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Friday, May 13, 2022

Ong Kian Ming - the archetype of political brain drain

Fifteen years ago, the DAP came up with an experiment to change the face of the party. They recruited a 34-year-old Oxford graduate named Tony Pua. His story was compelling.

Pua grew up on the outskirts of Batu Pahat, Johor where his father was a small-scale poultry farmer to support a family of six.

A believer in hard work and excellence, he secured a string of scholarships to Singapore and the United Kingdom, where he completed the Oxford PPE programme (philosophy, politics, economics) that counts prime ministers and presidents among its alumni.

Two years after graduation, he took a risk to start an e-business consulting firm that made him “the youngest person to have listed a company in Singapore” at 29.

At his inaugural press conference in DAP, Pua announced that he was appointed the economic adviser to the then secretary-general, Lim Guan Eng, besides the executive editor of the party bulletin, The Rocket.

Damansara MP Tony Pua

Turns out, Pua was also a master recruiter, pulling in more people who fit his profile of excellence and pushing them to run for elections.

Five years after his entry, two Cambridge scholars, Yeo Bee Yin and Ong Kian Ming announced theirs. The latter two went on to serve in Malaysia’s first-ever non-BN cabinet and were widely regarded as having performed well in the 20 months.

‘Home for talents’

The message the DAP wants to drive home became irresistible: DAP is the home for talents – the best and the brightest will be appreciated and be given their rightful place to serve the nation.

Unlike its Malay experiment, DAP’s talent experiment was significantly more successful in changing the face of the party. Many voters, especially progressive ones, have even considered DAP’s talents as their main reason to vote.

But things started to crack in 2018. Seven months after the historic Pakatan Harapan victory, Pua, who was the Selangor DAP head, did not make it to the top 15 party leadership positions.

He finished with only 292 votes in 18th place, tying with first-term assemblyperson Jamaliah Jamaluddin.

Ong barely made the cut by finishing 14th. Factional contestation between the “elites” and “grassroots” started to plague the party that long prided itself on discipline.

In a shocking turn of events, the DAP election this year saw a purge of the elites, with Pua, Yeo, and Ong all failing to make the expanded 30-member leadership committee. Pua expressed his disappointment at the clear-cut “reject[ion]”.

Bakri MP Yeo Bee Yin

In classic straight-shooting Pua fashion, he called for the party to continue its relentless pursuit of talents, and acknowledged that “perhaps my zeal in averaging up the quality of our elected representatives had the unintended consequence of offending some within the party, especially in Selangor where I was first defeated in the party’s state committee election in 2018.”

This background is critical in understanding the impact of Ong’s decision to not run in the 15th general election because that decision didn’t take place in a vacuum.

If you plot a graph of how the “elites” have fared in party elections, compared to the “grassroots” faction, you would notice a clear downward trend of the former.

Ong’s departure

Why is politics driving out talents? Is there something fundamentally toxic about the party and frontline politics that takes so much out of a person that he would rather not continue?

Ong’s departure was significant when it comes in contrast to other old-timers, who could hardly be considered talented in their legislative and policymaking abilities, who only quit when their bodies give in. Most of the time, politicians take running for office as a given – an entitlement, a birthright.

We always end up with people who are corrupt, incompetent, or both, because political survival depends not on the strength of your ideas, but on the control of your factions in patronage.

It almost didn’t matter that Ong has committed to high-quality policy work in electoral boundaries, economics, and education – it didn’t secure him a politically relevant future.

Politics is a field where the worst instincts reign. While we could turn off after feeling betrayed by politicians for switching sides, those on the frontlines have to constantly engage and pretend things are going to be okay.

Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming

Ong’s departure reminded me of the quote by Hollywood actor Matt Damon. In an interview, Damon said that on the night he won his first Oscars at the youthful age of 28, he imagined his other self chasing this singular glory until he turned old at 70, only to realise, “Where did my entire life go?”

It is easy to ask people like Ong to stay longer in the scene and wait for success to come, but we know that if we were Ong, we might have made the same decision. As much as we owe our lives to hope, we also owe an acceptance of what may not happen.

Malaysia may change for the better – but what if it doesn’t? Would you turn around when you’re 70 and realise, “Where did my entire life go?”

Your answer may still be that the cause is worth your life. But you owe it to yourself to ask that question at least once: What if it isn’t? - Mkini


JAMES CHAI is a political analyst. He also blogs at www.jameschai.com.my and he can be reached at jameschai.mpuk@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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