Last week, the founding chief executive officer (CEO) of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Wan Saiful Wan Jan, left the independent think-tank that he started nine years ago and joined Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).
This week, Bersih chief Maria Chin Abdullah has announced that she will resign from the movement to contest in the upcoming general elections as a candidate under the four-party opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Since the news is announced, there have been many debates on whether Maria made the right choice of leaving the movement to join politics. This isn’t the first case that an activist decides to join politics. In the 13th general election, Himpunan Hijau’s Wong Tack too contested in the Bentong parliamentary seat under the Democratic Action Party (DAP) banner. Similarly during 2008 general elections, we witnessed activists Elizabeth Wong, Tian Chua and Sivarasa Rasiah whom joined politics.
Putting all these together, the question is should activists join politics? What is lost and gained when an activist becomes a politician?
There can be pros and cons. Maria’s choice is a personal one and she has made it clear that she will resign from the movement in order to run for election. However, her decision can’t stop people from questioning the impartiality of Bersih. When the news just broke out, it immediately gathers much attention from many that questioning her move.
When an activist turns a politician, it can be a loss to the society but it can also be another way round. Putting this in the context of Bersih movement, no one expected a huge turnout for the first Bersih protest in 2007. If we look back at the historical background as in the formation of the movement itself, it started from the opposition forces together with the civil society. Then less than a year, 12th general election took place in 2008 that witnessed the unexpected political tsunami and several activists such as Elizabeth Wong and Tian Chua whom contested won the seats and became politicians until today.
When that happened, it has mixed consequences. We see more individuals’ favor of human rights referring to activists being elected to represent the people. It could give people more hopes where they can push for further reforms when they become the policymakers. On the other hand, it could also poses challenges to the circle of activists in the country if we look into the situation of Malaysia where we have relatively small groups of activists. These leading activists are assets in term of strengthening the civic activism and to nurture younger generation.
I remembered in 2015, when the national laureate Datuk A. Samad Said, fondly known as Pak Samad decided to enter the DAP. At that time, I wrote a piece about his decision in the now defunct online news portal. Similarly as the decision made by Maria, his inclusion in DAP has received mixed reactions. The difference is Pak Samad did not run for election. At that time for DAP leaders and members especially, it was a moment of celebration as Pak Samad’s membership could attract more races especially the Malays to the Chinese-majority DAP.
Today, it is a good sign that activists are receiving more attention than before. They are seen as role models and at times, heroes. That led to some activists to turn their sights to politics after their long struggle in civic activism and finally decide to become politicians in order to advocate reforms through parliament representation.
In the time leading to the general election that needed to be held by August 2018, we might witness more activists or prominent individuals to join politics with the aspirations to change the system from within. While I do not think Maria’s decision to join politics affects the independence of Bersih as she has said that she would resign as Bersih chief, on the other hand, I also firmly believe that a strong civil society is always needed as part of the answer for social justice and accountability from all institutions during turbulent economic and political times.
Having said that, in this challenging period that is facing Malaysia, we need not only good politicians but we also need good activists. After all, a functioning democracy needs both.