Given the pivotal role that Mahathir played in the recent election victory, he should be given enough time to put the country back on track before signing off, writes Allen Lopez.
It is a new spring for Malaysia with the birth of real democracy, but a mammoth task lies ahead.
Election day, 9 May 2018, was arguably Malaysia’s finest moment – more significant even than 31 August 1957, the day of independence from British colonial rule.
A single party had ruled Malaysia since 1957. The multi-ethnic coalition called the Alliance, which later turned into Barisan Nasional (BN), had ruled with an iron grip.
The Alliance/BN ruled with a two-thirds majority for most of its six decades in power. It governed with an easy confidence, borne almost of entitlement. Despite a litany of abuses going back about 25 years, its grip on power was never threatened.
To be fair, BN made a good fist of ruling for the first 30-odd years: Malaysia stood out for good governance in a region replete with corruption and despotism. Power in military hands was not uncommon in the rest of the region, and when they were not in charge, the generals lurked ominously in the background. Not so in Malaysia.
While power held by a single individual for too long is guaranteed to bring grief, unbroken rule by a single party is also never a good thing.
Rot sets in
Mahathir was Prime Minister for 22 years from 1981. The institutions of government under BN rule began to fray from a quarter of the way through Mahathir’s tenure.
The decline from good to bad, from bad to worse, and worse to near-catastrophic was clear to all. Weakening governance was accompanied by worsening corruption.
Under ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak’s tenure, starting in 2009, the country began to court disaster. The plunder of state coffers mainly through 1MDB was, in scale and sheer brazenness, reminiscent of tin-pot dictatorships. Gamekeepers tasked with protecting public interest turned a blind eye and sometimes turned poacher themselves.
The country was on the road to becoming a failed state with no redemption in sight. BN and Najib Razak were unstoppable.
Or so it seemed, until Mahathir Mohamad, 15 years into retirement and already past 90, decided that enough was enough.
Cometh the hour cometh the man. Very few, least of all BN, foresaw the earth-shaking impact of this icon-turned-adversary. The confluence of man and hour could not have been more perfectly scripted.
Suspicions of the transcendent orchestrating matters would not be out of place. After all, of the five governing pillars of Rukunegara – Malaysia’s national philosophy – belief in God sits right at the top. Apparent coincidences are often providential.
Spurred by a call of duty he could not refuse, Mahathir cobbled together a unified opposition comprising a mixed bag of parties under a coalition called Pakatan Harapan (PH). It was, in truth, an alliance of convenience driven by one overarching aim: to save the country from collapse into lawless despotism.
Led by the indefatigable Mahathir, on 9 May 2018, the goal became reality. The immovable object called BN was dislodged by the unstoppable force of People Power bearing the flag of PH.
Hard road ahead
Less than two weeks have passed since that historic day. A sense of the surreal is still in the air.
Ordinary Malaysians had pulled the country from the brink through the ballot box without shedding a drop of blood – a testament to their character. Now, nothing is impossible.
Still, the new government has its hands full in the days and months ahead. To put the ship of state back on an even keel will be a herculean task. Many crippled institutions need not just basic repair but a thorough overhaul.
Team of former rivals
Only a handful of the key leaders in the PH coalition have any hands-on experience in governing. Even Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, a reluctant politician at best, has never held any public office.
If lack of experience wasn’t problematic enough, the four component parties of PH are recent bedfellows. Warring parties unite when an enemy is at the door. Although the parties in PH were never at war, they are hardly kindred spirits.
The two main component parties of PH, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), had a loose coalition in the 2013 general election. But the other two, Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and Parti Amanah Negara, a breakaway from the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), are fairly new.
Mahathir has named a 13-person cabinet so far. The ones chosen give reason for hope, representing all the four component parties of PH in somewhat equal proportion and with an ethnic composition more reflective of the country’s.
Daring choices have been made, the most significant being the key finance portfolio given to Lim Guan Eng, the former Chief Minister of Penang, who happens to be ethnic Chinese. Lim has the distinction, as a former leading opposition figure, of being twice jailed twice by Mahathir. Gobind Singh, son of the late indomitable Tiger of Jelutong, Karpal Singh and vocal critic of Mahathir, is also a minister.
Need for patience and tolerance
As Mahathir has said on more than one occasion, the new government is a coalition of equals, very unlike its predecessor BN, within which the authority of Umno was unquestioned.
Without a similar dominance, combined with the strong personalities holding differing political philosophies, this PH government is breaking fresh ground. The differences will surface after the euphoria of victory wears out.
Much patience, understanding and compromise will be called for. The big picture must never be lost sight of. The common good of the rakyat must always take precedence over party and individual interests. That may be stating the obvious, but given the recent past, the obvious needs not just to be stated but to be continually reinforced.
Integrity and steely resolve will be demanded from the pivotal players in all spheres: politicians and technocrats, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and civil society at large.
A steady hand to navigate disparate interests is crucial. Mahathir fits the bill: his proven leadership, fine intellect and inexhaustible work rate are valuable assets.
Rule of law
The rule of law is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy
Both during the campaign and after victory, Mahathir has repeated mantra-like that the rule of law will be upheld. While this is music to the ears, he must walk the talk.
Mahathir had reassured all quarters that the government is not out to seek revenge against the previous regime. That is as admirable as it is charitable and humane.
But he has also left no doubt that the alleged crimes of the previous regime will be exposed in keeping with the rule of law. The guilty will be prosecuted with the full weight of the law and due punishment meted out.
Mahathir has been as good as his word on this. The prosecution and incarceration of his former deputy-turned-adversary and now ally, Anwar Ibrahim, speaks clearly to this.
Plunder of the public purse is heinous and the rakyat must be reassured that it will not be tolerated. Future leaders must be put on notice that they will not be spared if they make mischief. A clear marker on corruption must be laid down: it is zero tolerance from now on.
Further, the Rakyat need to know that the same one law applies to both the rulers (in the most inclusive sense) and the ruled.
Seal of legitimacy
If not for Mahathir, there would be no PH government today. It is that simple.
This is not to underplay the contribution of many others who helped immensely – people like Rafizi Ramli with his dedicated corps of Invoke volunteers, who polled and campaigned tirelessly, and Tony Pua with his dogged exposure of the 1MDB crimes.
But Mahathir was the single indispensable ingredient to the mix. He had lived and breathed Umno and then BN throughout his 70-plus years in politics . For him to decry and bemoan what had become of it had a telling impact.
His legendary stature as a former prime minister who raised Malaysia’s profile globally gave the disparate opposition a leader all could look up to. He was the glue that not only held the coalition together but bound it strongly.
The rakyat knew that voting for PH with Mahathir at the helm bore little risk. The country would be in a safe pair of hands. His was an imprimatur like no other.
Mahathir’s advanced years had not dulled the unerring political instinct that had kept him in power for more than two decades.
It was Mahathir’s instinctive feel for the Malay psyche that shaped the strategy which ultimately won the election. He settled on a single theme which was not without risk – a narrative laser-focused on the incumbent PM: “Najib is a crook and a thief; he’s an unfit leader who has made this nation a laughing stock and is leading it to economic ruin.” At every pit stop, that same theme was repeated.
Conservative Malays are among the most gentle of people, respectful of authority. Mahathir’s bold in-your-face refrain, coming from anyone but him, could well have backfired badly.
Najib had nothing with which to return fire. He tried though: his attempt to discredit Mahathir by setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the RM30bn Bank Negara forex losses during Mahathir’s tenure proved futile.
Crucially, Mahathir had no personal baggage that could have blunted his vitriol against Najib. For all his perceived or real faults, he has had an upright personal life.
Mahathir was always respected by most Malays, having championed their cause like no other through much of his career, much to the chagrin of non-Malays who disliked him then for it.
His Malay credentials were unquestioned. Indeed, being labelled a Malay chauvinist at one time gave him a cachet like no other with the one voting bloc on which election outcomes turn: the heartland Malay.
Mahathir should serve as long as he is needed
As Prime Minister, Mahathir should be allowed the time to come up with a fresh blueprint for the country. There are so many areas to look into and fix: education, poverty eradication, the civil service, the anti-corruption agency, trade, and the economy.
PH is not BN. Mahathir has been at pains to stress that this is a coalition of equals. In contrast, Umno, the ethnic-Malay party, reigned unquestioned in the BN coalition; the other parties were essentially bit players.
Mahathir is shrewd enough to know that he cannot always get his way this time around. He has to compromise where previously he dictated. He knows he has to be patient where previously he rushed things through. He has to unify where previously he was callous and divisive.
Question of age
Mahathir has mellowed with age. He does appear a little forgetful and even a shade doddering at times. That only adds to his appeal. Gone is the prickly, abrasive know-it-all and in its place is a more fatherly, patient and, dare one say, even affable man.
Age has it merits. As Will Rogers, the political satirist said, “Good Judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement”. Mahathir knows he has made bad decisions and choices in the past, but he is smart enough to have learned from them.
The man is on the verge of turning 93. His health and stamina would put a man 25 years his junior to shame. But he is not immortal. He knows time is not on his side. It would be foolish to think that a man of his calibre will not want to leave behind a legacy that his country will be proud of.
The ferocity with which he battled Najib speaks for the man better than anything. While the likes of other past luminaries in Umno sat on their hands, this man took up the cudgel and swung like his life depended upon it.
Mahathir’s love of country is unquestioned. We never know how blessed we are until we lose someone very dear. This man is a treasure. So let us not be in too much of a hurry to replace him.