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Why Dr Mahathir?

Photograph: zaid.my

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Among other things, Mahathir would be able to reach out to specific Malay groups previously considered to be Umno’s traditional supporters, writes Francis Loh.

Almost a hundred people attended the Aliran-Bersih forum: Satukan Tenaga, Tolak Penipuan held in the Kompleks Penyayang, Penang, on 29 March 2018.

The focus of the evening’s discussion was on the redelineation exercise conducted by the Election Commission, which at that point in time had not yet been passed in Parliament.

There was much anger and frustration among all present that the Election Commission had so blatantly resorted to gerrymandering and malapportionment such that the largest constituencies, in terms of numbers of voters in the urban constituencies, have ended up with five times more voters than the smallest ones in the rural areas, thereby undermining the fundamental democratic principle of one-person one-vote. Of course, the unfair and undemocratic gerrymandering will facilitate the incumbent’s return to power.

The other major issue that cropped up at the forum was: why Dr Mahathir?

Present that evening were a group of youth. From their questions and comments, one surmised they were going to vote in the general election, regardless of the gerrymandering. They stood apart from the undi rosak campaign too, but had friends who were considering undi rosak or not to vote at all. Central to those advocating undi rosak is the question: why Dr Mahathir?

The question is a relevant concern not only for the millennial-youths in their twenties but for baby boomer oldies as well. Thanks to their wariness and thanks to the Aliran-Bersih Forum in Penang, there was opportunity to discuss the matter publicly.

The discussion below is an attempt to respond to why Dr Mahathir? It draws upon points raised in that evening’s discussion as well as from debates occurring in social media these past weeks.

Pakatan Harapan stands for Reformasi

Enveloping the question is Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s advanced age and his well-known anti-Reformasi past. At a time when others elsewhere were opting for youthful charismatic leaders associated with change like Justin Trudeau, 47, (in Canada), Emmanuel Macron, 40, (in France) or first-time mother-to-be Jacinda Ardern, 37 (in New Zealand), why was Pakatan Harapan, these undi-rosak youths queried, turning to a 92-year-old to lead Malaysia? Why was Mahathir being proposed as the leader of Pakatan Harapan and as the Opposition’s choice for Malaysia’s seventh prime minister?

As well, wasn’t Mahathir once touted Mahafiraun and Mahazalim for his anti-Reformasi and authoritarian acts? Yet, now he was going to lead the Opposition into the general election.  How on earth can we push for Reformasi under him? What kind of an Opposition is this that is bereft of younger more Reformasi-minded leaders? Undi rosak became an option because, apparently, one was being asked to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. This is no choice!

In fact, there is a clear choice between Umno-BN and Pakatan Harapan, notwithstanding Mahathir’s nomination as the latter’s leader.

On the eve of this general election, Umno-BN has unveiled yet again a lovely manifesto promising not just goodies for all, but policies to promote security and public safety, improvements to our public transport, health and education systems, programmes to foster national unity and respect for all, and even greater consultation and participation for the rakyat.

Don’t be fooled! Umno-BN have had 60-plus years to deliver all these promises. They have not!

Instead, they have undermined our still-born democracy, compromised our institutions and concentrated power in the hands of the Prime Ministers’ Department. Our public debts have soared. And corruption has reached unprecedented levels.

They have introduced numerous new coercive laws including the latest Anti Fake News Act, brought back detention without trial through the back door, and charged and detained people, including cartoonist Zunar, who have been critical of the the scandal involving 1MDB, the sovereign fund over which Prime Minister Najib has presided.

The global shaming of Malaysia under Najib’s watch is unprecedented. The Umno-BN government has undermined its own legitimacy. Malaysia needs a change of government.

Voting for Pakatan Harapan will allow us to get to the bottom of the 1MDB, National Feedlot Corp, Felda, Mara and other financial scandals. We can also re-open investigations into the deaths of people like Altantuya, Kevin Morais and Teoh Beng Hock and the ‘disappearance’ of Pastor Koh, among others.

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There can be a re-look into arrangements with highway toll operators and so many privatisation projects to Umno-BN cronies. Yes, we can also investigate how the Chinese railway consortium has been exempted from paying GST while the authorities are denying GST exemptions when we buy medicines or visit the doctors.

There might be concerns about how the Pakatan is going to deliver its own promises including the removal of the GST, the cancellation of some highway tolls including that for the first Penang Bridge. Where will they find the funds for all these?

Such anxiety reminds us of a similar concern about the Opposition having zero experience in governing prior to the 2008 general election. In fact, Pakatan has governed the two most developed states, Penang and Selangor, for two terms now. There has been less wastage – and more savings from operational expenses, which have been reallocated for development expenses.

The Pakatan-led governments in Penang and Selangor have performed not spectacularly, but most adequately, especially considering Malaysia is such a centralised federal system with most jurisdictions and most revenue sources coming under the federal government’s purview, constitutionally speaking.

The important point is that Pakatan are no longer neophytes in governing, at least not at the state level. They also believe that there will be savings from operational inefficiencies and wasteful projects.

There is a clear choice between Umno-BN and Pakatan. The former has lost its legitimacy to rule after 60-plus years. Now that we have experienced change at the state level, it is time to choose change at the centre. We need change lest our Malaysia becomes a failed state!

Mahathir solves Pakatan’s lack of credible leader at the centre

The Opposition’s campaign to take over Putrajaya in the 2008 and 2013 general elections had been handicapped not only by the ‘zero-experience-in-governing’ factor, but by the popular impression that it had no credible leader acceptable to all races and religions to become prime minister.

Anwar Ibrahim would have been a popular and credible leader but was not available due to his imprisonment on two occasions. Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail would have also fit the bill except that discrimination against a woman prime minister remained strong among certain quarters.

This allowed Umno-BN to scare off fence-sitting Malays by claiming that the DAP’s Lim Kit Siang or his son Lim Guan Eng was going to be prime minister on the one hand – and fence-sitting non-Malays by claiming that Pas’ Abdul Hadi Awang would take over.

In Mahathir, Pakatan has a respected and experienced leader to take over as the seventh prime minister. This was not an option originally. It evolved over a period of two years at least.

When Pakatan, Bersih and other NGOs joined hands with Mahathir, Muhyiddin Yassin and other former Umno leaders (all of whom later formed Bersatu) in the Citizens Declaration to condemn Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal and to demand the setting up of a royal commission to investigate the scandal, many other parties remained opposed to cooperating with Mahathir. Reports were mixed as to whether Anwar Ibrahim and his family were in favour of the initiative.

Joint Citizen Declaration public forums led to cooperation during the Bersih 5 convoys, the mass rally in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, and the vigils to protest the arrests of Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah and others.

We were pleasantly surprised to see Mahathir and Dr Siti Hasmah joining the non-governmental organisations and the Opposition on those occasions. We also witnessed his showing up in support of Anwar Ibrahim in one of the latter’s court hearings.

Being magnanimous and forgiving like Anwar, Wan Azizah, Nurul Izzah

In a well-distributed video during this run-up to the general election, Wan Azizah has stated that it was Mahathir who first approached the Opposition and proposed working together to remove Najib.

And that it was Anwar who persuaded her to accept working with the man who had imprisoned her husband. Anwar intimated to her to put aside the past, which was beyond their ability to change, and to move forward into the future, which was still within their ability to shape.

Apparently, the condition for cooperating with Mahathir and his new party Bersatu was that they must accept the Opposition’s agenda rather than impose their own onto any new coalition.

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So we witnessed Mahathir not only sitting, speaking, rallying and marching alongside Wan Azizah and Nurul Izzah, but also alongside DAP leaders Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng, as well as Mohamad Sabu, the Amanah leader.

The latter three had all been imprisoned under the ISA previously by Mahathir’s government. All have publicly declared, sometimes in front of Mahathir, how they suffered during his rule, but they were now prepared to move forward, hand in hand, with their former enemy.

Then there was also a public apology by Mahathir about past mistakes including imprisoning Anwar. In the latest short video depicting Mahathir chatting with two small children, he acknowledged, once again, that he had made mistakes in the past.

Time was running out, he told the little ones, especially since he was now in his nineties. He needed to move fast to put things right for the young, not just the 20-something millennials threatening undi rosak, but the generation after that as well. No, Mahathir’s nomination as the seventh prime minister did not happen overnight.

In fact, there is an important lesson here for the young, as well as others who have suffered at the hands of Mahathir. Are we able to open our hearts and be magnanimous – like Anwar, Wan Azizah and Nurul Izzah – to set aside the past, in order to move forward together, for the sake of the country we all love.

Politics, in this lesson that they are teaching us, is not about power, greed, positions and the self; it is also about forgiveness, second chances and magnanimity.

In the event, once this matter was settled, the Opposition was no longer handicapped by its lack of a credible leader of prime ministerial material. In Mahathir, they now have someone with 20-plus years experience at the helm.

Fake news that DAP is dalang of Opposition

One of worst lies, certainly fake news – repeated several times each day in the mainstream media, especially the Malay newspapers, which continue to be the main medium of news in rural areas – was that the Pakatan Opposition is being steered and manipulated by the chauvinistic DAP.

It didn’t matter to the Umno propagandists that DAP contests in and can only win some 40 out of the 222 seats in Parliament. Their propaganda rang: a vote for the Pakatan amounts to a vote for DAP, which intends to remove all bumiputera privileges, get rid of the sultanates and transform Malaysia into a Christian country (ridiculous as this might sound). Repeat this several times every day in every media outlet, and those without resort to alternative and social media will begin to swallow this fake propaganda; at least so they hoped.

With Mahathir at the helm, such fake and racist propaganda now rings hollow. In this regard, the non-approval of the Pakatan as a registered coalition party, the show-cause problems encountered by Bersatu, and the masterstroke decision by Pakatan leaders to jointly contest the general election under a single umbrella ie under the PKR banner have galvanised the disparate Pakatan coalition parties as never before.

Congratulations to Amanah, to Bersatu and to DAP for setting aside their party banners. With no Rockets in sight, the propaganda of DAP as the dalang behind Pakatan makes no sense.

And for those who remain wary of Mahathir’s ‘real’ intentions (implying that he would say something now, and do something else after the general election), it is important to stress that the Opposition’s plan is to push for Anwar Ibrahim’s release from prison and for his pardon upon coming to power, first and foremost. Mahathir himself has also stated on several occasions that he intends to step down within two years or earlier.

Mahathir attracts Malay support from traditional Umno constituents

Another factor explaining Why Dr Mahathir? is because he would be able to assist Pakatan Harapan in reaching out to specific Malay groups, hitherto considered as part of Umno’s traditional supporters.

Evidently, many former civil servants and veterans who previously served in the police and military, as exemplified by the Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan, have rallied behind the Opposition as never before. This is due to the Mahathir pull factor.

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As well, unlike in the 2008 and 2013 general elections, the Opposition has also succeeded in penetrating into Felda schemes. Considered Umno’s ‘fixed deposits’ in the peninsula, Felda settlers had voted solidly for Umno time and again, in spite of all the financial scandals surrounding the statutory organisation and its privatised companies.

It also appears that Langkawi, where Mahathir will be contesting the general election, will fall to the Opposition for the first time. The reception that he has received from voters there has been phenomenal. Some commentators have noted that the campaign period has been limited to 11 days to disallow Mahathir from penetrating further into traditional Umno bases throughout the country.

Witness, also, how some retired ministers have come out in support of Mahathir’s bid to return as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister. Hmmm.

Uncertainties after polls?

There is a final reason why Mahathir’s leadership of the Opposition might prove critical. Malaysia has never experienced a change of government at the centre. How might the security forces and police react upon defeat of Umno-BN and Najib?

One of the most significant aspects of Malaysia is that there has never occurred any overt intervention by the security forces into Malaysian politics, even though we are surrounded by countries – Thailand, Burma, Indonesia – where coup d’etats occur periodically.

Studies have shown that top military leaders have been closely associated with and related to Umno leaders and have never had reason to undermine those civilian Malay rulers.

More than any other leader, Mahathir will have the wherewithal to persuade the security forces to remain within the barracks. Already, he has reminded the military and police top brass that their loyalty is to the king and country, not to the prime minister and the Umno-BN government of the day.

Not a minor concern is the credibility of the civil service, which after 60-plus years of one-party rule has become extremely politicised. Those holding top positions are not necessarily there because of competence and seniority! Often, having the right cables count more.

Recall the difficulties faced by the Pakatan-led governments of Selangor, Penang and for a while the Perak one as well, when they first took over the reins of state governments in 2008. Unlike, say in India, Japan, Australia or the United Kingdom, where governments have rotated power, the civil service in those countries have maintained a proud tradition of professionalism and neutrality vis-à-vis the political party leaders.

Not so in Malaysia. This will also be a severe test. More so than any other Opposition leader, Mahathir will be able to persuade the bureaucrats to re-orient themselves to the new government, in order to serve the rakyat as they should.

The list can go on. Members of the judiciary, the secretary generals and the deputies of various ministries and government departments, the upper echelon of the entire bureaucracy, the directors of the government-linked companies, the vice chancellors of our 25-plus universities – all will need persuading to serve the new government even though they were appointed by the outgoing Umno-BN one.

Of course, the heads of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Election Commission and the attorney general, among others, will all have to be changed as well.

Just as well that Mahathir has pulled in support from retired civil servants and veterans of our security forces. They might be able to help in the re-orienting of the 1.6m civil servants should a change of government occur on 9 May 2018.


There is a clear choice between Umno-BN and Pakatan Harapan.

Various kinds of fears and racist propaganda have been stoked to undermine the call for change.

With Mahathir as Pakatan’s candidate for seventh prime minister, many of these claims ring hollow. With his ability to tap into Umno’s traditional sources of support, like the veterans, retired civil servant and Felda settlers, more Malays, not just non-Malays and urban-based educated Malays, will push for change.

With Mahathir in charge, the takeover of Putrajaya by a a new government, which is unprecedented, promises to be smoother.

We hope we have answered the important question, Why Dr Mahathir? What a waste if there occurs undi rosak or if you do not turn up to vote.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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2 May 2018 8.42am

So much has been said about how bad the institutions have become and how corrupt our leaders are. So the right move is to vote for a new government. If not now, when?

1 May 2018 1.12pm

the idea of a new PM every 8 years proposed by PH should should be the reason why all PAS and BN members must vote for PH this time. They can switch back to their parties after that. A New PM every 8 years will never put us into the hole we are in now.NEVER.

Jenny Sak
1 May 2018 11.34am

Thank you, Dr Francis Loh, for such a well-explained article on the Mahathir factor in GE14. If this doesn’t open & change the minds of those who intend to spoil votes or stay home on May 9th, nothing will.

Edmund Pua
1 May 2018 10.57am

Mahafiraun dah suci 😂😂

Gunasekaran Balasundaram
1 May 2018 10.28am

Why not?Without Tun M no chance for opposition to overthrow BN.This is the last hope before BN becomes more authoritarian

Frank Tan
1 May 2018 9.06am

Let’s deal with issues not the person. To err is humane to forgive is divine

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