In late January, Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, the wife of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, was questioned by the police for her five-minute speech in September 2017’s Wanita Bantah Politik Toksik (Women Against Toxic Politics) rally.
She was questioned under Section 9 of the Peaceful Assembly Act, which mandates that anyone organising a public assembly must give the police a minimum notice of 10 days.
While she does appear close to the activists who put the rally together, it is not clear whether Dr Siti Hasmah was part of the organising committee. Thus far, the police have not indicated whether any further action will be taken against her.
Dr Siti Hasmah is beloved by most Malaysians for her kind, supportive, and motherly nature, as well as one who never courted controversy nor desired to be in the limelight. The fact that she was subject to police questioning is likely to play poorly with the public.
The United Malays National Organization (Umno) dominated government is bound to be aware of this and probably recognises that any action against her — particularly for what seems to be a non-critical issue — will be counterproductive to its electoral interests.
And UMNO would no doubt expect the police force, which has traditionally been perceived as close to the government, to not only abide by these unsaid boundaries but to enforce them too.
So, why then was Dr Siti Hasmah questioned by the police at all?
DISSENT IN THE CIVIL SERVICE?
One possible explanation could be a fracturing unity amongst top-ranking members of the civil service and other government institutions.
Since 2015, Prime Minister Najib Razak has had to deal with individuals breaking ranks from within Umno after the emergence of the 1MDB scandal.
Despite a rocky start, Mr Najib has succeeded in quelling dissent from within barring the high-profile departures of former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Dr Mahathir from the party.
However, dissatisfaction with his scandal-ridden leadership and handling of the economy remains at a sub-surface level within the government coalition, amongst the senior management of the civil service, and within government-linked companies and institutions.
That government leaders have felt the need to issue public statements chiding civil servants who may be pro-opposition — indicating this to be a growing trend, or else why be vocal at all? — only adds credence to the notion that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) worries it can no longer treat the civil service as a loyal and guaranteed vote bank.
In this context, the notion that the police took unilateral action to question Dr Siti Hasmah in order to express their silent rebellion against the leadership at the very top is a credible possibility.
Indeed, the top brass at the police could be leveraging on the fact that because they are perceived as pro-government, it is inevitable that the public would read their unpopularly received actions as being stamped with BN’s approval — to BN’s detriment.
This is precisely how members of the opposition we spoke with read the event: a deliberate move on the part of a frustrated police leadership to undermine BN’s grip on power.
While it would be naïve to expect the police to admit their complicity in any anti-governmental plot — particularly because Malaysia’s electoral future, and thus their own, remains in limbo — deliberate disobedience against the government is not without precedence within the larger civil service apparatus.
MAHATHIR’S SHREWDNESS AT WORK?
The second possibility is that the police were simply following the rule book. Perhaps they do have legitimate reason to think that the organisers were in violation of the Peaceful Assembly Act and that she could be part of the organising committee.
In any case, one would expect Dr Mahathir and his team of legal and political advisors to be cognisant of the consequences Dr Siti Hasmah would face. Surely, they would have had the foresight to warn her against speaking at the event. Or perhaps, this was their plan all along?
Dr Mahathir is a seasoned political veteran. Beyond the 22 years as Prime Minister, he has been involved in politics for roughly 70 years. There is nobody in Malaysia today who possesses the political experience he does.
Since Dr Siti Hasmah was by far the most prominent figure at the event, the possibility that she would be drawn into the investigation was high.
Dr Mahathir of all people would be well aware of the fact that any police action against his wife — no matter how lax — would be unpopular, even if the police were merely following protocol.
Thus, rather than a miscalculation that caused his wife to be called in for police questioning, it is far more probable that Dr Mahathir sought to use this event as a means to force bad publicity onto the BN government.
It is almost formulaic: get Dr Siti Hasmah to speak at a dubiously organised rally, force the police to get tangled in an investigation of an event involving one of Malaysia’s oldest and most loved public figures, and dump the fallout headfirst onto BN.
This would explain why, apart from one brief statement, BN has been mostly silent on the debacle.
Even then, Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed sought to distance the government from the investigation, while also insisting that his government continues to hold Dr Siti Hasmah in high regard.
There is little doubt that the government will try to banish this event to the archives of public memory.
But, whether it is up against an astute tactician in Dr Mahathir, or a civil service slipping out of control, BN’s leadership will be forced to re-evaluate its strategy for the looming General Election.
After all, its share of the popular vote has dropped since 2008.
And the last thing BN needs is to be caught unawares and thrown into popularity contests designed to chip away at its appeal. Dr Mahathir is quite a master at such political games.
About the Authors:
Prashant Waikar and Rashaad Ali are Research Analysts with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological University (NTU).