Webinar on “The Party of Hardship: What Shaped Malaysia’s People Justice Party (PKR) from 1999 to 2022”

In this webinar, Mr James Chai shared his findings on the founding, evolution, and potential trajectories of Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party (PKR).


Monday, 20 May 2024 – Often consigned to a handful of seats, PKR now sits at the core of the current administration with not just the prime minister’s seat but also powerful portfolios including finance, education, and home affairs. The Malaysia Studies Programme organised a webinar with Mr James Chai as guest speaker to uncover the party’s evolution, characteristics, and future. Mr Chai was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Speaker Mr James Chai with moderator Dr Francis Hutchinson. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Chai’s presentation comprised three main parts: the PKR’s evolution through four phases, PKR’s core characteristics and PKR after Anwar. Mr Chai started off with the first phase, formative (1998-2004). Often known as a “party of hardship”, the PKR is the party of the common people, one that upholds dreams and is always resource-poor. Born during the reformasi era, the party was born out of crisis, thus bringing with it such characteristics. Mr Chai said that while many thought the party’s rise was just a temporary phenomenon then, a few major turning points made it a formidable force today. Firstly, the 1999 General Elections where PKR only won 5 out of 78 contested seats but reformasi movement gave momentum contributing to PAS’s seats and proved a workable cooperation among the opposition as Barisan Alternatif. Secondly, the 2000 Lunas by-election where Saifuddin Nasution ran and defeated BN for the first time proved that the Malay swing was real and demonstrated that the PKR can win in mixed seats constituencies. Thirdly, the merger with PRM into PKR provided a sense of belonging and defined its organising principles and policies.

Mr Chai then moved on to the second phase, golden era (2005-2013). He noted that the Pakatan Rakyat was the first substantive opposition coalition, that brought together ideologically opposed parties like PAS and DAP. In terms of ideology, Anwar also merged ideological opposites, favouring an ideological middle-ground. For example, merging Hayekian free market with Keynesian paternalism, Islamic awsatuha with Confucian chung yung, and Lockean ideals with al-Shatibi’s Islamic thoughts. The New Economic Policy (NEP) then expanded affirmative action to being needs-based rather than race-based. Anwar also spoke about the impractical application of Hudud law and challenges to obtain consensus as the reasons for Hudud not being the right time to implement. Saying that it was not the right time rather than rejecting it on principle was Anwar’s ideological middle ground. Nonetheless, charisma could not overcome the structural and organisational cracks. The party faced weaknesses such as funding, lack of discipline, factionalism, and massive defections, while within the coalition the NEP position painted the PKR as a threat to Malays.

The third phase, all-in for power (2014 to 2018), builds on some of the issues in the previous phase that could potentially crack the first ever substantive coalition which is Paktan Rakyat. These included Hudud, Kajang move and a divisive effort to remove one state assembly person for Anwar to run in Selangor and be made MB. Against this backdrop, Anwar’s second conviction in 2015 and the death of Nik Aziz in PAS, a critical spiritual leader, led to a break up of Pakatan Rakyat and formation of Pakatan Harapan using Amanah to replace PAS. It was also the period of the re-emergence of Mahathir, which brought up questions such as whether PKR would work with its arch-rival and whether Anwar will still be the prime minister candidate. While Anwar’s letter from prison in 2016 indicated that the party should not work with Mahathir, a photo of Anwar shaking Mahathir’s hand at the High Court was a critical signalling to party members, especially Otai Reformasi, the long-time members, to accept Mahathir.

Mr Chai then covered the last phase, lessons of restraints (2019-2022). Mr Chai considered the beginning of this period as one fraught with “internal and external anxiety”. With a focus on power handover from Mahathir to Anwar across the country, Mahathir employed broad terms such as “over two years” and there was no specific timeline spelled out before 2018. There was also cartel festering within the party, with Azmin Ali’s faction protesting—they disagreed with Anwar’s leadership council appointments and refused to attend meetings, creating division within the party. The split was so strong that there was a parallel congress in 2019 ran by Anwar and Azmin Ali separately, the Sheraton Move in 2020 which unleashed a period of uncertainty. Before the 2022 elections, Mr Chai noted an obvious shift in PKR’s approach, from multi-cornered fight and working with everyone to restraint. However, the coalition big-tent mindset allowed them to work with UMNO, GPS and others which eventually allowed Anwar to become prime minster. Mr Chai thus concluded this section by noting that PKR is a party of paradoxes, one of restraint but also one that takes opportunities where needed.

Zooming out, Mr Chai identified PKR’s core characteristics. These include the big tent approach to power (internally, a multiracial party and externally, working with others to form a coalition), middle-ground approach to policies, and it being a loose organisation led by charismatic personalities. For example, Adam Adli who entered a few months before elections won the Youth Chief of Party and was rewarded quickly. Finally, Mr Chai looked at potential trajectories of PKR after Anwar. He observed that PKR does not like to talk about succession as it weakens Anwar’s position as the prime minister, risks breaking up coalition and unity government, and it goes against the unique emotional bond to Anwar. Mr Chai said that the question will likely only surface after Anwar has decided to step down and decided like any other party: within a short timeframe, with the second-in-line most likely, with the blessing of Anwar.

The webinar proceeded to a Q&A session. Mr Chai fielded questions including: the party culture given an influx of people with no commitment to struggle, winning Malay support, the impact of the rise of political Islam, factionalism compared to other Malaysian parties, and succession. Malaysia Studies Programme Coordinator Dr Francis Hutchinson moderated this webinar, which attracted participants from the policy, business and academic communities.