THERE was quite a lot of hype ahead of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s visit to Sarawak, but everything went without a hitch.
Chief Minister Datuk Seri Abang Johari Tun Openg knew the game that the opposition was playing – Dr Mahathir has gone from being the villain to the darling of Pakatan Harapan and barring him from entering would only give the Opposition an additional issue to play up.
Besides, he is the former premier even though the average Sarawakian is not wild about him.
Dr Mahathir is no stranger to Kuching but everything seemed familiar, yet not so familiar this time around.
The familiar part was that as he stepped down from his private jet, he was immediately ushered by airport security and officials to the VIP lounge.
The less familiar part was that the receiving delegation comprised top DAP leaders including Chong Chieng Jen, who is the state Pakatan and DAP chairman.
This the era of U-turns – enemies have become friends and things that were not okay are now okay for Dr Mahathir.
Chong, who used to be one of Dr Mahathir’s fiercest critics, seemed thrilled to bits to be meeting the elder man. The MP-cum-assemblyman is known for his sweet, boyish grin and he looked as though he had struck the Sports Toto jackpot.
Mahathir too was smiling away, oozing his usual charm. But his voice sounded rather nasal, as though he had a blocked nose, and he also seemed a little breathless because he had trouble completing some of his longer sentences.
But he sportingly fielded questions from the local media, telling them he would like to talk to the PBB leaders in the state government.
“But everybody is very shy nowadays. The last time I came, they visited me. Now (they are) a little bit strained,” he said with his typical wit.
The initial resistance among DAP leaders about Dr Mahathir seems to have evaporated and they are eager to jump on the Mahathir bandwagon.
One of the roles that DAP had envisaged was for Dr Mahathir to be the primary attacker against Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
The racial angle is deflected when you have someone like the former premier showing it is alright for DAP to take on Umno.
It softens the perception that a Chinese party is attacking a Malay leader or as the DAP leaders put it, “Malay screw Malay”.
Dr Mahathir has lived up to the motto and many DAP leaders now realise how useful he is to their agenda.
Hours later on a damp and drizzly evening, Dr Mahathir arrived for the much anticipated ceramah at the commercial heart of an upper-middle class suburb.
There was a good turnout, although it was below the expectations of the organisers. The novelty factor was of course Dr Mahathir – it was the first time that Kuching residents were seeing him on the Pakatan stage and he did not disappoint.
He launched into what has become his standard performing act – he painted Najib as public enemy No.1, accused his government of kleptocracy, poked fun at his wife, explained why DAP is no longer his enemy and declared that Pakatan could form the next government.
And since he was on Sarawak soil, he made soothing sounds about restoring the state rights of Sarawakians.
He is not as sharp as he used to be and everyone noticed that he referred to Sarawak’s terms in the Malaysia Agreement as “16 Points” instead of “18 Points”.
He made the mistake during the press conference at the airport and several more times during the evening ceramah.
And as expected, he blamed his predecessor and successor for Sarawakians’ grievances over territorial sea rights and petroleum royalty. He was, of course, not to be blamed.
“Mahathir is saying what the Chinese want to hear because in the urban area, they are angry with the Government,” said a retired Chinese professional.
Pakatan in Sarawak seems to have gotten its act together after the very public quarrel over seats during the state election.
Standing alongside Dr Mahathir, Chong also unveiled the party’s “New Deal, New Hope” election manifesto which promises equality, empowerment and full state rights to the state, as well as quality education and infrastructure development.
It was a rather hastily drawn up document and he promised to come up with more details closer to the election date.
DAP leader Lim Kit Siang was quite carried away by the whole thing and asked Sarawak and Sabah to deliver 40 of its 56 parliamentary seats to Pakatan.
But Dr Mahathir could not bring the tsunami mood to Sarawak. He looked old and sounded tired against the giant stage backdrop that was plastered with the “New Deal, New Hope” slogan.
The charisma is still there, but the days when he could walk on water are long over.
He carries too much baggage with Sarawakians and as Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing said: “I do not think he is sincere. In his 22 years as prime minister, he never bothered to touch on it (renegotiating the Malaysia Agreement), he refused to talk to us about it.”
One of the reasons why the state government did not bar Dr Mahathir was because they wanted to assess his impact and they now have the answer.
The saying that it is better late than never did not work in this case and the opinion out there is: Why now? Why didn’t Dr Mahathir do it when he had the power to do so?
Michael Tiang, the political secretary to the Chief Minister, let go a stinging open letter which basically told Dr Mahathir that he is not qualified to talk about what Sarawakians want and that since he retired as prime minister, Sarawak has been able to set up is own development bank, Debos, and its own petroleum company, Petros.
Besides that, Tiang expressed disappointment that despite being a statesman, Dr Mahathir’s attacks on the Prime Minister’s wife were no better than what cybertroopers do on the Internet.
“Your political partners like Lim Kit Siang do not deserve any welcome in Sarawak. He has criticised Sarawak for abusing our immigration powers. What do you mean abusing our autonomy? This is our autonomy since 1963!
“If Lim Kit Siang cannot accept the fact that we had this autonomy since 1963, Sarawakians should not believe there will be any ‘New Deal and New Hope’ for Sarawak,” said Tiang.
Sarawak has always had this peculiar thing about rejecting political parties from the peninsula, especially Umno, whom they view with great suspicion.
But there is also something rather hypocritical about it given the way peninsular brands like DAP and PKR have made inroads.
They do not like peninsular figures telling them how to run their state. They want to keep race and religion out of the Sarawak way of life.
They view Dr Mahathir as a primary cause of what the country is today and that is why many of them draw a line about his leading role in politics today.
“Dr Mahathir suffers from a trust deficit among many Sarawakians,” said SUPP assistant treasurer Robert Lau.
The hardcore Opposition supporters will go along with it. They will do anything to topple Barisan, whether it is supporting PAS like in the last general election or backing the “old dictator” this time.
However, local journalists think that riding on Dr Mahathir could backfire for the Sarawak opposition parties.
“I was not overwhelmed. What does it say about the Opposition that they have to bring him in?” said a Kuching-based journalist.
It is still quite difficult to figure out Dr Mahathir as the leader of the Opposition.
He is in danger of becoming a one-trick pony in his campaign against Najib. He started out with the grand strategy of bringing down Najib via the 1MDB issue. It worked beautifully among the urban voters, but failed to resonate with the rural base and he has stopped talking about 1MDB.
He has also stopped claiming that Malaysia is going bankrupt or that it is a failed state. Things could certainly be better, but economic figures show that the economy is growing steadily.
Malaysia recently moved up two places in the global competitiveness index, China is investing in a big way and the new MRT was the talk of the town.
The Asian Development Bank recently named Malaysia and Hong Kong as the “surprise growth nations”. Malaysia was also named one of the best places in the world to retire, prompting Najib to quip that “however, some people refuse to retire”.
Dr Mahathir’s cameo appearance in Sarawak was not a roaring success, but it was an important stop in his role as Pakatan’s “top dog”.
Will it be Sabah next?
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was supposed to be the X-factor in Sarawak Pakatan Harapan’s “New Deal, New Hope” launch last weekend but he has a trust deficit among Sarawakians and he failed to bring on the tsunami mood.