Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia was formed on 24th March 1968. The six founders of the party were Professor Syed Hussain Alatas of the University of Singapore, Dr. David Tan Chee Khoon, Member of Parliament for Batu, Selangor and former leader of the Labour Party, Dr. J.B.A. Peter, President of the Malaysian Medical Association, Dr. Lim Chong Eu, Member of Parliament for Tanjong, Penang and former President of the United Democratic Party, Professor Wang Gungwu of the University of Malaya, and Mr. V. Veerapan, legal practitioner and former leader of the Labour Party. In its initial stage, the party had drawn its main support from members of the dissolved United Democratic Party, and the English-educated moderates of the Labour Party. Together they constituted an invaluable power base for further expansion.
Attempts were also made to establish a close rapport with trade unionists whose cosmopolitan postures were considered as essential in the crystallization of a truly multi-ethnic political party. As a result, Yeoh Teck Chye, President of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress and V. David, Secretary-General of the General Transport Workers’ Union were soon brought into party prominence. On 15th April 1968, the party held its inaugural meeting in Kuala Lumpur during which the objectives and policies of Gerakan were explicitly spelt out in a document tabled by the pro-tem Chairman, Professor Syed Hussain Alatas. Out of a total of sixteen members elected to the pro-tem committee five were Malays. And when the party was approved by the Registrar of Societies on 25th May 1968, the first Central Committee comprised six Malays, including two ladies, six Chinese and three Indians. Total membership was estimated at 1400, with 43 branches founded in mostly non-Malay urban centres.
From its inception, the party had posed itself as a non-communal constellation of matured and responsible political personalities. Dr. Lim Chong Eu in Penang and Dr. Tan Chee Khoon in Kuala Lumpur were the two vital axes which promised the party a genuinely national outlook. With limited human and financial resources, it soon busied itself to contest the 3rd General Election after Merdeka in 1969. When the election was held on 10 May 1969, the party’s commitment to the people’s aspirations was fully rewarded. It captured the State Government of Penang by winning 16 out of a total of 24 seats. Elsewhere in Selangor, Perak, Kedah, Malacca and Pahang the number of state assemblymen elected were 4, 2, 2, 1 and 1 respectively. Besides, it would now be represented by 8 members in the Dewan Rakyat. The success of the party was undoubtedly not based on communal sentiments as evidenced by its splendid performance in Penang. For the first time in Malaysia’s electoral history, it attested to the viability of a non-communal party built on popular mass support. However, with the suspension of parliamentary democracy and the beginning of N.O.C. rule following the traumatic May 13 Riots, all the elected members were not able, for the time being, to exercise their duties to the nation and the people.
With a rapidly changing political environment, Dr. Lim Chong Eu had gradually come to grasp with the realities of the day. First, political confrontation was not only not to be tolerated but was detrimental to national unity. Secondly, co-operation with the Federal Government was deemed necessary to obtain financial assistance for the many economic projects that he had planned to deliver during his tenure of office. Thirdly, co-operation would also ensure stability and the early revival of parliamentary democracy. This was, however, construed by some leaders in 1970 as an attempt to establish formal ties with the Alliance Government.
As differences over priorities of short and long-term party developments accumulated, internal crises brewed into open power struggles culminating in an abortive attempt to overthrow Dr. Lim Chong Eu’s leadership in the Penang State Government shortly after the restoration of parliamentary rule in April 1971. A series of legal proceedings followed after June but Dr. Lim Chong Eu’s position as the Acting Chairman of the party was eventually upheld by the court. Consequently, a few leaders and their followers left the party thereby reducing it to a Penang-based regional party. To preserve the party’s control over the state government and attain development goals envisaged by the party’s election manifesto for Penang, a coalition government was formed with the Alliance Party on 13th February 1972.