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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How PPP lost its glory


SI Rajah, a former president of the party, talks about its heyday as an opposition party and its subsequent slide towards political irrelevance.
INTERVIEW
KUALA LUMPUR: It may surprise some Malaysians—especially those younger than 50—to learn that the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) used to be one of the country’s most dynamic political organisations.
Those glory days started fading with the demise of the Seenivasagam brothers, according to SI Rajah, a former president of the party.
Speaking to FMT in his modest law office in Jalan Hang Jebat, Rajah couldn’t hide the glint in his eyes as he reminisced on the good old days, talking proudly about how strong PPP was before it became part of Barisan Nasional.
The party was formed in 1955 and the Seenivasagams were among its founders. Darma Raja, the younger of the brothers, was its first president.
Rajah said PPP was “formidable” as an opposition party in Perak under Darma’s leadership.
“In those years, we had local council elections and PPP controlled the Ipoh Municipality. We almost formed the state government after the 1969 general election.”
The young Rajah, although a PPP member, was working as a legal assistant to an MIC leader, Athi Nahappan, who later became a cabinet minister.
Rajah said the party then derived its support from the poor masses and Darma was famous for championing the causes of petty traders and hawkers in Perak.
“He also provided free legal assistance for them and many marvelled at his convincing arguments in the courts.”
However, Darma died suddenly a few months before the infamous May 13 riots in 1969, and his elder brother, Sri Padhmaraja, popularly known as SP, took over the party presidency.
“After the riots, prime minister Tun Razak decided to approach the opposition parties to persuade them to join the greater Alliance, named Barisan Nasional,” said Rajah.
At first, he said, SP and many others were opposed to the idea of joining BN. Rajah was part of this group.
“We knew that our base in the Kinta Valley would be eroded if we joined BN. Perak was then an opposition fortress. If Darma was alive, he would have rejected Razak’s offer outright.”
Persuasion
But Razak sought the assistance of a Perak high court judge named Fred Arulanantham, who was known to the prime minister as a man of great persuasive skills. Razak, Arulanantham and SP were in fact old friends. All three were alumni of Britain’s Middle Temple University.
SP eventually caved in. However, according to Rajah, sentiment had little to do with his change of mind; he decided that PPP should join BN for the sake of national unity in the aftermath of May 13.
“We joined as equal partners,” Rajah said. “Razak even promised SP that he would be made a cabinet minister, but SP died in 1975.
“The party was never the same again after that.”
But Rajah added that the party had started to weaken even before SP’s death. It went through several stages of infighting after joining BN, and many loyal supporters were abandoning it, with the result that it won only one parliamentary seat in the 1974 election, whereas it had four as an opposition party.
Furthermore, he said, Umno was using the divide-and-conquer strategy to weaken PPP’s influence in Perak.
“Although we controlled the Ipoh Municipality by a large majority, Umno always appointed an MCA member to be its chairman.”
Asked whether he ever felt cheated by Razak, Rajah was non-committal, but he said the former premier had let the party down.
Asked why he did not try to take PPP out of BN when he became its president in 1978, he said he and other party leaders were concerned about national unity; the 1969 riots were still fresh in their memory.
He claimed that he managed to miminise the infighting during his presidency, but was unable to restore the glory that PPP had under the Seenivasagam brothers.
“I was known as a general without soldiers,” he said with a chuckle.
However, he insisted that PPP contributed to nation building despite losing popular support.
“Although we were weak, the BN leadership always consulted component party leaders before coming up with any policy. So we also contributed in that sense.”
Low morale
PPP’s slide towards political irrelevance was fastest and its morale was at its lowest during the time that Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in power, Rajah said.
He recalled an incident in 1982 to illustrate Mahathir’s recalcitrance. As BN chairman, he refused to allocate parliamentary seats to PPP for that year’s election, reneging on promises he had made.
“He only offered two states seats, Pantai Remis and Pasir Badamar, which were DAP’s strongholds. I approached Mahathir on the matter, but he stuck to his decision.”
Subsequently, Rajah resigned as PPP president in protest against Mahathir’s decision.
“Musa Hitam and Ghaffar Baba, who were vice-presidents in Umno, told me to reconsider my decision. (Former MIC president) S Samy Vellu even offered the Chemor state seat to me,” he said.
“But I felt it was a disgrace for a party president to contest in a state seat, without even being guaranteed an exco seat. So I stuck to my decision.”
On why he did not pull out PPP from BN at that point in time, Rajah said his resignation was strong enough as a statement of his opposition to BN’s policies.
“Besides I had nothing to lose. I just went back to my legal practice and continued working at the grassroots level.”

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