We are at a crossroads of our nationhood where if we do nothing, we may end up a failed state and an international disgrace, writes Thomas Fann.
The unimaginable has happened.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, sat down with many of his political adversaries on 4 March 2016 to sign a Citizens’ Declaration to demand the removal of Najib Razak and to usher in institutional reforms.
The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and the revelation that RM2.6bn was deposited into the prime minister’s personal account just before the 13th general election has outraged the 91-year-old Dr Mahathir as well as many Malaysians.
The call for the prime minister to step aside to allow unimpeded investigation into this scandal has not only gone unheeded, but Najib has turned on his critics and scuttled all attempts to uncover the truth.
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Some have called the signing of the Citizens’ Declaration a political realignment of forces to create a better Malaysia for future generations. Putting aside no small amount of ego, political allegiance, ideologies, past bitterness and unjust treatment, these political and civil society leaders are united in their commitment to “Save Malaysia”.
Within hours of the historic press conference, the prime minister’s office came out with a brief statement to condemn this move. The statement read, “Today, Dr Mahathir and his former enemies have demonstrated the depth of their political opportunism and desperation.”
Ironically, some people who are normally aligned with the opposition are also saying the same thing. For them the main issue is Dr Mahathir himself, not so much the content of the declaration itself.
Can he be trusted? What is his real agenda? Is it to save Umno/BN or to save the country? Will he betray those who now support him once he has achieved his goal, like he has done many times before?
Are these opposition politicians and civil society leaders naive, weak, short-memoried, paid-off or just plain opportunistic?
Milton Friedman, the recipient of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics Science, once said, “One man’s opportunism is another man’s statesmanship.”
Many sitting at the signing table with Dr Mahathir were jailed by him during his iron-fisted rule. Even the currently jailed Anwar Ibrahim, the former protege-turned-nemesis of Mahathir, came out with a statement from Sungai Buloh prison to give his unequivocal support to his former boss and the declaration.
If Anwar is not in prison, he would have sat next to Mahathir that day. Just imagine that picture.
Yes, it is opportunism that brought together foes, but isn’t politics about seizing opportunities to advance one’s cause or interest and being willing to make compromises for the greater and common good of all?
Former South African president Nelson Mandela is regarded as a great statesman today because he was willing to accept the invitation for peace talks by the regime that incarcerated him for 27 years.
He had every reason to be bitter and to not negotiate. Yet he seized the opportunity to save his country from a bloodbath and ruination. We can think of many a great statesman in the past who had to make difficult decisions to sit don’t with their foes to forge a deal that would secure a better future for their nation.
The Citizen’s Declaration document is not perfect. It does not include specifics of what must be done to reform public institutions, and neither is it clear what the plan of actions to follow is. But it is a starting point.
The next few months will be critical if this Citizen’s Declaration is to have any purpose beyond mere words and whether it loses its initial “wow” factor and loses steam.
In my opinion, the following must take place:
1. The signatories must stay committed to one another. The propaganda assaults have already begun in full earnest against the individuals, and this not only from the government but also from opposition supporters. Some signatories may cave in to the pressure and recant their position.
2. The public must get fully behind it. Unless the public themselves show their support to the Citizens’ Declaration in large numbers, it would not gain the momentum needed to achieve its stated objectives. Avenues must be opened to allow the public to express their support. Politicians from both sides usually take note of numbers.
3. There must be a clear plan of action. The team behind the Citizens’ Declaration has to flesh out clearly what they intend to do to achieve their first objective of removing Najib and also what they intend to do after he is removed.
4. There must be specifics. What do we mean by institutional reforms and restoring the integrity of the institutions. It is hard for people to give wholehearted support without specifics.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we believe that our country is in crisis and it can only get worse if nothing is done to stop the rot?
For many, we are at a crossroads of our nationhood where if we do nothing, we may end up a failed state and an international disgrace. At the end of the day, it is not about Dr Mahathir, Najib or the opposition.
It is about our country. Is it worth fighting for? Is it worth putting aside our differences? Is it worth saving?
Thomas Fann is involved in several NGOs that provide services to those infected and affected by HIV, food and environmental issues, education and political reformation.