Seminar on “DAP in post-2022 Malaysia: Deals, Ambitions, Provocations”

In this hybrid seminar, Mr Howard Lee shed light on the deals that DAP has engaged in, the ambitions of the party, and the future of the DAP.


Thursday, 22 February 2024 – While the DAP has the largest number of MPs in parliament, with 40 just shy of PAS’s 41, and exceeding UMNO’s 26 and PKR’s 31, coverage pales in comparison with UMNO and PAS. The Malaysia Studies Programme organised a hybrid seminar with Mr Howard Lee as guest speaker to uncover the behind-the-scenes involving the party’s deals, ambitions and provocations. Mr Lee is a Malaysian politician, activist and chef who has served as the Member of Parliament for Ipoh Timor since November 2022.

Speaker Mr Howard Lee with moderator Dr Lee Hwok Aun. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The first part of the discussion examined the “deals” in which the DAP has engaged, with the DAP being the largest party in parliament in a coalition of coalitions. Mr Lee said that on the one hand, the DAP has the most undersized representation in cabinet compared to the number of seats it has. On the other hand, it is overrepresented in terms of the total number of positions available such as counsellors, village heads executive positions at the state level. Mr Lee opined that resources need to be invested in the middle ground. The middle ground is in a state of disarray. In terms of external factors, the depreciating exchange rate has been fostering emotions of negativity, causing disarray that could be projected to the downward dip in support among the middle ground constituency. In terms of party grassroots leaders, they are vested, having invested time, energy and their own resources to bring the government into power, but had to rely on their arch nemesis UMNO. The choice was between being in opposition or engaging with UMNO at the federal level—following on the strategic partnership forged at the state level. Mr Lee cited DAP Perak leader Dr Ngeh Koo Ham who has said that “what you can achieve in government in a day is what you couldn’t achieve in opposition for ten years.”

Ultimately, the party grassroots are pragmatic. With regards to court cases, Najib’s partial pardon, whether presumed red lines are crossed and whether there are any further red lines, Mr Lee said that the DNAA storm is done and over. In his view, there is a framing issue with the so-called “partial pardon” as it is effectively a “reduction in sentence”. He said that there is no legal compulsion that calls for divulging who made the decision so the public will never know what transpired. Yet, it is not as what some have alleged as a “political deal”. This is not a good political hand and we can only wait now to see if the country will deliver what it demands as there is a long runway to implementing subsidy rationalisation, the New Industrial Masterplan and National Energy Transition Roadmap.

The second part of the discussion focused on ambitions, namely what are the most important milestones by the Unity Government. Mr Lee said that political stability is necessary to talk about policy. Many Malaysians hoped for a change in government for over 50 years, but then came three changes in a short span of time. While some opposition members have said that there will be a change in government next month, Mr Lee said that it is important to show the public and investors by serving out the term and doing the right and good thing for the country. In Mr Lee’s view, stability is the largest challenge. He shared that there are some achievements, including the to-be-implemented subsidy rationalisation, as the untargeted blanket subsidy is not a sustainable approach. At the same time, there are policies that drive expenditure and demand for the ringgit, including removing visa requirements for Chinese and Indian travellers, which helps both the economy and the ringgit. Mr Lee observed that there is a new buzz with visa-free travel afforded to Chinese and Indian tourists who fill restaurants resulting in “pleasantly angry frustration” among the grassroots.

The last part of the discussion looked at “provocations”. With a history of being feisty and provocative, the DAP is now on the receiving end. Mr Lee spoke more about the DAP’s strategy moving forward now that it is a part of the government, which is different from its historical position as part of the opposition, and the lessons learnt from the incident of him purportedly misinterpreting the Qur’an. Mr Lee said that there is no need to depart from their original strategy, being “fiercely uncompromising” and they can do so without vocalising in public. He said that the DAP should look at three “modus”. First, the modus vivendi (raison d’être of DAP, that is, to fight for a Malaysia that is good and great for all Malaysians). Second, modus faciendi, the method in which the modus vivendi is carried out, which changes. For example, while they used to frame their message as “regardless of race”, it is now framed as “all Malaysians including all races”. The meaning has not changed but the approach has shifted. Third, modus operandi. They need to be analytical and calculative, picking fights and not contesting in seats that they do not have a base in. With regards to the incident where Mr Lee was accused of misinterpreting the Qur’an, he said that the video had been uploaded for two months and had garnered a quarter of a million views with 99% remarks on TikTok being positive. The turn came when the DAP entered the Kedah elections. He said that he “did not interpret Qur’anic verse” but cited translation made by credible and authoritative sources word for word; often cited by Islamic scholars themselves. In his view, this shift in sentiments can be explained by him being a convenient punching bag as the campaign director in Kedah. Reflecting on the incident, Mr Lee said that social media is a powerful tool that twists anything; it is important to be extremely careful of what is said as there are possible ways to spin any comment. Having to contend with such challenges might even disincentivise people to go into politics.

The seminar proceeded to a Q&A session. Mr Lee fielded questions including: lessons that the DAP learnt with a different coalition partner in this new government, revenue-enhancing measures, how he responds to allegations of being “communist”, the implications of the current chief minister in Penang for the party as compared to the last one, what the DAP and Unity Government do in the face of polarisation, and how the party plans to cope with the further dwindling Chinese population. Malaysia Studies Programme Co-coordinator Dr Lee Hwok Aun moderated this seminar, which attracted participants from the policy, business and academic communities.