Anwar should be given a chance so that the reformist 2018 election manifesto can be given a new lease of life under a more determined, albeit weakened, leadership. YT Chia writes.
A couple of weeks ago, Anwar Ibrahim, in a hurriedly convened press conference, announced he had a substantive majority to form a new government.
He also revealed that unfortunately, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong was hospitalised, and so he could not present his list to the king — the person who has the power to decide. It was an anti-climax, which did not auger well for Anwar’s quest for the top post.
Anwar’s move invited a flurry of comments and speculation.
Some more emotionally hurt observers expressed their frustration and condemned the “froggy” behaviour of our politicians, hopping from one party to another, betraying the voters’ mandate just so they could be in government: “Oh no, not again! We are fed up of our politicians!”
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They are rightfully weary of this unhealthy political trend, triggered by the collapse of the elected Pakatan Harapan coalition government just because the ex-PM refused to honour a political pact to hand over power to Anwar.Anwar claimed his move was to rectify the situation.
More cynical commentators, the usual Anwar critics, accused him of being “power crazy”, of “destabilising the country” and of throwing another of his usual “political stunts” or “bluffs” to hoodwink the public and wrest power.
Neutral commentators generally were concerned for Anwar: although they believed he had the numbers, they felt the real decision-makers among the ruling elite would not be sympathetic to him. His attempt would fail, and his own reputation would be at stake. The plot would be too complex for him to control. Any failure would be his tragedy.
For Anwar and his supporters, the move is legitimate because the bulk of the signatories supporting him are from PH, which had been given the mandate to rule in the 2018 general election. An unholy alliance unceremoniously usurped PH in the ‘Sheraton Move’ in late February this year. Anwar, they feel, is reclaiming the PH mandate by seeking the support of another group of Umno MPs.
Putting the ethical debate aside, they claim PH led by Anwar has the legitimacy to replace the present government, formed this year under controversial circumstances. The crux of the matter is Muhyiddin Yassin’s present government is fragile, having no viable majority.
Many critics interpret Anwar’s move as being personal, merely to fulfil his own ambition of becoming prime minister of Malaysia. They unfairly paint him as being obsessed with the position, willing to do anything it takes to achieve his ambition.
But few observers place the subject in its proper historical perspective. Anwar has been a Malaysian leader in his own right, leading the opposition for over 20 years, spending half of that time in prison. He is their spiritual leader of sorts. If the opposition had won the election in that time, he would have been the undisputed choice for prime minister.
This is a fact that many politicians, including his erstwhile comrades, ignore for their own reasons; instead, they sideline him by citing his personal shortcomings, which they claim make him unfit to be the PM.
If moral character is the sole criteria, all the parliaments of the world would be empty! Anwar is there because of our country’s political development, like it or not – just like Najib Razak, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and even Muhyiddin Yassin, each helmed the nation. Ignoring Anwar – either by force or betrayal or through persecution or even worse, by smearing him – would not eliminate him from the political arena. It would only leave the country in perpetual political instability because he commands a substantial political force in the country.
Khairy Jamaluddin, the young Oxford graduate aspiring for the top post in Umno, when asked in a public forum in Singapore in January 2019 whether Mahathir should pass the baton to Anwar, said: “Yes, I think he should be prime minister for a few reasons … One, if (Anwar) doesn’t become prime minister, we will not hear the end of it. He cannot move on and we cannot move on.”
Taking a huge risk
Critics would like to blame Anwar for his latest attempt at destabilising the country while ignoring the fact that, with due respect to Muhyiddin’s sincerity and competence, it was the Perikatan Nasional government that started this charade of horse-trading and the numbers game.
PN rule is unsustainable because it doesn’t command a majority. Shouldn’t any leader having a majority be given a chance to form a government, as he or she would in a democracy? The claim of a majority should be tested in Parliament. But a previous attempt has been foiled.
The reality facing us is that, since the collapse of the PH government, no political force has a majority. Anwar himself is a victim of this reality too, and that is why he is facing many obstacles. He is taking a huge political risk. His foes and allies could easily play him out. But he is fighting back because he has an unfinished task to accomplish – to reform the country.
Even if Anwar succeeds in forming a new government, its composition would not be an ideal one, but we would have to live with it, just like PH had to live with Mahathir. Whether history repeats itself would depend on Anwar’s wisdom.
Muhyiddin’s experience has shown that a political marriage of convenience does not work. You can entice an MP in, but your opponent can entice him or her out. There must be some moral and ideological bottom lines. Otherwise, our country would have a parliament without a soul, without dignity and decency — a government formed with people who are bought with money and positions.
To some extent, the PH coalition with Bersatu under Mahathir is a case in point, although substantively different. There was the kleptocracy issue to galvanise the coalition. PH had to work with Mahathir to win over some Malay votes to oust Najib, as Anwar was languishing in jail.
With his political skill and tenacity, Mahathir led PH to victory. The victorious moment was electrifying and euphoric. There was the feeling of a second Merdeka.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Then-Prime Minister Mahathir, though at the peak of his political legacy, unmatched in the world, tragically pursued his “Malay Agenda” and let his personal hatred for Anwar overwhelm him.
Mahathir plotted against Anwar. Knowingly or unknowingly, Mahathir’s non-adherence to the electoral pact with PH and to the people’s aspirations resulted in the infamous Sheraton Move. This backdoor move brought down the PH government and his own second stint as PM, together with his pre-election legacy. Sad, but that is the political reality.
Reformasi struggle goes on
Puzzlingly, many often overlook another political reality: Anwar is the most qualified and experienced leader still around and kicking, vying to recover the lost mandate the people had bestowed in the last general election. Anwar understands the importance of power to carry out reforms, the impetus for which kicked in over 20 years ago with his sacking by Mahathir.
Many political pundits, including his own comrades-turned-foes especially, forget that the Reformasi movement they started was a watershed event that changed the course of Malaysian history. That event had strong social and historical implications. It was the first revolt of the Malays, particularly the urban poor who turned against the Umno regime, since the New Economic Policy, which introduced affirmative action policies.
Undeniably, the NEP did create a large Malay middle class, and hence brought about peace and stability to the country. But corruption and cronyism were so rampant and deep-rooted that many poor Malays remained left behind. In short, the gap between the rich and the poor among the Malays widened to an intolerable level. Anwar and his comrades happened to ride on this dissatisfaction.
No surprise then that Anwar and PKR’s political programme has been to wipe out poverty, with affirmative action based on needs and not on race; to fight against injustice, corruption and cronyism; to improve governance through political reforms; and to fight for a system respecting the rights of all citizens regardless of race, creed and religion.
The Anwar-led opposition has never advocated the abolition of the NEP but for improvements in its implementation, which has disproportionately benefited many among the ruling elite. Till today, despite political setbacks, Anwar persists on these lines.
Unfortunately, not only has this reformist programme not taken root, the ruling elite led by Umno fought back by playing up racial issues with the clarion call that Malays must protect their privileges and special position. In reality, what the elite probably meant was the protection of their own privileges and positions.
But the flare-up of Malay sentiment, however subdued, turned the discontented Malays away from Anwar. Umno accused Anwar of undermining Malay interests by working with the DAP, which had been painted as anti-Malay for decades.
In recent years, following the passing of Pas spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat, Pas has added an Islamic slant to the picture. Together with Umno, it campaigned for a Malay-Muslim government, potentially to the detriment of peace and stability of our plural society, if left unchecked. We need a strong Malay leader to address this.
The NEP has been widely recognised as achieving some relative success in uplifting the Malays’ socioeconomic status. But this has given rise to another set of problems, besides abject poverty – the ‘stagnation’ of the Malay middle class. A lack of entrepreneurship and an absence of competitiveness (measured against the non-Malays) have impeded their advancement. So it is understandable that many Malays are easily taken up by the racial and religious rhetoric put forward by the Umno-Pas alliance.
We need a strong Malay leader not only to counter the rhetoric but to resolve their problem of stagnation. Entrepreneurship and competitiveness are the antitheses of the positive discrimination of the NEP. The Malays must realise that without discarding their ‘tongkat’ (crutches), their advancement will be stymied. Mahathir has talked about this umpteen times, but he stops at lip service. Which Malay leader has the courage and ingenuity to help the Malays out of this quagmire?
The Malay community has been brought up under the influence of the Malay Agenda, whose ultimate aim is to establish a Malay nation. Having been schooled and brought up with the Malays, I understand their aspirations. But I urge my friends to look again at this agenda, as the wish to subjugate or assimilate a large section of the population is simply not possible.
We have seen this agenda to be unworkable for the last 70 years, and it is even more so in light of the formation of Malaysia. But this agenda is being resurrected again by the supporters of the Umno-Pas alliance. This must be curbed before it is too late.
Anwar’s present attempt to regain the mandate for reform should be viewed in this light.
Moving beyond identity politics
Quoting Khairy again, speaking at the same Singapore forum last year: “[Anwar] is still the best bet to lead Malaysia after Mahathir … because of Anwar’s ability to appeal to Malaysians across the spectrum amid a rising tide of identity politics in the Muslim-majority country, an “advantage … that nobody else has.”
He added: “[Anwar] speaks the language of modernity and he speaks the language of tradition, especially when it comes to Islam, and also the Malay identity.
“As long as identity politics remains an important marker in Malaysian politics … I think possibly Anwar in Pakatan Harapan is the only person who can manage to navigate around identity politics and prevent it from becoming something that is uglier than it potentially could be.”
Despite his hold on politics, why has Anwar been constantly kept out of the corridor of power? Anwar may be considered as the most misunderstood, demonised and persecuted politician in our history. Why? Is it the character and personality of the man himself – or is it the circumstances he is in that makes him so vulnerable?
Anwar is not a villain, so my answer would be the latter. He stands on the side of the poor. That could be a hint to explain why his journey to the top has been so tortuous.
Few ruling regimes in the world would risk persecuting a political opponent twice on the same trumped-up charges. This shows how ‘dangerous’ (to the regime) and how formidable (to the public) Anwar is – that they have to resort to such lewd tactics to destroy him politically.
We must put aside personal dislikes and prejudices and have in mind the big picture of reform, and support Anwar for the top post without wavering so that the reformist 2018 election manifesto can be given a new lease of life under a more determined, albeit weakened, leadership.
Even though Anwar appears to have the numbers, and Muhyiddin may have lost his majority, there is no guarantee Anwar will be appointed as the PM. There are dark forces trying to sabotage and upset his plan, and he has many remaining hurdles to surmount. We can only wish him – and the country – well.
YT Chia is a member of Monsoons Malaysia, a civil society group concerned about political issues