When the 14th General Election results resulted in the ouster of Dato Sri Najib Razak’s kleptocratic government in May 2018 there were high expectations that the new leadership led by Pakatan Harapan(PH) would embark on some new, reinvigorated and radical policies to realign Malaysia to the path of economic growth, greater unity, greater integrity, more freedom, transparency and better governance.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the unanimous choice for the interim prime ministership proved to be reasonable, resourceful and a good asset in reestablishing an authoritative government. He was looked upon as a saviour who had saved the country from careening into a catastrophe. Dr Mahathir did save the country but most important of all he ushered in an era of unprecedented freedom of speech.
That freedom of speech is now a challenge for the whole country. Anything that smacks of irregularity makes it to the media. Three news portals, in particular, have been at the forefront of exposing and offering comment on perceived irregularities. BFM Radio, Malaysiakini and The Edge have attained stellar records in this regard.
Early indications were that Dr Mahathir would consult closely with the other political partners on the path the new government would take.
At that time the priority was to obtain the release of Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim from prison and that exercise seemed to have strengthened both the authority of the new prime minister and the unity of the eclectic PH components. Anwar’s early release gave the government both credibility and hope.
The cabinet that Dr Mahathir formed, given the country’s long-established prime ministerial centricity and preeminence did not reflect the strength of relative political power that Bersatu had within PH but showed a disproportionate amount of weight being given to Dr Mahathir’s own Bersatu party which had about 12 per cent of the members of the winning coalition against the 80 per cent held by the leading PH heavyweights.
In those early days, the PH coalition survived this concession of such great authority and a wide berth provided to Dr Mahathir as he was widely perceived as perhaps the only person who could have dethroned Najib Razak and also run the succeeding government smoothly.
Stability, sameness and the strong presence of individuals and institutions in Malaysia’s particular democratic national political setting over a short sustained period seemed to be a good thing. With Dr Mahathir’s assumption of the prime ministership, it would seem that he offered a respectable avenue to provide stability and strong government. He seemed to satisfy the people’s yearning that he had the qualities and capacity to deliver the people’s aspirations. Dr Mahathir fulfilled these criteria for a time impressively.
After some time in office instead of focusing on the best governance that would benefit 99 per cent of the population, Dr Mahathir is seen to have moved to a rather precarious position of being unduly concerned with those that had not voted for his PH coalition. In fact, he seemed disappointed that that segment of the electorate had voted for Najib Razak. That segment of the electorate led, aided and abetted by Najib began to show paranoia, prejudices and compunctions about the capacity of the PH government to rule. The PH alliance seemed to be one which had remarkably significant non-Malay participation and influence, especially in the eyes of the largely Malay-Muslim electorate that had supported Najib and PAS. This group felt disenfranchised.
There were two key events that showed that Dr Mahathir was totally convinced that he had to appease, placate and assure and appeal to the seemingly disenfranchised Malay-Muslim community to show that he was still their uncontested champion.
This was borne out at the Malay Dignity Congress and the Summit of Islamic leaders that he hosted in Kuala Lumpur on 18-21 December 2019. Of itself, the hosting of the Islamic Summit was not a bad thing but on the sidelines of this Summit, he made an unusual and unsettling statement that the Chinese and Indian origin Malaysians had been given citizenship even when they did not qualify. This was misleading. The pioneer Home Affairs Ministers of Malaya and Malaysia were men of the highest integrity and at that time the civil service was also the finest in Asia and there is no way such irregularities would have occurred.
And at the time the country’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein went to China in May 1974 to normalise relations one of the issues discussed and adverted to was the question of some 220,000 stateless Malaysian residents of Chinese ancestry.
This action of Dr Mahathir in alluding to unqualified citizens was inappropriate. If he had focused honestly and earnestly on meeting the aspirations of 99 per cent of the Malaysian population regardless of ethnicity he would not have had to resort to this kind of mudslinging and deliberate division of Malaysia’s population on the basis of ethnicity.
These recent episodes have had the effect of sowing misgivings in the minds of non-Malays on Dr Mahathir’s suitability and capacity to be a unifying factor. This is a letdown to the electorate from the urbanised part of the country which has 80 per cent of the country’s population made up of various ethnicities and which had largely voted Dr Mahathir’s PH to power.
The one great thing about the country is that while the civil service and the uniformed personnel, in particular, are dominated by peninsular Malays the Police, in particular, are seen to be impartial, independent and efficient and have not become a tool of political leaders bent on championing particular ethnicities. On account of this kind of impartiality and professionalism within the Police Force and the quality of the country’s judiciary Malaysia retains much stability, sobriety and confidence.
In this era of political correctness and restraint in inter-ethnic ties Dr Mahathir with his somewhat outdated peninsula Malay- first mindset seems to represent some sort of an abnormality. Those leaders of the younger generation show a lot more sensitivity and maturity about respecting the citizenship and equality of all Malaysians, especially non-peninsular Malays including Sabahans and Sarawakians. That is the way to move forward with strengthening and respecting the position of the Rulers, the special position of the bumiputras and upholding the supremacy of the Malaysian Constitution.
It is clear that Dr Mahathir is still unable to accept or celebrate the beautiful diversity of the country which is a great strength. As prime minister one would expect that he would be the first to urge all Government leaders to not resort to reprisals or cast aspersions on any community. During the Malay Dignity Congress, for instance, he hurled some unnecessarily caustic comments about the Malay community. He sounded more like an irate headmaster of an all Malay school than a leader of the nation.
Clearly Dr Mahathir has failed, in spite of his vast experience, in recognising and realising the need for bringing about greater unity within the country. Instead of highlighting the need for greater compassion and understanding between Malaysians of different races, religions and regions he tends to focus on economic disparities and ethnic differentiation.
The reality is that Malaysians, especially in the lower-income groups are struggling to make a living and household debt is a persistent problem. Public transport at affordable rates was long neglected and the priority to push Malaysians to own locally manufactured vehicles has also contributed to greater household debt.
The country desperately needs to seek a model of development that is needs-based. Economic empowerment is needed for every community. Unity of the kind that can meld the nation into achieving social cohesion, inclusiveness, greater mutual respect and understanding is key to the nation’s progress. In spite of all his documented failings and faults, Dr Mahathir’s predecessor did speak of 1Malaysia and recognised the role of every community in fostering national unity and strength.
On the strong bedrock of national unity, many internal contradictions can be corrected carefully and Malaysia can reemerge as a dynamic generator of growth in the ASEAN region. Malaysia was once a highly respected country in the heart of Southeast Asia with strict but selfless leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Hussein Onn and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman who could provide the country with the alchemy for unity, growth, stability and success in the past.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG