I AM often asked why I went into politics.
The simple answer is that I wanted to learn. The complicated answer is that I enjoyed being on the frontline, helping people, working on public policies; and I thrived on the adrenaline rush that you get when pressured or cornered.
My jump into politics was almost uncanny. I came from a characteristically non-political family. My parents were not members of any political party, neither were any of the members of my extended family.
So when in 2008, after my return from the United Kingdom, I joined Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan), and many of my friends were quite shocked because I was known as a critic of Barisan Nasional.
However, my about-turn was mainly due to two factors – I was impressed by the honesty and sincerity of then Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, and I believed that change could happen from within.
However, as fate has it, Gerakan lost in the last election, and I find myself a member of an Opposition party now.
However, politics is never easy. In a Facebook post after the allegations of sexual impropriety involving Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali surfaced two weeks ago, I shared some views.
I will reproduce some of it in this column.
Malaysian politics stinks. I make no qualms about it. Allegations of sexual impropriety have long dogged certain politicians, and I sympathise with them because even at my level, I had to contend with character assassination, and I know the pain and hurt that can come from it.
I was lucky to be spared massive odium mainly because I had not risen to the highest rungs of the party leadership.
Malaysian politics is also dirty. A lot of what we see in movies and read online is right – parlour games, slander, lies, mischief, dishonesty – the list goes on.
When I started in politics and government at the age of 23, I was an aide to Dr Koh, who was then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. That was pretty much the bottom rung of the ladder. Most did not see me as a threat, and they felt I could not do much.
However, what did get me in trouble though were my anti-Barisan views in university (most of it I shared online). When I started work in the Prime Minister’s Department, I was treated pretty much as a pariah and seen as someone who could not be trusted.
More than once, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office asked Dr Koh to sack me, but the man showed steely resolve and defended me and my right to speak my mind.
To digress a little, I once told the Home Minister in 2010 or 2011 something along the lines that he did not understand the law when discussing the abolition of the Internal Security Act. I remember everyone looking at me as though I had committed high treason.
Again, I found myself in hot water, but Dr Koh – whom many said lacked courage – refused to sack me and stood by me.
Of course, I did get a dressing down, and it was expected. I was a non-conformist, and while speaking my mind got me in trouble, I was proud that I did so.
However, my second stint between 2014 and 2018 was different. As political secretary to Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, first Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and later Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister, I was seen as someone with power, and I started to see the ugliness of politics first hand.
Lies were freely told, sometimes by colleagues and party members whom I trusted. Many attempts were made to drive a wedge between me and the Minister. I had massive problems with the party members in the constituency who resisted me because they felt I was intruding into their domain. It did not help I was an “outsider” and not from Teluk Intan.
These same folk then used my hard work in the constituency against me and tried to convince the Minister that I intended to usurp him.
It was hard because, as an aide, one is only deemed as effective as the confidence one’s boss has in you.
However, I also had my band of brothers and sisters who stood by me through thick and thin. I owe them a debt I can never repay.
I hunkered down and worked hard; adjusted my tactics and mannerisms. Eventually, I found myself back in my boss’ good graces, and things improved.
However, it was a constant battle. Simple things like making sure I was not mentioned in salutations during functions and ensuring my picture was not on any banner were things I had to do to “prove” I was not a threat.
At times, things took a nastier turn. I felt infinitely annoyed when pictures of me in a club were shared maliciously, and I was made out to be a “mat clubber” and an alcoholic. Photos I had shared on Facebook in the company of a female friend were used to discredit me, with a caption saying I was a philanderer.
Another lie that was peddled was that, because I was single and in my 30s, perhaps I was gay. I drove a decent car, and that made me corrupt. The list goes on and on.
So, having been on the frontline, I understand the pain and anger politicians feel when they are subject to such ruthlessness. Trust me, when it happened to me, I would scream expletives or pick up the phone and berate the person whom I found out was responsible.
Some say politicians are not entitled to personal lives. I think that is complete poppycock. Politicians are allowed to have private lives, and people must accept that.
I feel a certain sadness that Azmin finds himself the target of the dark arts of politics, and the fact that his party members are likely involved makes it even harder to stomach.
We must resolutely condemn the use of such scurrilous attacks to fell a leader. The pursuit of power must never be at the expense of principles and ethical values.
Politicians sacrifice a lot, and then to have their personal lives open to such speculation and innuendo is harmful – mentally, emotionally and psychologically – to them, their family and friends. They never really recover from it.
I was lucky to be spared such odium – I always took precautions, or perhaps I was seen as being “not that worth it”.
However, the limited attacks I faced caused me much pain and hardship. It affected my family as my parents and sisters would also get riled up. In the end, I found myself comforting them and telling them that it would be okay.
As I ponder the trajectory of my young life, I am relieved I have seen the back of politics. I am happy I no longer have to go through all of this nonsense.
That is why politics is not for everybody.