There is this one reader who most often disagrees with me but who really gets what I write. She emailed me and rightly concluded that I would be supportive of former law minister Zaid Ibrahim’s sugegstion for former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to be Pakatan Harapan’s candidate for the post of prime minister. This one is for you, my friend.
It is rare that I agree with everything someone writes but reading and rereading what Zaid wrote about why Harapan should officially name Mahathir as their candidate for the post of head honcho is exactly the reason why the opposition is lucky to have Zaid as one of their political operatives.
I have often accused the opposition of not being able to organise an orgy in a brothel, and nothing they have done so far contradicts this, I would say, axiom. There is no grand strategy and what the opposition is doing right now is watching opportunities float away in a desperate attempt to remain relevant while the chickens from their earlier “brilliant strategies” come home to roost.
While one of the few political operatives I admire, DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang, has to reassure people that he has no intention of ever becoming or even wanting to be prime minister, the so-called ‘pact of hope’ has been unable to offer Malaysians anyone from their ranks as someone who could lead us to change, but more importantly lead the charge against Umno.
PKR leader Saifuddin Abdullah may joke that it would be easy to find someone better than the current prime minister, but the real punchline to this joke is that so far Harapan has been unable to agree upon anything beyond the need to remove the current Umno grand poobah. And since this is the stated goal of the opposition – to “save Malaysia” – then the only tactical play would be to nominate the former prime minister as their designated champion in the blood sport which is the upcoming election.
This will not be an election about ideas. While my columns have been lamentations to the fact that it isn’t, this does not mean that I think the goal of removing the current Umno grand poobah is an “unworthy” one. I am on record as saying that removing Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and normalising the democratic process of replacing leaders is one of the most important experience Malaysians could have.
What Zaid rightly points out is that this is an election of personalities and the reality is that Harapan unfortunately does not have an established Malay potentate to agitate the Malay vote, except for Mahathir. Political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim, if he were to be set free, may not be as effective in the kind of game the opposition has committed itself to.
While someone like me is, and most probably always will be, critical of Mahathir, there is no doubt that for good or bad, the former prime minister understands not only the Malay mind but also the machinations of ‘Melayu’ politics.
If you think that the situation is ripe for regime change, you are far too optimistic. The best-case scenario, the only hope if not regime change, is that the opposition denies Umno their two-thirds majority and regroup, while Umno attempts to deal with possible rats who may decide to jump ship.
As Zaid correctly points out, the opposition has been playing defence when it comes to “Malay fears” about a non-Malay prime minister. There is a lack of credibility in the opposition when it comes to “Malay” stewardship of this country and not because of any principled stand of the opposition but because of this stupid opposition meme of the “right” Malay.
The Rasputin image
The opposition, especially the DAP, will never be free from the Rasputin image because operatives over the years have said and done stupid things which opposition operatives tell me has damaged the argument that the Malays are “independent” in the opposition. Then of course there is the stupid politics of those opposition operatives when it comes to maintaining “unity”, which does no such thing but is perceived as hypocritical attempts to maintain power.
For instance, when Selangor Menteri Besar Azmin Ali continues to flirt with PAS, the perception is that the opposition is weak and the “Umno rejects” will always need a crutch to stay in power. Meanwhile, Mahathir, who has no problem attacking PAS and coining catchy slogans – “dedak” – to humiliate their leadership, is viewed as someone with the cojones to uphold the sort of ‘ketuanan’ that defines ‘Melayu’ politics.
As I have argued, this idea that the opposition is using the former prime minister is complete bunkum. Nobody can use Mahathir and only the most naïve opposition supporter would think this. The former prime minister does the using, and this is exactly what those (including a large chunk of the civil service spread across the country) believe would bring stability and more directly, job security to their community.
A Mahathir-Najib showdown makes sense in a way that the whole 1MDB fiasco could never. There is a clear Malay choice for the direction of this country and with Mahathir at the helm; many Malays who are sick and tired of the politicking that goes on would be encouraged to “save Malaysia”. They would do this by giving the country back to the man who more or less created modern Malaysia and who redefined the Malay polity over the decades of his long watch.
The takeaway from this is that because he has seen the damage his type of politics has caused, the former prime minister may come down on elements both religious and political. This if only to ensure that the next time a Malay potentate would wish to challenge the hegemon – an offspring or whoever – they would have an easier time than their old man. However, I digress.
The part that I really approved of from the Zaid piece was this bit – “We need a leader who can assure ‘the deep state’ – those who have the power to effect a change of government peacefully – to support us.” This is an extremely important piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked in all the discussion.
The establishment knows Mahathir and they know that even though he may bring some changes, they can live with those changes. The establishment understands that Islamic extremism is a threat that needs a strong response and the former prime minister has never been shy of confrontation even though he has used the religion as all Umno politicians have done to maintain hegemony. Well, at least that is my hope if Mahathir ever gets back into the driver’s seat.
This is the game the opposition has chosen to play and if they want to win, they have to play for keeps. And that is the only way the former prime minister knows how to play.
WRITER: S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.