Reflections from My Grassroots Politics Notebook: Lessons Learned in Tanjong Karang

As GE15 left me with a newfound appreciation for grassroot organizing, I learned that it’s a difficult but necessary task.

Fayyadh Jaafar
16 min readDec 23, 2022

For Saul Alinsky, the Machiavelli of the Have-Nots.

As the sun sinks low in the sky, casting a golden glow over the paddy fields of Tanjong Karang, it’s easy to get caught up in the romance of political activism. The promise of changing the world from what it is to what we believe it should be is tantalizing, a dream that beckons many of us. The thought of creating mass organizations that can seize power and give it to the people is thrilling, a noble ambition to inspire revolution. But the reality is far more bleak. In Malaysia, the work that must be done to achieve these lofty goals is immense, and the obstacles that stand in our way are numerous. The idea of creating a world where people can live by values that give meaning to life is a distant dream, one that seems impossible to attain in a world that is so cynical, so harrowing, so depressing. As the light fades from the sky, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, a feeling that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to bring about the change that we so desperately desire.

There is no denying that the road to political change is a difficult and often thankless one, filled with challenges and setbacks at every turn. As I learned firsthand during my campaign for a political party in Tanjong Karang, organizing at the grassroot level is a gruelling and often demoralizing task. The schedules are long, the work is hard, and sometimes it seems like no matter how much effort you put in, there is no guarantee that it will make any sort of difference. Local warlords and other self-interested individuals can sabotage your efforts at every turn, and it can be exhausting to make sure your candidate’s message reaches the people. Even your colleagues may not always share your values or be working towards the same goals, making it all the more important to assess the motivations of those you work with.

Yet it is during these times of struggle that we are able to find the true gems, the dedicated and motivated individuals who are truly committed to making a positive impact on the world. These are the volunteers who give their time and energy to ensure that our candidate’s message is heard, the humble people who understand the value of service and are willing to sacrifice their own comfort to make a difference in their communities. They are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly behind the scenes, the embodiment of what Tocqueville referred to as the “greatness of democracy” — the collective power of the people to create a better world. It is this spirit of dedication and service that we must all strive towards, no matter who we are or what we do, if we hope to bring about the political change that we so desperately desire.

Ideologies as Rigid Dogmas: The Importance of Flexibility and Feedback

It is clear that dedication and service are crucial in bringing about political change. The most significant revolutions in history, such as the Malaysian independence movement and the civil rights movement in America, were powered by individuals who were determined to bring about progress in their societies. Similarly, great advances in science have been made possible by the hard work and dedication of individuals like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Marie Curie. In order to bring about the necessary changes in our own political environment, we must all strive to emulate this dedication and service.

However, it is also important to recognize that ideologies can sometimes become rigid dogmas that claim exclusive possession of the truth, leading to an intolerance for alternative viewpoints. In order for revolutions and grassroots movements to continue having an impact, they must be flexible and open to feedback, while also being willing to question their own assumptions. This can be a difficult balance to strike, but it is essential for the success and cohesion of any organization.

I have seen firsthand the importance of a shared commitment to core values and objectives in maintaining harmony within a grassroots organization like MUDA. It is through this commitment that individuals with diverse ideologies, such as anarchists and traditionalists, can coexist peacefully. However, this harmony can only be sustained if each member of the organization is willing to listen to and understand different viewpoints and appreciate that they can exist alongside their own. Without this commitment to core values, any movement is vulnerable to disharmony and potential dissolution, especially when it is still in its infancy.

I strongly believe that the general welfare should be the guiding ideology for any political movement, and that individuals should be committed to this goal above all else. The general welfare, as I see it, is the collective well-being of society, and it should be pursued through dialogue, consensus building, and a respect for different points of view. It is an inclusive ideology that recognizes the inherent value and dignity of every person, and it seeks to ensure that every member of society has the opportunity to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.

As Tocqueville pointed out, the health of a democratic society can be measured by the quality of the functions performed by private citizens. Pursuing the general welfare is thus an essential part of creating and sustaining a healthy democracy, one in which every citizen has the opportunity to fulfill their potential and work towards their own well-being. At the same time, it acknowledges that human beings are social creatures, and that we have a responsibility to care for one another. It is up to all citizens of a democratic society to fulfill their duty and actively participate in the pursuit of the general welfare, so that we can build a strong, equitable, and prosperous nation.

From my perspective as someone involved in grassroot politics, it is clear that the pursuit of the general welfare serves as the foundation for a healthy and thriving democracy. It is not the politicians or the elite social classes that make up a democratic society, but rather the everyday people from all walks of life who form the bedrock of what democracy stands for — a just welfare for all. This shared commitment to the general welfare is the cornerstone of a just and equitable nation, and it is something that we must all strive towards in order to create the change that we desire.

During my time as a grassroot volunteer in Tanjong Karang, I saw firsthand the dangers of dogmatic ideologies and the importance of considering the general welfare. Many political enthusiasts are more interested in promoting their own ideology than in working towards the collective well-being of society. They are convinced that they have the one true answer to all of society’s problems, and they are unwilling to listen to alternative viewpoints or consider other possibilities. This can lead to a rigid and inflexible approach to politics that is ultimately harmful to the well-being of society.

On the other hand, there are those who take a cynical approach and refuse to support any policy at all. They may argue that all ideologies are flawed and that it is better to do nothing than to risk making the wrong choice. However, this too can have unintended consequences, as inaction can also have negative effects on society. Dante Alighieri’s work The Inferno touches on this dichotomy in the circle of Hell known as “the limbo of hope and desire,” where those who were unable to take action during their lifetimes live in perpetual anguish, unable to move on to the next level of Hell.

During my campaign in Tanjong Karang, I saw this same duality in action. As urban volunteers, we came to the town with our own assumptions and ideologies, often not fully understanding the complexities of local politics. Our perspective was limited and influenced by our experiences in the urban areas, and we had to recognize that our understanding of the town was often incomplete. It was only by truly listening to and learning from the stories of the people of Tanjong Karang that we were able to develop a more nuanced and accurate understanding of their needs and experiences. By approaching our work in the town with this newfound understanding, we were able to make a positive and lasting difference, rather than perpetuating the discrepancies between urban and rural development. It is important for any political movement to consider the general welfare and to be open to learning from and understanding the perspectives of those they seek to serve.

The Interplay of Passion and Prudent Decision-Making in Political Activism

One of the key lessons I learned from my experience in Tanjong Karang is the importance of keeping an open mind and constantly questioning our assumptions and beliefs. It is essential to approach each new experience or conversation with humility, an open mind, and the willingness to learn, rather than falling into a pattern of misunderstanding and stagnation. We should never stop learning, growing, and challenging ourselves, especially in the realm of politics where change requires friction and disruption, as well as the capacity to bring forth a new order that is better and more just than the one it replaces.

Prophet Muhammad’s saying “to listen is to obey” highlights the importance of listening in order to understand and learn from others. It is through this process of listening and learning that we can better understand the broader context of our work and make a positive impact. It is important to remember that not everything is black and white, and that it is often necessary to step out of our own comfort zones and challenge our preconceived notions and assumptions in order to make meaningful change. Politics is not just a matter of thought and opinion, but also of action and practice, and it is important to consider the relationship between means and ends in order to bring about positive change in society.

Another important concept I learned from my experience in Tanjong Karang is the need to educate and convert the radicals of today. Too often, I saw impulsive passions leading to reckless and ineffective actions. While passion and commitment are necessary for political activism, they must be guided by thoughtful and prudent decision-making in order to create real and lasting change.

One way to channel these passions into calculated, purposeful, and effective actions is to focus on small tasks that may seem mundane at first glance, but can have a significant impact. For example, the task of sweeping the campaign office every day may seem like a waste of time and effort to some, but it can actually be an important symbol of dedication and attention to detail. A clean, inviting environment can be an effective tool in gaining the support of potential voters, and it shows that the campaign is serious and determined to make an impact in the world of politics.

Ultimately, it is not the policies or platforms themselves that make a difference, but the dedication and resolve of the people behind them. Change will not come through mere wishes or intellectual pursuits; it requires the passionate commitment of those who are determined to effect lasting change. This is what I meant by the passions of politics; it is not just about the ideas, but about the people who are willing to put in the hard work and dedication to bring about positive change in society.

The ideology of change, a concept I came to understand during my time in Tanjong Karang, teaches us that truth is fluid and ever-evolving. Just like the river in Tanjong Karang, it adapts and transforms in response to the surroundings and the needs of those who depend on it. As an organizer in a free society, it is our responsibility to constantly question and challenge our own beliefs, seeking a deeper understanding of the greater context while also considering the unique intricacies of each individual situation. We believe that given the power to act, people will often make the right choices. The alternative is rule by the elite.

This ideology recognizes that our goal is to help bring about equality, justice, freedom, peace, and other values upheld by democratic tradition. We believe that democracy is the best means of achieving these values, and that political life, with all its complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities, must be accepted as it is. There will be times when we must make compromises and may not be able to reach our goals as quickly as we’d like. There will be times when we must settle for less than what is ideal in order to protect the values of democracy and freedom. If losing is part of the cost of preserving these ideals, it is a price we must be willing to pay to ensure that democracy continues to serve us well. Losing should not be seen as a failure, but rather as an integral part of the process of safeguarding our ideals and maintaining a strong democracy.

The ideology of change also requires us to let go of certain illusions that can hold us back. We must let go of the illusion of separation and the belief that there is a perfect solution to every problem. We must understand that means and ends are interconnected, and that the means we choose ultimately determine the end result. It is not fair to expect a community to be empowered if they do not have access to the resources they need to advance. Instead of placing blame, we must take proactive steps to find solutions that improve the quality of life for all.

The Responsibility of Understanding and Shaping Power Dynamics in Activism

The concept of power is one that elicits a wide range of emotions and reactions. On one hand, it is often associated with negative connotations of oppression and control. However, on the other hand, power is also a vital force for bringing about positive change and progress. At its essence, power is simply the ability to act and make things happen. Without it, how can we hope to bring about any sort of lasting transformation?

Power can take on many different forms. It can be physical strength, financial resources, or even the influence and sway one holds over others. However, perhaps the most potent and effective form of power comes from the collective force of individuals united and organized around a common goal or cause. When people come together and utilize their power in a coordinated and focused manner, they have the ability to create significant change.

This is not to say that power is always used for good. As Lord Acton famously stated, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power dynamics are present in all aspects of our lives, from the food and shelter we have access to, to the laws and systems that govern our society. It is important to recognize and understand these dynamics, as they can either enable or hinder progress towards equity and justice.

As organizers working towards a more just and equitable world, it is our responsibility to understand and shape the power structures that both sustain and constrain our efforts. From the moment we step into the public realm, we are working to harness and redistribute power for the benefit of the communities we serve. This is no easy task, as power is never destroyed, only transferred or transformed. However, with careful thought and strategic action, we can work towards a future where power is used for the betterment of all.

As we journey forth in the realm of activism, it is essential that we remain vigilant against the pitfalls of personal ambition. For in the quest for change, there is often a temptation to seek prestige and recognition, to bask in the warm glow of self-promotion. But let us not forget that our ultimate goal is not self-aggrandizement, but rather the betterment of our fellow beings and the world we all share.

In the heat of the grassroots battle, it is easy to become blinded by the desire for fame, to place the focus on ourselves rather than the cause. And yet, in so doing, we risk undermining the very mission we seek to advance. All too often, I have witnessed activists who are more concerned with taking selfies and garnering social media followers than with making a tangible impact. While it is true that building a following can be a powerful tool in spreading awareness, we must always remember that this should never come at the expense of our primary objective.

During my time as a photographer at a recent campaign in Tanjong Karang, I was struck by the number of individuals who seemed more interested in getting their faces seen than in truly contributing to the cause. They would push their way into group photos, disregarding basic protocols and putting their own desires above the needs of the movement. At first, this behavior may seem harmless, but when it becomes the norm, it can be demoralizing for those of us who are committed to the cause. It is disheartening to see people who do not understand or prioritize the core mission of our efforts, and who are more interested in personal recognition than in making a real difference.

But there is hope. We must not allow ourselves to be swayed by the allure of easy fame, but rather hold fast to our principles of excellence, dedication, and a higher purpose. We must establish clear expectations and boundaries, and hold ourselves and others accountable for upholding them. By doing so, we can build a movement that is sustainable and strong, a movement that will endure through the trials and tribulations that are sure to come. Let us strive for greatness, not for ourselves, but for the greater good.

The Haves, Have-Nots, and Have-a-Little, Want Mores: Understanding the Hierarchy of Power

In the world of grassroot organizing, it is crucial to acknowledge the complex interplay of class distinctions. At the top of the hierarchy are the Haves, those with power, wealth, and privilege, who seek to maintain the status quo. These are the people whom many in lower classes may aspire to emulate, drawn by the allure of material prosperity. But we must remember that wealth does not guarantee happiness or fulfillment, and that the pursuit of material gain can often obscure deeper values and spiritual growth.

Below the Haves lies the vast majority of the population, the Have-Nots, bound by poverty, disease, and despair. For these individuals, the struggle to survive can take precedence over broader social and political concerns. Without a strong safety net, the Have-Nots may feel resigned to their fate, seeing any attempts at change as futile or even dangerous. But there is hope. With the right support and resources, the Have-Nots can gain the confidence and power to challenge the status quo and work towards a brighter future.

Sitting in the middle are the Have-a-Little, Want Mores, the middle class, torn between upholding the status quo and yearning for change. This group can produce both great leaders of social transformation and cynical Do-Nothings, those who profess a commitment to change but do little to bring it about. Whether they become true agents of change or remain content with the status quo depends on their willingness to take action and dedicate their time and resources towards positive transformation.

As organizers, it is our task to educate and mobilize all three classes, to help them see that the status quo is not eternal, that decay and corruption are inevitable, and that change is necessary. We must be tactful in our approach, avoiding alienating or discouraging any group from becoming involved in the process of transformation. For in the end, we are all connected, and the fate of one impacts the fate of all.

Building a Mass Organization for Transformation

To bring about true and lasting change, we must first organize and wield the power that is necessary to effect that change. This process involves several key steps, each building upon the last.

First, we must create a mass organization, a diverse and inclusive group dedicated to the cause of transformation. Next, we must develop a program for action, outlining the specific goals and strategies that will guide our efforts.

With our program in hand, we must then devise tactics to achieve our objectives, seeking out the most effective and efficient means of making progress. To do this, we must build a united front, uniting diverse voices and perspectives under a common banner of change.

As we move forward, it is crucial that we educate the people, helping them to understand their role in the united front and the tactics we are employing. Only with this knowledge can we hope to achieve our goals in a coordinated and orderly manner.

Finally, we must work to consolidate the gains we have made, creating a new political power that can maintain and improve upon the progress we have achieved. At the same time, we must nurture a new culture that can sustain the values and ideals that inspired our revolution in the first place. Only by following this path can we hope to bring about real and enduring change.

Organizing political movements at the grassroot level is a challenging and multifaceted endeavor, one that requires a range of skills and qualities. From my own experience in Tanjong Karang, I have learned that success in this arena depends on a deep understanding of human nature, a clear vision of what we hope to achieve, and a well-thought-out plan for how to get there. It also requires the ability to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances, to listen to and learn from others, and to build and maintain relationships with those around us.

At the same time, organizing requires a certain level of strategy and tactical thinking, the ability to anticipate and respond to the actions of our opponents, and to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. It is all too easy to underestimate the power and determination of our adversaries, and to fall prey to overconfidence and complacency. This is why it is so important to remain vigilant, prepared, and ready to fight at all times.

Effective organizing also involves decentralization and grassroots participation, the inclusion of as many voices and perspectives as possible in the decision-making process. It is a mistake to rely too heavily on a single leader or a small group of elites, as this can lead to a lack of inclusivity and a disconnection from the broader community.

Finally, organizing is a long-term process, one that requires patience, persistence, and perseverance. It is not a quick fix, and it does not happen overnight. It requires sustained effort over an extended period of time. But if we are able to stay the course and remain dedicated to our cause, we can create lasting and meaningful change in the world. So, organizing political movements at the grassroot level is not an easy task, but it is a necessary and rewarding one, and one that can have a profound impact on the lives of those around us.


Throughout history, we have seen the power of grassroot organizing to bring about transformative change. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and countless other examples demonstrate the potential of ordinary people to challenge the status quo and create a better future.

In each of these cases, organizers were able to galvanize and mobilize the masses, building mass organizations that were able to seize power and bring about lasting change. They were able to articulate a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve, and they were able to devise strategies and tactics to achieve it. And they were able to persist in the face of adversity, even in the face of violent repression, because they knew that the cause was just and that the stakes were high.

So let us rise to the challenge, and let us organize for change. Let us be the radicals of today, and let us convert our impulsive passions into calculated, purposeful, and effective actions. Let us be the organizers of tomorrow, and let us create a better world for all. We have the power to shape the future, and it is up to us to seize that power and use it to create a world that is more just, more equal, and more free.



Fayyadh Jaafar

Former business journalist. I write other things here too, you know.