By Murray Hunter

BANGKOK, Thailand--When I first met Siti Kasim, online in this Covid age, her bubbling passion for her cause and the future of Malaysia came across very clearly. Siti is inspiring to many of those she reaches. 

Gerak Independent (GI), is a movement of individuals under an umbrella sponsored by Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity (MAJU) and some NGOs to put independent people into the federal parliament.

In December last year GI announced their first six candidates for the coming general election, headed by human rights lawyer Siti Kasim and the former UMNO MP for Sungei Benut Tawfik Ismail, who both jointly founded the movement. 
Others named in the inaugural list also included former journalist Charles CJ Chow, Wangsa Maju resident Raveentheran Suntheralingam, social activist KJ John, and Sabah based lawyer Roland Cheng. Shortly after the announcement Charles CJ Chow withdrew from the line-up for personal reasons.

The movement met with some initial criticism after announcing they would be standing in Pakatan Harapan incumbent seats. Some claim this will be counter-productive, splitting votes and aiding a Barisan Nasional win. Standing against some of the die-hard Malay-centric party cadres would have sent a strong symbolic message.

Siti Kasim defended that move by claiming that once an election has been called all seats are vacant and not owned by anyone. Siti went on to say that Pakatan has been silent on a number of issues that are important to GI, in particular referring to Pakatan MPs voting in favour of the last budget on instructions from their party leaders.

Siti and GI are against the party system, which she explains muzzles good MPs from speaking out on important issues. They are prevented from following their constituents' wants and their own conscience in the way they vote.

With Pakatan’s poor performance as an opposition over the last three state elections in Melaka, Sarawak, and Johor, a vacuum has emerged where a multitude of new political parties have been set up to fill the void.

Philosophically, GI offers a different vision for Malaysia, through a number of general commitments to a vision. These include a commitment to the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), ending divisive politics, restoring guaranteed freedom to the Rakyat, restoring institutional power back to the Rakyat, and creating a needs-based affirmative action policy or poverty eradication program.

Consequently, GI calls for the separation of Islam and state and the abolishment of the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (JAKIM). GI wants agencies like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Electoral Commission (SPRM) to be independent of the executive government. 
All repressive laws like the sedition act, arrest and detention without trial, and the National Security Council Act were abolished. All laws must be fair and just for all, and not selectively applied like they are today.

This commitment to independence doesn’t rule out cooperation with other parties, although GI ruled out working with Pakatan. Siti is scathing over the way PKR treated Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), through past elections, and Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) in the recent Johor state election. However, it is believed that a number of party affiliated politicians have talked to GI.

Although many praise the visionary intentions of GI, political pundits generally believe that without some attachment to one or more of the main parties, GI has little chance of picking up any seats. 
This is contrary to the cooperative approach Syed Saddiq took in the Johor state election, which assisted MUDA pick up one seat.

Siti Kasim on cyber-hustings displays her charismatic passion which aligns very well with the sentiments of many Malaysians. GI are putting out their message, which is certainly an alternative view to what Malaysia is today.

GI is espoused as a citizens’ movement to change Malaysia. Siti talks of Malaysia requiring an urgent reset. A failed education system, a bloated Malay dominated civil service, the increasing influence of an Islamic theocracy, and a society full of mediocrity and religious intolerance.

GI is the result of consultation with business people, academics, and NGOs who see that change must come from within the parliament. Political parties are not the answer if there is to be a better Malaysia, that is fair, equal, and justice for all Malaysians. 
The Rakyat have for too long been hopeful that the government would do this. They have been let down time and time again. Even the Pakatan government failed miserably with reform.

Siti espouses that GI would not exist if the political parties were altruistic and selfless in putting things right, above their own ambitions. She reiterates that GI is not a political party, they are not in the numbers game, just wanting to get the message out and act as a catalyst for change.

The unfortunate side of the Malaysian electoral system is that the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system, where a candidate must win the primary votes in single electorates makes it very difficult for minority parties and independents to gain parliamentary representation. 
This is because it’s difficult to get enough concentrated support within any single electorate. This is going to greatly hinder GI’s chances of getting any of their candidates up on election day. Malaysia’s electoral system is stacked against minority parties and independents, favouring the major parties.

With Pakatan’s poor recent electoral performances, GI standing in Pakatan held constituencies may be the best electorally strategic decision the grouping can make for the coming election. However, there is a great cost to this. 
Standing against Pakatan will most likely result in both Pakatan and GI being losers to the Malay-centric parties. This will divide the opposition, and be counterproductive to the GI mission.

At the same time there is some strategic wisdom for Pakatan to come to realise and work with GI. Afterall, the grand opposition umbrella is a Pakatan idea. If this doesn’t happen, some GI candidates may surprise and achieve a higher vote than Pakatan in a couple of constituencies.

With the support of an opposition umbrella, it might have been possible for one or two GI candidates to get up and become representatives in parliament. 
Without any party support within the parliament itself, standing orders and procedures will tend to drown out the voices of independent members.

A lot will depend upon how GI are able to muster up a grassroots campaign, which will be a very difficult first-time round. Most of the GI candidates are social activists who are new to running electoral campaigns, where by themselves and as newcomers, may well find it an impossible mission.

The basic GI pillars are something that most Malaysians would aspire for the nation and like to see within the political system. However, the reality is that when one immerses themselves and becomes part of this system. Many good people have become politicians and become lost within the system.

GI is very much the extension of the personal persona of Siti Kasim herself. A genuine committed activist, rather than a politician. Her message is welcomed by many Malaysians, and under the umbrella of a united opposition which she and GI are part of, could make an electoral difference. 
This is where GI must work much harder to extend their reach to the youth and dispossessed groups in Malaysian society to turn GI from a small band of activists into a mass movement.

However, there is another proviso here. The Rakyat after two years of Covid related MCOs and other restrictions is concerned about getting some relief from the financial strain many have been placed under. 
Talking about reform in the coming general election and ignoring the plight of the Rakyat will not get any traction electorally this general election. The Rakyat want empathy and solutions.

GI has put the vision out. Now we can watch if the message gains any momentum, or is swallowed up by big party narratives before the coming election.