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Strong, formidable challenges: How will Anwar cope?

The PM has to show strong political will to lead the nation out of multiple crises

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By M Santhananaban

A convicted and imprisoned former prime minister, notorious gambler and speculator with public pension funds is objecting strenuously to the conditions of his incarceration.

No doubt, Najib Razak had, from the beginning, full or partial knowledge of these prison conditions.

He even received a controversial partial pardon on his prison term and a high discount on the fine imposed on him.

Instead of being grateful, he seems grossly dissatisfied.

Bifurcated 1Malaysia

While in high office, Najib declared and was driven by a paradoxical “1Malaysia” mantra.

But now he seems to believe he is not part of that utopian one Malaysia mould.

Instead, Najib seems to think he belongs to a ‘special category’ and should not be treated like any other normally convicted white-collar criminal of his 1Malaysia. He wants to be placed in a home environment to complete his prison term.

His loyal or beholden workhorses are seeking special dispensation for this novel, unprecedented home-stay facility. This is not just a plea for mercy but appears to be a movement to pressure the current prime minister to arrange an unspecified home-stay environment.

After 17 months in office, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is not being decisive in dealing with this explosive issue.

Anwar, himself a former long-term prisoner, is fully aware of the plight of prisoners in the country. He endured not just incarceration but insidious insinuations about his character and conduct. The mainstream media kept up this character assassination for well over a decade.

Najib does not face such unkind media coverage. Yet, he is making wondrous waves with his home-stay petition.

In contrast, Anwar is hardly making waves – at least not the right kind of waves. He seems bogged down, caught in some surreal space, hemmed in within vicious bigwig manoeuvres and a time warp.

The PM appears unable to inspire fresh confidence in his administration. He started off amid some grand unrealistic expectations of him at the grassroots level.

But many were also sceptical about what to expect from him. As it turns out, he has disappointed many of his keen supporters and even his detractors and sceptics.

Anwar’s political opponents from the 1990s, including Najib, seem to have resurfaced remarkably with considerable reserves of cash and a significant nuisance clout to mount a serious challenge against the PM.

This is partly on account of Anwar’s perceived selective anti-corruption drive against unaccountable wealth.

Anwar suffers from another serious disability: his original Reformasi rovers, including Azmin Ali and Kamaruddin Jaafar, are no longer with him. He is more reliant on support from minority groups rather than ethnic Malay power in the peninsula. He seems to have failed in wooing mainstream Malay support.

The PM is in a bind because he has frantically tried to draw this powerful Malay base in the peninsula – without much success.

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In an earlier era, Anwar and then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad wittingly or unwittingly Islamised and radicalised this same power base to sustain themselves in power.

That playground, which has assumed a more extremist ethnic-religious bent, is increasingly the province of Pas, Bersatu and marginally Umno. Anwar’s PKR is a bit player and a non-entity in that milieu.

These three major ‘Malay first’ parties seem to have in their individual closets their respective candidates for prime minister.

Umno’s de facto leader is the imprisoned Najib, who is still seen as a contender for prime ministership despite his corruption conviction and kleptomania. He is seen as the legendary Aladdin with his magic lamp.

The youth wing of Umno seems to be openly working against the best interests of Anwar’s government in its bid to free, empower and rehabilitate Najib.

Najib, the ultimate “cash is king” maestro, seems able to inspire the confidence (and illusion) that he can restore Umno’s unbridled supremacy of bygone days.

Back then, the nation witnessed the enrichment of a select few politically connected individuals through proxies, sweetheart deals, negotiated contracts and subtle corruption. Money politics propelled the Umno juggernaut from the 1980 onwards.

Oddly, some political entrepreneurs appear to be hankering for a return to those ‘halcyon days’. There seems to be no other reason for Umno’s obsessive preoccupation with pursuing a pardon for the country’s most prominent convicted felon, its boycott of a particular store chain and its constant refrain on inflammatory sensitive issues.

Umno is playing with fire and undermining and derailing whatever positive progress that Anwar can make towards governing the country well.

Unity, rule of law fundamental

The nation desperately needs to enhance unity, rule of law, mutual respect and trust. It needs to come up with a game plan on how to improve the quality of its educational, health, transport and social services.

Malaysia has to mould a culture that makes the country more self-reliant and competitive.

But some in Umno, especially within its youth wing, seem to believe that showing brute power to its perceived opponents and to the minorities, along with making an impassioned appeal to the “Tanah Melayu” (Malay Land) sentiment, is enough for it to rule the roost once again.

The party lost power when its internationally recognised kleptocratic leader fell in the 2018 general election.

An emphasis on the rule of law and quality education is essential to harness the potential of young people in an increasingly globalised and competitive world.

The country has to ensure that its students master the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), along with English language skills, so that they can tap wider opportunities.

Attention to subjects that mould healthy, upright, law-abiding adults is also crucial. When equipped in this way, young people will be able to move to higher pursuits, including that of a metaphysical and spiritual kind.

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The PM’s problem is that he inherited a system of government and governance that overpromised and was unduly effusive about the future when in reality it was also dividing the population.

That division was sustained largely in the years of the first Mahathir era to the end of Najib’s tenure in 2018. For almost 17 years, Anwar was himself an integral part of this unrealistically upbeat though divisive system.

Today, Anwar has turned out to be the most powerless leader in the country’s most powerful post.

In December 1981, then Prime Minister Mahathir declared that in order to progress the country should “Look East” to the then shining economies of Japan and South Korea. His cultivation of Anwar soon after this declaration and the prominence given to selected Islamic values, in hindsight, was something of a contradiction.

The government had completely missed the point that the people of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan had benefited immensely from the post-World War Two linkage and patronage offered by the US. The inclination of all these three entities was to look at Western models for development.

Hong Kong, perhaps the most dynamic political entity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also looked to the West and an emerging China for its development input. Our immediate neighbour to the south relied heavily on meritocracy, honesty and performance to forge ahead.

But in Kuala Lumpur, leaders had an obsessive preoccupation with a building and construction frenzy. Contracts for humongous projects were given to individuals and companies associated with the ruling coalition with long-term concessions to reap preposterous profits.

We built the North-South Highway while the building frenzy created Bandar Bangi Baru, Shah Alam, Putrajaya and KLIA together with a “Multimedia Super Corridor”.

What we failed to build was the character of our business people, technocrats and civil servants. By the early 1990s, corruption, losses and ‘leakages’ to the tune of millions was normalised.

Corruption underpinned public procurements. The newfangled “negotiated tenders” system tainted defence purchases, port and infrastructure development, and public sector construction activities.

In the process, the culture of decent, upright, hardworking technocrats with a focus on national unity, education and health services was eroded.

Almost all the development was concentrated in the peninsula, while no effort was spared from extracting every conceivable advantage and asset from Sabah and Sarawak.

Anwar inherited this situation and a system that was heavily tilted in favour of the ‘Umnoputras’ and their supporters. Today, he is unable to tell them firmly that granting Najib further concessions to his prisoner status is untenable.

READ MORE:  Anwar must revamp Malaysia's political philosophy to curb divisive politics 

Granting Najib a home stay to serve out his prison term would make a mockery of the entire law and order system which Najib himself built with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Act 2009 and his pet Razak School of Government project.

The generous concessions to Najib’s prison term and fine broke the covenant of trust built over decades of non-negotiable judicial supremacy. It broke millions of hearts too that a fairly tried criminal could be given such an indulgence.

Mahathir, who inducted Anwar into government and anointed him as his successor, tried to use the latter’s radical Muslim credentials to neutralise his extreme Muslim political opponents.

Mahathir succeeded up to a point. But he later found that Anwar had a mind of his own. Anwar’s rise was then crushed, as he was charged, convicted and sent to prison.

An awkward PM

By some miracle, this humiliated and humbled politician, after enduring two decades of ostracisation, has emerged as PM.

Anwar remains the least applauded prime minister despite the crucial backing the royalty provided him. He has failed to deliver on many of his promises.

A serious one involves some 900,000 pension recipients. Of this lot, his contemporaries are disappointed that the PM has failed to deliver on their mandated pension payment, affirmed clearly by the Federal Court. They feel shortchanged.

The decision to hold a bumiputra congress seemed more like a gimmick than a game plan. It created some hype and histrionics because the minorities were asked to participate. But it is unlikely to change the way things have been done since the 1980s.

Genuine game plan needed

What Malaysia needs now is a serious game plan. It must involve the full participation of Sabah and Sarawak, the majority community of the peninsula and the minorities.

The country has to aspire for greater national unity. It has to identify the building blocks to reinforce national unity, competitiveness and resilience.

We don’t need to gamble or indulge in gimmickry. We need a consensual focus on reform and rejuvenation.

The nation needs a reorientation programme with the right research input. It desperately needs rainmakers, game-changers and genuine development specialists. That talent is available in the country and can be easily tapped.

Anwar can use his discretion to identify a pool of talented technocrats, planners and implementers.

We need to look neither East nor West but just aspire for the best. We can harness what we have locally, professionally, scientifically and impartially.

The important thing is to build a foundation of solid unity based on equality, inclusivity, mutual trust and transparency.

Above all, Anwar has to show strong political will for all this to come to fruition.

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.

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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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
28 Apr 2024 1.22am

Sad to read of the state Anwar is in. In power and out of power are two different things. In power is he making too much compromises and fear being kicked out power? He is not risk taker? Who is he listening to? Will he last only a term in office? Is there any younger potnetial leader that is clean to take over to govern the country?

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