This last week of February 2020 was perhaps Malaysia’s most ominous, off-putting and obnoxious week of the past decade. According to the original plan envisaged by the seemingly everlasting Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad the country would have begun enjoying by this week the status of a developed first world country where Malaysians, having miraculously transcended the salient strictures of race, religion and region and having attained relative prosperity would have emerged as a truly united Malaysian people.
It is ironical that almost 30 years after that memorable utopian promise of the early 1990s the same leader who had spoken in such effusive terms of such platitudinous prospects was seemingly involved, drawn in or associated in orchestrating, if not in substance but in spirit, a series of execrable events that would have seen the collapse of the country’s most inclusive multiracial, multi talented and representative government and the emergence in its place of a most conservative, tainted and reactionary Malaysian government with essential elements of an extremist religious bent.
The irony of ironies was that the royal prerogative of a consummate constitutional monarch and the country’s constitution appear to have prevailed and stood in the way of the proposed perverse change coming about.
His Majesty Al -Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Shah, 60, an experienced and much revered ruler who became a crown prince at the age of fifteen is well tutored in the art of governing a state and it is fortuitous that he is currently the head of state. The Agong seems to have benefited immensely from his late father, Sultan Ahmad Shah who had tutored and guided him in the art of playing polo, performing his kingly duties and remaining above any kind of political fray. Malaysia is extremely fortunate to have this stabilising, statesmanlike sovereign at the helm of its state hierarchy in this tense and trying times.
Background to the Long-knives Chicanery
Following the conclusion of a meeting of the ruling Pakatan Harapan’s presidential council late on Friday, February 21 there was widespread speculation as to what really had transpired. A glum Dr Mahathir, the prime minister had said glibly that he would remain the prime minister till after the APEC Summit slotted for November 2020 and then would hand power over to his designated successor. No date was mentioned. That announcement by Dr Mahathir should have put a stop to all speculation as to when Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim would succeed as the 8th prime minister. Anwar Ibrahim himself endorsed this leeway given to Dr Mahathir and seemed satisfied that he could wait it out.
It would appear however that others who had been present at that PH presidential council meeting were unhappy that Dr Mahathir had been inveigled into agreeing to this somewhat ‘imposed’ negotiated arrangement. This group led principally by Dato Seri Azmin Ali, the deputy president of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party(or PKR, Parti Keadilan Rakyat) had assumed, with the Islamic party, PAS, the role of an advocacy group for Mahathir to stay on till 2023 when the next general election is required to take place. As Dr Mahathir had not categorically contradicted this advocacy group’s machinations Azmin and his small rump of PKR loyalist members of parliament began a series of manoeuvres to augment their parliamentary strength by inviting more Malay-Muslim members of parliament, including from UMNO, to form a new alignment of forces.
The purpose was to attain a simple majority of their numbers in parliament and perpetuate the tenure of Mahathir up to 2023. With sufficient numbers in hand the expectation was that Dr Mahathir would appear at the Istana and, as choreographed by Azmin, the Agong, given this fait accompli, would consent to a newly reconstituted government with Dr Mahathir at the helm.
This was a dangerous course taken by Azmin. It did not heed the need for political stability, proper consultation and consistency required of any government. Azmin, it would seem, allowed his hatred of Anwar to overshadow more crucial national objectives and seemed prepared to destabilise a government that was functioning well. He had ran afoul of Dr Mahathir as well as Anwar.
The Agong is Pivotal/Paramount
It would appear that the Agong demurred and Dr Mahathir realised that the game was up as his presence was being preempted by pertinent concerns raised by a sagacious king.
The Agong further very wisely asked that he wanted to see the leader of the party that had won the largest number of seats in the elections held on May 9 and had been a component of the triumphant coalition.
That task fell to Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, the deputy prime minister, Dato Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. When the Sabah and Sarawak MPs realised that PAS was going to be a component of this reconstituted government they too abandoned Azmin and his collaborators.
It is plain that the plan to keep Dr Mahathir in office till 2023 had failed and Dr Mahathir with his small “indigenous” Bersatu will withdraw from the government. Much work needs to be done before a new configuration of a viable coalition government emerges.
Mahathir the Comeback Kid?
It is disappointing that after all these developments both Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng, the leaders of PKR and DAP respectively are seeking to reinstate Dr Mahathir as prime minister. It suggests, inter alia that both of them don’t have the courage or constitution to carry on without this 94-year-old leader. This cannot be true. One plausible reason for this pathetic plea may be the well known power distance ratio in Malaysia which is reportedly the highest in the world.
Subordinates are so deferential to their bosses that bosses assume the status of minor deities. It is regrettable that there is the observance of this norm. Mahathir was a great prime minister in his initial years but he destroyed important institutions and individuals who could have contributed much to the building of a stronger Malaysia.
In 1981 Malaysia was a star economy in Southeast Asia. His favoured successors, including Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the kleptocratic Najib Razak were such disastrous prime ministers. For Anwar and Lim Guan Eng to believe that Mahathir should continue to lead Malaysia is incomprehensible. The idea is abhorrent to most Malaysians who see Mahathir as a person whose time is long past. At 94 he should be pursuing other things, certainly not running a government in a challenging regional and global environment.
He came into office in May 2018 generating very high expectations but his performance has been dismal as he has dominated the narrative with his pet car project (including a flying car) when the country’s poor are desperately seeking sustenance to lead normal lives. He has failed to deliver on ICERD and the Rome Statute and has attempted to micromanage the country when he should be allowing his ministers to allow much needed improvements in their respective portfolios. In foreign affairs he is always harping on issues that are not directly of relevance to Malaysia. The focus should be on strengthening relations with our immediate neighbours and apportioning our best resources in the ASEAN region.
In the meantime, Malaysians especially of the younger generation must realise there are excellent prospects for a genuine reform process to begin in Malaysia now that the greatest obstacle to reinventing good governance in Malaysia has removed himself.
It augurs well for the future. It does seem that Anwar and Lim Guan Eng are also out of touch with the hard realities on the ground and are overawed by Dr Mahathir’ s magic.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with no political affiliation whatsoever