|Soon Li Tsin
April 11, 2008
|Salehuddin Hashim’s first brush with politics was at the age of six. The newly appointed PKR secretary-general was seated on his father’s shoulders and waving the new Malayan flag.
Today, Malaysiakini met the ‘Ipoh boy’ – as he fondly describes himself – to better understand the man, his plans and visions.
After offering an apology for being late, Salehuddin admits to being a “virgin”… as far as interviews are concerned.
The father of two is another product of the prestigious Malay College of Kuala Kangsar and studied alongside activist Hishamuddin Rais and PAS leader Kamaruddin Jaffar.
“(PKR de facto leader) Anwar Ibrahim was my prefect,” he recalled with a smile.
After MCKK, he was in the first batch of law students in University Malaya and did his masters in the United States before immersing himself in the corporate world.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I’ve never been in politics. I joined PKR in 2001 but I was with the party since 2004. I was working as the supervisory secretary then. That was a backroom position, there was no need for me to come up to the front until 2007. Then I was appointed to look after the federal territory divisions as the elections director.
I helped run Nurul Izzah (Anwar)’s campaign (in Lembah Pantai). Then suddenly I was called up to be the secretary-general. So this is a real political position and I’m not a politician and I have no intentions to be one but somebody’s got to do it. I thought it would be fun because the last time I was involved in politics was when I was six, sitting on my father’s shoulders raising the new Malayan flag. Fifty years later, I’m back (laughs).
Was the recent elections your first hands-on experience in campaigning?
Oh, I was the campaign manager for my father when I was 18 and my father was running in Parit as a PAS MP. It was the only PAS victory in 1969. And that was my last experience as a campaign manager. We spent RM600 and the other spent about RM40,000 then. That is about RM400,000 today. It was satisfying.
How different is it in 2008 compared to your experience in 1969?
The difference is huge in terms of campaigning and all that. In 1969, the people still believed their politicians. The Alliance then was a government that was well respected by the Malays especially those in the rural areas. The RM600 was able to bring down the Utusan Melayu chairperson Hussein Nordin (in Parit). If he could be felled, it means the people found fighting for their struggles more important.
We didn’t pay our campaign workers, and we asked for donations. People gave us coconuts and rice and I would bring it to Ipoh everyday to sell. We had no money to make posters so supporters would take zinc boards used as walls for outdoor toilets and flatten them. They reattached it back to the toilet and painted them with the moon (PAS’ symbol). There was such a strong spirit, it was easy to defeat the Barisan Nasional government then.
There was a lot of wastage in the 2008 campaign. I don’t understand why the need to hang banners and posters all over. This is not 1957. Parties today are spoilt by money. I’m curious as to why Shahrizat (Abdul Jalil) can afford to print 5,000 pictures of her on those high-quality plastic posters and hang them on every single lamp post in the constituency. I don’t understand the meaning of this, by having more pictures, does it mean she is the better candidate?
For PKR we put up posters of our candidate (Nurul Izzah) only at strategic areas to introduce her to the public. She had more reason to do so (put more posters) because she was new. And the posters were not pasted but hung so we could remove it after the elections. Everybody knew Shahrizat. We’re all now sick of spin doctoring. We felt uncomfortable with the pictures of her kissing babies and old people. I know her, she was my classmate in the law faculty.
You see, the pictures of Nurul Izzah was not easy to do. We went though a lot of processes in order to make it pleasant, unique, nice and acceptable to the people. We gave it to advertising agencies and they did what they thought (was suitable), they are not politicians. But (Shahrizat) made it like some Hindustani movie star poster, coupled with the Tamil writing at the bottom. She looked like she wasn’t sure what she was doing.
In the olden days, you would go for all the ceramah whether it’s Umno or PAS because there was no intimidation. But now, BN people go for their ceramah and we go for ours – we end up preaching to the converted and that is a waste of resources and hard work. It is not quite the same, it is very different. I felt it on the ground.
Will your leadership as the sec-gen be different from past sec-gens?
I wouldn’t say there are outstanding problems, I think it is work in progress. I want to continue the good work done before. Maybe there will be a slight change in style. I’m a bit brash and more outspoken and I’m a man in a hurry.
We are a government in waiting. There is no question about that. You cannot fulfill that desired reality if you’re not ready to take on the various responsibilities. We don’t have political problems in our party. We do have – as in any other parties – personal disagreements. We are a rainbow coalition and I say that with pride because this is the first time an attempt is made in the political history of this country for a party to try and bring everybody in, in real terms.
Problems in the party are not that big. We’re still a new party and we may not have enough money. At one stage, we were even short of leaders. But we have no problem now, we have an influx of people who were previously worried about being persecuted. But after crossing the threshold, they think it is okay and I can imagine that our membership will double.
One of the challenges of this job that I thought about was to ensure that there would be some kind of discipline in our disagreement. There will be order in our protest. There will be clarity in what really matters.
Where are your new members from?
They come from nationwide, West Malaysia especially but more from the states we won. All kinds of people – different races, different strata of society. Maybe the public doesn’t know but I will tell you, there is no turning back. We have caught the imagination of the people. The dissatisfaction has always been there but it’s latent.
It took Anwar to ignite – in a positive way – for the people to understand that they have been shortchanged. Then there was Bersih and Hindraf. Then people started thinking that it is okay to disagree with the (BN) jokers. The elections came one year earlier, how stupid was that? They could’ve reinvented themselves in one year. So now they are knocked down and they are struggling to package themselves to look different. They have come to the end of their shelf life. The new Cabinet is like the (washing detergents) ‘new Fab’ or ‘new Breeze’ but there is no intrinsic desire for change.
We have a lot of Umno members coming into the party. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity but there will be parties within the party that call this infiltration. Infiltration could mean two ways. One is severe infiltration to destroy the party or two, one could come in to replace a leader but that happens in every party. This all depends on the wisdom of the party leaders to combat this.
At the end of the day, the person seen to be doing this is the sec-gen and I see that as a very heavy responsibility but personally I am ready to do this because I have no political ambition whatsoever. I am here to remind everybody of our struggles.
Do you know why Anwar picked you as the sec-gen?
Ha! (Laughs) There are probably a thousand reasons that you can speculate. We’re old friends. We went to school together and I think it is known within the party circles that my emphasis has always been on party organisation and discipline.
Now that many of the senior party leaders are politicians and elected representatives, they should concentrate on politics. So somebody’s got to do it. It is well known in the party that I’m the guy who goes around screaming when things are not working right. I think now with the victories that we’ve achieved, people need to see that we’re more organised. It’s not like were not organised but we want to be more organised.
Then I think the fact I am a lawyer, management consultant and turnaround manager specialist – I could possibly do this, not better, but faster. Since we’re a government in waiting, time is a factor.
As sec-gen I will be most directly involved in recruitment and that happens to be the area that harbours my real intention in politics, that is the political socialisation of the youth. It is incumbent for us to change the political landscape for the young people to inherit. Delve into matters that matter to them.
How do you plan to solve the problem of having many PKR divisions without youth wings?
I will ensure that the youth wings will grow and carry out their duties as social and political activists to become the catalysts for change and critical thinking. I admit there are shortcomings in the youth wing but it can be fixed. Even though the youth wings are not the best right now, what is surprising is that it was the young voters who helped us win the elections.
How would you rebut accusations that you are sec-gen because you are Anwar’s friend?
I don’t think people become friends by accident, you become friends because you have shared views. People who are in this struggle with Anwar are his friends. That is basically the team spirit between people. I’m not Anwar’s friend, we don’t go for coffee together, if that’s what you mean. We are comrades.