By Terence Gomez
Lim Kit Siang, Malaysian First – Bold to the Last Battle (Volume Two)
Author: Kee Thuan Chye
Publisher: SIRD (2023)
Paperback, 568 pages
This new weighty biography offers a unique version of Malaysian political history, through the life and times of Lim Kit Siang (or Kit, as he prefers to be called).
This second volume on Kit by the veteran journalist Kee Thuan Chye is nearly 550 pages long, covering four decades. It is an endeavour to convey “with truth the complexities of the man and his struggle”.
The primary strength of this book is its insights into Kit’s trials and tribulations in his quest for his “Malaysian dream”, that of a united and democratic nation.
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Intriguingly too, in this account about Kit’s protracted and indefatigable struggle against divisive race-based politics and corruption, a key figure that repeatedly appears is another consummate politician who is an inextricable component of Malaysia’s history. That politician, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was Kit’s most formidable foe.
The most interesting aspect of this book is how closely entangled Kit’s life was with his equally combative nemesis. Indeed, the book opens with a lengthy quote by Mahathir in 2017 of his new view of Kit and his party, the DAP, which he found to be “multi-racial”.
Detention, odd alliances, triumph
Kee’s political history begins in October 1987, a defining moment when over 100 politicians and social activists were detained by Mahathir under the country’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA).
Kit was detained for trying to prevent Mahathir’s privatisation of the North-South Highway to a company owned by Umno.
Arrested with Kit was his son Lim Guan Eng, then a young entrant into politics with his election as a parliamentarian the previous year. Kit and his son were the last of the ISA detainees to be released, 18 months after they had been detained.
Rather than intimidate him, this extended detention without trial galvanised Kit, making him a principal figure in Malaysia’s most titanic political struggles.
In the 1990 general election, Kit entered into an alliance with former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, whom Mahathir had manoeuvred out of Umno.
In 1998 when Mahathir ousted his ally-turned-foe Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister-in-waiting, Kit fought for a political union with him and the Islamist party Pas to unseat Umno.
And in 2018, in a shocking twist to national politics, Kit approached Mahathir, who had left Umno complaining of endemic corruption, to form an alliance to expel this party from government.
On these three pivotal moments, when Umno elites feuded over the government’s much-abused race-based patronage system, Kit cooperated with ousted politicians to create coalitions to take on the dominant Umno.
But, as this book notes, Kit’s ties with ex-Umno leaders – and with Pas – set off internal disagreements with his DAP colleagues and the party’s support base.
Despairingly too for Kit, his coalition with Razaleigh failed to oust Umno, while the Anwar-Pas-DAP trinity contributed to a shocking outcome. For the first time, Kit failed to win a seat in his ‘second home’, Parliament, and that too during the 1999 Reformasi election.
It was only when Kit teamed up with his long-standing adversary, Mahathir, that he achieved what he thought he would never accomplish in his lifetime: evicting Umno from federal government, replacing it with a coalition he had helped conceive, and beginning the process to reform Malaysia’s form of governance.
But, as Kee also observes, the Kit-Mahathir pact was an odd relationship between two bitter foes, one that upset their allies and baffled the nation.
Both politicians, though, had one thing in common – their acknowledged need to be pragmatic. This union, they knew, had to be forged in order to deal with a serious problem, kleptocracy, committed by a progressively authoritarian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, especially as the domestic and global backlash against his grand corruption grew.
This corruption crisis led to yet another purge in Umno, one precipitated by Mahathir whose unanticipated departure and subsequent partnership with Kit – and Anwar – led finally to an epic feat: the rise of a “new Malaysia” devoid of race and religious-based politics.
After the rise: What to do?
The book captures this moment of triumph, a glorious victory that Kit admits he did not expect. His son, Guan Eng, was appointed finance minister, the second most powerful portfolio in the cabinet.
Political and economic reform plans were initiated, focusing on much needed institutional and legislative changes and methods to curb corruption.
But this period was also the beginning of new trials for Kit, specifically the challenge of helping to govern a nation led by a prime minister with whom he had profound differences. Mahathir would soon denounce the manifesto that had led the electorate to grant him his plea for a second chance to govern.
Mahathir had, in fact, been reluctant to sign this manifesto, as this meant he was acknowledging that many of the problems that Malaysia faced in 2018 were those of his making. Now in power, Mahathir was unwilling to change.
Kit had to face another stark reality. “New Malaysia” was still under the dominance of old elites. And, these old elites were more concerned with resuming old (Umno) battles.
Kit, who constantly drew attention to the ‘race problem’, was confronted with a conundrum. With DAP now in power, how was he to deal with Mahathir’s form of governance?
Kit and his DAP colleagues acknowledged that they should have taken a stronger stance against Mahathir, but did not for fear this would lead to the fall of the government. Staying in power was going to be as difficult as achieving it.
The last few chapters of this book are unquestionably the most interesting as they offer a novel and gripping account of how Kit dealt with being in power with Mahathir.
The book cites a few DAP stalwarts who notices how, during Mahathir’s 22-month rule, Kit had “kept quiet”; how “he became not so aggressive… because his son was a minister”; and how he had “suddenly lost it… (and) didn’t get involved to stop Mahathir from doing… all the wrongdoings”.
Other DAP veterans offer a different perspective – that it was not the right time for Kit to “openly confront Mahathir” because “you cannot attack your own government”; that Kit did not want to “rock the boat”; and that he wanted to “make sure that the babies survive first”.
After the fall: Where now, Kit?
Another primary strength of this book is its intriguing account of that frantic and deeply disconcerting period when it appeared that the DAP’s mandate from its supporters for a new form of governance, without Umno, was going to be denied by politicians hankering after power at all cost.
A new alliance was subsequently moulded by Mahiaddin Yasin, comprising Umno and Pas, forming what they claimed to be a Malay unity government.
Race-based politics was back at the centre, but charges against key Umno leaders remained in place, suggesting continued intra-Malay political elite splits. The uneasy alliance among these politicians in a “backdoor government” resulted in a deeply fragile, even seemingly dysfunctional, state.
The culmination of Kit’s – and Mahathir’s joint – political history is one of huge disappointment. This book is clear on one issue. Mahathir was the primary author of the fall of “new Malaysia”, through his manoeuvrings to fashion an executive arm of government of his own composition.
However, Kit’s silence on Mahathir’s politics offered a telling lesson. When brought to power riding on a call for reforms, there was a need to fulfil this pledge or be seen to have done power an injustice.
After the fall, DAP and Kit faced serious criticisms for their subservience to Mahathir. As the author notes, the “DAP suffered a loss of esteem for its time in government”, while Kit truthfully admits that “there are a lot of things for us to learn” and that there was “work for us to do to recreate hope for the future”.
But, while the process of rebuilding its image had to begin, the book further discloses that all was not well in DAP, beset as it was with factionalism. Indeed, the final chapter of this book is riveting – and most upsetting – for what it tells us of how Kit’s long and distinguished political career came to an end.
Kit, then 80, acknowledged to the author that he was ready to run again for a seat in the DAP’s central executive committee and even to contest in the impending general election.
However, within days, a sudden change occurred, with Kit announcing his retirement from politics. Speculation was rife about what brought this on, including the need for a new leadership, minus Kit and his son.
In the event, an amicable decision was reached. Guan Eng was to be appointed national chairman, while Kit was offered the new post of “party mentor”.
Kit rejected the offer because he felt that the new leadership “must face the new challenges, new scenario, and find new answers to them”.
It is unfortunate the book ends at this point, just before the next history-defining moment in Malaysia, the hotly contested 2022 general election that resulted in an unprecedented hung parliament.
The outcome of this election led to the most unexpected of political pacts: the DAP and its fierce rival, Umno, entered into a multi-party coalition led by Anwar to create a “unity government”.
It is still too early to tell if the DAP has learnt the lessons of its first term in government, specifically the need not to be subservient to any leader or coalition partner.
As for Kit, he asserts that his retirement will accord him the “freedom to go beyond the party” and that he is “thinking more in terms of serving Malaysia, either through the party or something larger than the party” – though he admits his uncertainty about how this can be done. He is “still groping… and searching”.
What is certain is that Kit will continue to serve Malaysia, as this is the nature of this honourable statesman. As this book fittingly notes, Kit’s contributions to Malaysia are “legendary”, spanning “nearly six decades”.
There will be disagreements about his political pragmatism and his willingness to forge alliances with politicians and parties advocating race and religious-based politics, which he had always opposed.
But what will not be questioned is Kit’s genuine endeavour to find a way, through dialogue, to create a Malaysia for all Malaysians. – The Edge
Dr Edmund Terence Gomez, an Aliran member, is a former professor of political economy at the University of Malaya
This review first appeared in The Edge