of having better lives for themselves and their own children. My late parents would be delighted that my brother owns a tuition centre and my sister enjoyed years as a pharma executive. My parents are not around anymore, but my siblings do the worrying now over me.
I’m a political operator, which translates to, I do things to achieve political objectives for x-number of individuals or groups. Some of the work pays the bills, but ultimately I work in politics because I want to affect the change that will finally lead my country to the path of betterment.
That Malaysia is about all its people having better lives than having to settle for the next sound-bite from the government of the day. It means clean water all before magnificent towers.
It means more Malaysians are involved in the governing because the system desires that and no one is excluded.
I said already Malaysian politics is an abstract convolution, but I fear my own need for politics might be the same. We may have been meant for each other in this special time of volatility, Malaysian politics and me.
Poor people are no more patriotic than rich people, but bad governing affects the poor far more than the rich. The rich are always in a position to involve themselves despite the lack of incentives if they are not corrupt, while the poor are edged out from leadership positions due to the lack of finances despite having every incentive to be in charge.
As long as a country dissuades most of its citizens from being involved, it will be that far away from real egalitarianism in socio-economic spaces.
My personal interaction with the political process started in school.
In second form, I ran for a committee position in the Victoria Institution’s Historical Society. I won despite senior boys telling many of the members not to vote for me. Apparently, I had appeal of sorts for those who do not like people to tell them what to do.
Years later, I was trounced in my university faculty election. I ran as a sophomore for student council via my business faculty. I ended up with only 10% of the votes. An independent candidate in the National University of Malaysia who is not with either the UMNO friendly establishment or PAS loving and hard praying Islamists is not in an enviable position. Mix that with no campaign, no ideas or large team, I was just an Indian boy trying too hard.
In that Bangi campus I learnt that while the privileged cannot ignore capacity, the masses don’t care about capacity most often. They care about image and fit.
My political education then began. Through university debating and working abroad thereafter. Ideas do not convince people on their own, they need to be presented. Experiences as a teaching staff in Filipino universities exposed me to a different student activism and develop more practical considerations when seeking political goals.
I came home before the new millennium commenced, hoping both my country and myself can start anew in the lull of post-reformasi hangover.
Nothing really did. I taught, worked in media, started a non-governmental organisation and helped build an establishment friendly business chamber – not in that order.
It seems that I was holding back, not committing because for poor boys even when they stop being poor, there is a fear that the world they have built can crumble in seconds. There is a natural fear that is hard to shake-off, because you think that you may end up one day with no money and nowhere to sleep.
It took me twelve years to be noticed by party hierarchy despite several stints doing the grunt work at the grassroots.
I became a local councillor in 2008 when Selangor had its first non-UMNO government. I lost my position a year later because I did not have a political sponsor to protect me from those who did not like loud working class boys raising a ruckus. Perhaps I should have played ball, been more pliant. But that would only mean a longer wait.
My media work gave me some prominence and led to my first substantial political role for the party leading to the 13th General Elections.
My disadvantage was my advantage in that I did not mind being looked at in any light as long as the work was done. In the world of Malaysian politics where everyone postures and throw a tantrum to get attention, I just went about my work and agreed to the limitations of resource. You learn to accept the situation and do the best you can.
We came close, and that’s what made me hate myself a little. PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat/People’s Justice Party) is my team, then and now, but I wonder if we reached to a larger Malaysian population in a different way, the election results would have been different.
I’ve stopped wondering since KUASA got off the ground late last year.
The focus is on the greater Malaysian population who are indifferent to politics and to get those ideas in a way for them to want to interact with the ideas.
There will be a change of government, it is only a matter of time, but the poor boy from Cheras wants to play his role in extending the participating of the many, which is a euphemism for the working class, in that change.
That the change is not only about one privileged class replacing another. The people who should agree with me don’t have power though they are many, and the people who disagree are few but they seem to be having all the power at both sides of the political divide.
I don’t know where my present journey will take me, but I am as I said earlier a willing volunteer to an abstract convolution.
Praba Ganesan is chief executive of KUASA (mykuasa.org), a grassroots democracy education non-governmental organisation which among others monitors the performance of elected reps and state governments, and will in 2015 evaluate Members of Parliament. Praba was media adviser for Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and Parti Keadilan Rakyat and ran a critical role in the party’s 2013 general elections’ campaign. He writes a column for the Malay Mail Online.