When the Umno general assembly was aired live on TV two years ago, many Malaysians were so taken aback by the shrill Malay rhetoric that the brief experiment with openness was quickly aborted.
Comparisons will surely be drawn between Umno and its arch rival Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which decided to air its own congress, held over the weekend, live over the Internet.
The tone, however, was starkly different. A Malay-based multiracial party led by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, the PKR stuck to a multiracial line even as it accused Umno of stirring up racial feelings.
Many delegates, starting with party president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, spoke emphatically about the need to press on with multiracialism.
To many Malaysians, it was refreshing to hear a Malay lamenting that bright Chinese students could not get scholarships and that Tamil schools had been deprived of land.
The three-day congress showcased the multiracial message which had reverberated so well with voters that it had helped sweep the opposition to unprecedented wins in the March general election.
The spoils of victory were more than evident. The gathering was held at a stadium in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor. The state is now governed by the Pakatan Rakyat alliance, which is made up of three parties including PKR.
The gathering took on a carnival feel. A bazaar sold food and PKR memorabilia. Speeches by PKR leaders were distributed in booklets, not photocopied sheets.
PKR now has 31 MPs and 42 state assemblymen; in 2004, it boasted just one of each. It now claims a membership of 500,000.
‘Today, we no longer have problems getting a place for our meetings,’ said deputy president Syed Husin Ali, recalling the early years when hotels dared not rent premises to PKR.
The congress, the first to be held since the March election, celebrated the party’s achievements. But it also revealed the first signs of the difficulties that the party is facing in managing its success.
In some ways, the timing of the event – held two months after the much-publicised failure of Datuk Seri Anwar to seize power after he had set a Sept 16 deadline – highlighted how far PKR still has to go.
The party’s top leadership gave repeated assurances to the 2,500 delegates that the plan was still on track.
‘People say Anwar is a liar. People are impatient, asking when, when, when. Be patient lah. Yes, Sept 16 did not happen, but we carry on. Do not give up,’ Datin Seri Wan Azizah said in her closing address at the congress.
A PKR member told The Straits Times that he had felt let down by this admonition. It was Mr Anwar who had set the date, but he had yet to explain the failure to meet the deadline.
Mr Anwar has now moved on to a new target: Sarawak. The Borneo state is due to hold its state elections by 2011, although PKR believes they could take place next year. The party hopes to tap the disenchantment of the Chinese and native communities there, which have been left out of mainstream development.
Party MPs have been told to ‘adopt’ constituencies in Sarawak, and must travel there weekly, starting from next week.
Most delegates at the congress did not focus on the failed takeover, but wanted to see the party work harder to build on its successes. They criticised the lack of institution building, especially of a grassroots network, and the absence of greater cohesion within the Pakatan coalition.
Some delegates called for a shadow Cabinet to be set up, to give substance to the coalition’s claim of being a government in waiting. The other Pakatan partners are Chinese-led Democratic Action Party and Parti Islam SeMalaysia.
‘There must be a shadow Cabinet to show people that we have capable leaders to govern,’ said Johor delegate Lau Tek Hai.
Some PKR MPs and state assemblymen were taken to task by delegates.
Mr Nizam Abdul Hamid, a delegate from Pahang, said that, since March, they had suddenly become ‘too busy’ to return to their constituencies.
Criticism was also raised regarding alleged bids by some opposition members to lobby for contracts. Stories were also told of how party branches had delayed applications for fear of admitting members who might have posed a threat to the branch leaders.
Such accounts are eerily reminiscent of Umno folk tales.
PKR plans to hold a special congress in February to tackle these problems.
‘Chasing victory is far easier than holding on to it,’ said PKR vice-president Azmin Ali.