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The ballad of Anwar and Mahathir

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If the ballad is to have a kinder ending, more than one side would have to accept that Mahathir’s final exertion can only succeed with Anwar’s return, writes Khoo Boo Teik.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad met Anwar Ibrahim at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on 5 September 2016.

Anwar was there to file his suit against the government over the National Security Council Act 2016 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Mahathir went to show his support for the suit and ended up talking to Anwar for half an hour. What is the political significance of the meeting?

Some people immediately said, “Politics is the art of the possible”, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and “We have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. These lines are blasé. They tell us nothing beyond the obvious.

Nor can we be happy surely to be told that everyone should leave the past behind and go forward “in the national interest”, to “save the country”, and so on.

First, no one’s going anywhere, not when the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Some people demanded that Mahathir should apologise for every wrong that he’d done (and there were people who thought that whatever he did as prime minister was wrong).

Second, when Anwar disagreed with Mahathir on how to solve the financial crisis of 1997-98, and Mahathir had Anwar jailed, weren’t they both acting to save the national economy?

One journalist repeatedly asked Anwar if he trusted Mahathir. Luckily Anwar wasn’t so crass as to ask, “Do I have to kiss him?” – which was how Mahathir retorted when he was asked if they were on good terms, shortly before he fired Anwar.

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An opposition politician thought that the meeting would rattle Umno. One Umno politician (pointless to remember the name these days) approved of the meeting because it would cause PKR members to leave the party in disgust.

What Mahathir and Anwar said

Evidently, few were prepared to take Anwar and Mahathir at their word – at least the few words they uttered outside their private conversation. That is an error.

We watch what politicians do. We don’t just heed what they say. Hence, there’s that other cliché about how they should ‘walk the talk’. There are times, however, when we dissect what little we hear for what it bears.

What was the most important thing Mahathir said? It was that he went to support Anwar over a crucial issue on which their positions agreed. He would not be drawn into talking about making peace or working for Anwar’s release.

What was the most pertinent thing that Anwar mentioned? He was silent on the past and about trust but he remarked that Mahathir “has now embraced the reform agenda”.

“A single detail,” a French news editor notes, “is sometimes enough to sketch an ideological picture.” Can we sketch an ideological picture from that single detail of a fateful meeting?

If we can, it has to be this: outside the corridors of power, there is consensus that Umno obstructs the agenda of the day, namely, the deep reform of the political system. For that, and to reverse the degradation of public institutions, Umno, not just its current leadership, has to go.

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Mahathir is no one’s fool. He knows he was responsible for a lot in this matter. But he’s 91 and no recluse. Should he spend the rest of his life dwelling upon the past in remorse? Doesn’t it make more sense to let him risk all that he has on the future?

Anwar was not above blame in this. He was more gracious in admitting as much after his fall. If one is religious, one might even say, with empathy, that he’s been atoning for his sins ever since.

It has taken Mahathir 18 years to reach a conclusion that, as it were, he forced upon Anwar in 1998: the true and urgent agenda is the unfinished one of Reformasi.

Reversing roles and more

To perform this historical task, the former master can only be the follower. Anwar raised the call to Reformasi. A host of dissident forces rallied to it with courage, dedication and inventiveness.

Mahathir has no intuitive affinity with dissidents. He jailed some of them. Still, non-conformity is not alien to him. He went to Bersih 4 to back the cause but not the movement – as he later met Anwar only to support his suit.

Such distinctions don’t matter so long as this much is understood: Mahathir can help to dismantle the existing order. He cannot lead the project of reform.

Mahathir has long given two differing justifications for imprisoning Anwar. On the one hand, he said that Anwar would have succeeded him as prime minister had Anwar not been “immoral”. The insinuation was of alleged sodomy. On the other hand, he more than implied that he got rid of Anwar because the latter tried to overthrow him.

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What else is significant about Mahathir’s meeting with Anwar? It must be that Mahathir has no more use for Sodomy I. That by itself should tell the world what Mahathir really thinks of Sodomy II.

Speaking of Mahathir’s visit, Anwar used the word ‘embraced’. It carries a connotation of conversion to a radically different view of the world. Has Mahathir, after looking over his ex-Umno camp, accepted his former ‘anointed successor’ as the leader of the reform agenda?

Anwar’s relationship with Mahathir was once free of mutual betrayal. For 16 years, their careers developed in parallel. While Mahathir backed his protégé, Anwar fought the battles of his boss. The financial crisis of 1997 was the source of their rupture.

Thereafter, the ballad of Anwar and Mahathir was a tortured one. The fall of the one forced the departure of the other, the humiliation of Anwar led to the condemnation of Mahathir. If the ballad is to have a kinder ending, more than one side would have to accept that Mahathir’s final exertion can only succeed with Anwar’s return.

It is a point for contemplation on this day, 20 Sept 2016, which marks 18 years since Anwar was captured from his residence by a balaclava-clad, automatic weapon-wielding police force.

This piece was first published in Malaysiakini.

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