Now, with supreme irony, the man most responsible for the national disrepair is the only one capable of fixing it, writes Allen Lopez in a personal rumination on the coming polls.
For all the benefits that the 22-year Mahathir era brought, there was a less savoury underbelly.
For a good part of his tenure, Mahathir’s governance was characterised by autocracy and a concentration of power at the top which presaged a dim political future. Mahathirism begot the current diseased state of the body politic.
Now, with supreme irony, the man most responsible for this disrepair is the only one capable of fixing it. Mahathir, on the threshold of turning 93, has taken to the task with grit and gusto. It is his last battle for the nation.
I harbour no intrinsic antipathy toward the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. Rather, my partiality rests on a couple of factors: a thriving democracy depends on the existence of a viable alternative to the incumbent in office, and power vested in one party (or worse, one person) for too long will corrupt.
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Sixty years of BN rule has been much too long. The BN ethic over the course of two generations has steadily putrefied and is now toxic. BN today is as far removed from the Alliance/BN of the Tunku Abdul Rahman-to-Hussein Onn era as night is from day. It is a caricature of the party it once was.
Slide into slime – Mahathir’s mixed legacy
To say that Mahathir was a strong leader would be an understatement. He has an unquestioning belief in his convictions. And, undeniably, there is much to be admired in him.
A man of sturdy conviction, the former prime minister is remarkably intelligent and possessed of a tireless work ethic. He is by all accounts God-fearing, with a personal morality untainted by even a hint of scandal. Perhaps, most significantly, he is a true patriot,
Lest one thinks of him as sainted, he is also human with human failings. The man’s virtues also spawned his weaknesses. In power, he was impatient, even intolerant, with those holding a different world-view.
So focused was Mahathir on achieving his laudable Vision 2020 that he condoned much that was wrong to attain its objectives. Under him, corruption and cronyism thrived. An avid horseman, he could ride roughshod over obstacles in his path, even if a more circumspect approach was called for.
This wreaked much damage: institutions that ensure a vibrant democracy were compromised. There was also an over-accumulation of power at the top during his time, perhaps the most regrettable being the prime minister’s absorption of the finance portfolio – which ousted a vital check and balance in fiscal management.
This was tolerable as long as Mahathir held the reins; there was comfort in the knowledge that he would not allow things to get too awry. The basic decency of the man could be relied on to not harm the country – certainly not for any personal financial gain.
But there is no denying that his failings in power set the stage for a steady crumbling of accountability and transparency, such that in the hands of a less scrupulous and morally weak leader, the scope for mischief was almost boundless.
Mahathir was anything but universally liked after he stepped down. Many were waiting for his comeuppance: there was the opposition that he had often cruelly berated when in power; the Anwar diehards who never forgave him for persecuting and jailing their iconic hero; and a swath of the general populace who believed he had, perhaps through benign neglect, done near-mortal damage to the pillars of a well-functioning democracy, in particular the civil service, agencies combating corruption, the police and even the judiciary.
These detractors helplessly saw what was happening to the country – and put the blame squarely at Mahathir’s doorstep.
Mahathir was astonishingly bad at picking a successor. Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim were sacked, replaced, and disgraced and jailed, respectively.
Another would-be successor, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, proved no match for the master tactician and was despatched to the periphery after failed challenges first from within Umno and then in general elections.
Mahathir finally settled on a safe pair of hands in Abdullah Badawi. But it didn’t take long for Mahathir to rail against Badawi, whose style seemed the antithesis of his. Where Mahathir was ever the man in a hurry, Abdullah was laid back. Where Mahathir was charismatic and passionate, his successor seemed a throwback to a kinder, gentler Hussein Onn era.
Mahathir’s patience ran out when Abdullah had the temerity to cancel his unfinished pet project: the controversial “crooked bridge” project over the Johor Straits. Abdullah was duly ushered into a cosy retirement.
Najib seemed the man to not just fulfil Mahathir’s Vision 2020, but even take it to the next level. He was youngish, cultivated and well-spoken, and with a reasonable intellect. He would lead Malaysia into the ranks of developed nations. With his pedigree, he was unlikely to be tempted by the lure of lucre and would surely not yield to the excesses of power.
Mahathir’s faith may have been skewed by the debt of gratitude he felt he owed Najib’s father, Abdul Razak Hussein, the country’s respected second Prime Minister, who was Mahathir’s mentor. Perhaps it was also buttressed by a belief that the acorn does not fall far from the tree.
But Mahathir was soon badly let down. His faith in Najib was severely rattled when news broke of the billions of ringgit lost in the 1MDB fiasco. It was like a thunderbolt for Mahathir. How could his favoured successor act with such blatant disregard for good governance? The amounts involved were staggering and the opacity of the goings-on went against everything Mahathir stood for. The explanations proffered for the humongous outlays from state coffers didn’t hold up.
And then the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: the US$681m deposited into Najib’s bank account. The related US Department of Justice report on the colossal scale of the money laundering and embezzlement from 1MDB, with a key player identified as MO1 (subsequently confirmed by a cabinet minister to be Najib), removed any doubt that Najib should be held to account.
Mahathir couldn’t stand idly by. He had anointed Najib as a worthy successor. He felt responsible, and he had to set things right.
Mahathir came out with all guns blazing. He minced no words telling it as he saw it – giving voice to what many were thinking, but feared to speak out for fear of the backlash. Mahathir-haters saw a whole new side to the man and could only admire his guts and grit, especially while erstwhile leading lights in Umno had metamorphosed into ostriches.
Mahathir’s strident and fearless stand drew open admiration, even from past political foes.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP), so impugned by Mahathir in the past as a Chinese chauvinist, even racist, party, saw in the latter-day Mahathir someone who put country first and, for the first time, someone they could work with. DAP’s coming on board was pivotal.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), founded by Mahathir’s nemesis, Anwar, originally as the antidote to Mahathirism, also joined the ranks, burying the past for the sake of the country.
The Opposition had now found common cause with Mahathir and saw him as the only viable hope of leading a united opposition to unseat BN.
Mahathir’s strategy was to personalise the battle. Najib, more than Umno-BN, became the target of his vitriol. He repeatedly used the epithets “thief, robber, pirate” against Najib in his speeches and seemed to be goading the authorities to take him on.
The opposition parties – PKR, DAP, Amanah (a breakaway from the Islamist party, Pas) and Mahathir’s own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) – formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition, modelled on BN. They agreed to contest the upcoming general election under the PH banner.
Mahathir was named prime minister-designate, as he was the most credible chance PH had of unseating the incumbent. It was a saleable proposition to the Malay heartland voters.
For his stand, Mahathir was relieved of his lucrative government posts, and a campaign of vilification against him followed through the mainstream print and electronic media. The same media and politicians who had all once sung his praises overnight began sticking their daggers in.
Mahathir was inured to such a reaction – he had seen this and worse in his fabled career. Convinced that he was fighting the good fight, he just shrugged and got on with the task at hand.
If anything, the scorn poured on him only strengthened his resolve. Besides the political rallies, all means available – including the online news media, social media and (when possible) even foreign media – were deployed to spread the word: change was not an option, it was a necessity.
On the cusp of turning 93, Mahathir is in sparkling health and his mental acuity is as sharp as ever. The campaign is like an elixir of youth from which he drinks and rejuvenates himself: he is in his element doing battle as he has done for decades. He speaks without notes for as long as 45 minutes at a time, on his feet and sometimes even without a podium to lean on.
Venturing into the Malay heartland, he is a man on a life’s mission – to save the country from ruin.
Reading the tea leaves
How this gripping saga will pan out is an open question.
Mahathir is contesting in the parliamentary seat of Langkawi, where he should be a shoo-in, in his home state of Kedah, where he is revered as the state’s most illustrious son.
How his message of change is going down in the rest of the country, particularly in the Malay heartland, is harder to gauge. The early signs give reason for hope.
This is the first time ever that the opposition is contesting under a single banner. The government’s refusal to register Mahathir’s party PPBM and the PH coalition was taken in stride as yet another ploy to undermine the opposition like two other recent moves: the redrawing of electoral boundaries (gerrymandering) and the fixing of a mid-week polling day (9 May).
Without missing a beat, the coalition agreed to contest under the PKR banner. The irony is hard to miss. The PKR logo is a stylised human “eye”, symbolising the black eye Anwar suffered at the hands of the police chief while in custody. And now Mahathir could conceivably be the next prime minister, contesting under Anwar’s party banner. Truth can be stranger than fiction.
Mahathir has also mended fences with Anwar, who is still in jail. But a dream ticket of Mahathir-Anwar is not to be for this election campaign.
Still, there is Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah, the PKR president, who is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him in this battle. She was the one who announced Mahathir’s nomination for the Langkawi seat. She will assume the deputy prime minister’s post if PH captures Putrajaya and Mahathir becomes the country’s seventh prime minister.
The Chinese vote seems all but sewn up for PH, as it was in the 2013 general election, in the aftermath of which Najib coined the memorable “Chinese tsunami” pejorative, inspiring the “apa lagi Cina mahu” refrain in the mainstream media.
The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Chinese component party of the ruling BN, seems headed for and reconciled to a bitter defeat. DAP will, for the first time in half a century, contest under the banner of a different party ie PKR.
Mahathir has admitted that BN’s mischaracterisation of the DAP – of which he himself was culpable when in power – was for political expediency. He now hails the DAP as an authentic Malaysian party. Ah, the vicissitudes of politics – no permanent enemies or friends.
Mahathir’s reassurance should go some way toward assuaging the suspicions of Malay heartland voters. For Mahathir, once labelled a Malay ultra, to call DAP an authentically Malaysian party should count for something.
The Indian Malaysian vote, which could be important in a few marginal seats, is less predictable. The urban, more politically aware, Indians seem very much with the opposition, but the support of the Indian working class is unpredictable. The financial carrots waved before this bloc may favour the ruling party. Tamil-speaking Indian-Muslim Umno stalwarts are being deployed to sway the rural Indian vote. The promises made and the ethnic identity politics parlayed by these apparatchiks will have some traction.
The east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have always been BN’s ‘fixed-deposit’ states. Sarawak may be tough to win for PH but the BN’s grip on Sabah could be loosened with sacked federal minister Shafie Apdal leading the charge there.
Pivotal Malay vote
Malays and other indigenous groups make up more than 65% of the electorate. They ultimately decide the victor.
Informed urban Malays seem to have had enough of the ruling party and appear ready for change. Indeed, the 51%-plus of the popular vote that the opposition won in the last general election mirrored this sentiment. Arguably, these Malays have even more reason to vote opposition this time around. The Malay youth plagued by unemployment and higher living costs too appear to veer towards the opposition.
The big unknown is the rural Malay base, for whom Umno-BN and government mean one and the same thing. The big imponderable is how many of them will be persuaded by the ‘Mahathir factor’ to give the opposition a chance. Mahathir is still much respected among them, not only for championing their cause when in power but also because of his age. That he is willing to do battle at the age of almost 93, must mean something for more than a few of them.
If PH wrests Putrajaya from BN, history will be made, with Mahathir its chief architect. He will go down as the father of (real) democracy. For bequeathing that legacy on the nation, few will begrudge that he be fittingly honoured.
Some random ideas from this former harsh critic who is now a great admirer: declare 10 July, his birthday as Mahathir Day; perhaps rename the iconic structures associated with his premiership (KLIA, the Twin Towers or the North-South Expressway). It will be small payback for so monumental a bequest.
But that’s getting a little ahead of the game: 9 May will decide how real a prospect this is.
Disclosure: Allen was a volunteer polling agent for the opposition in the 2013 general election. He is also slated to be a polling and counting agent for Pakatan Harapan/PKR in the coming general election.