How Mahathir’s political astute could help Singapore’s crowded opposition landscape

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Mahathir met Anwar and this turned the political situation upside down in Malaysia

The return of Mahathir Mohamad to politics, notwithstanding his entry in the arena among his former political foes in the opposition, has all the attributes of a shifu.

The doctor is back to rock the ruling coalition headed by PM Najib Razak and the old man of 92 is not in the game to play second fiddle.

With a stroke of genius – the former PM who imposed Najib as the prime minister of Malaysia after he berated Abdullah Badawi as the ‘sleeping PM’ – has effectively killed Najib’s plans to turn the Chinese spectre in his favour.

While Malaysia’s politics is a different ball game compared to Singapore, both countries share the same political history. That is both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and the People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled without interruption since the two nation became independent.

But there is one thing they had in common until the formation of the Pakatan Rakyat in Malaysia ahead of the 2008 elections: that is the division of the opposition into various political formations.

However, the first thing the Singapore opposition has to learn from the Malaysian opposition is to secure the services of an iconic figure. This element alone has ensured the Malaysian opposition additional support in the recent elections.

The Malaysian opposition depended largely on Anwar Ibrahim, the former Minister of Finance and Deputy Minister of Malaysia under Mahathir Mohamad in the 2008 and 2013 elections.

The presence of Anwar galvanised the opposition troops, rallying the massive crowds in political conventions and street corners never seen in Malaysia since the country’s independence.

The same opposition won the popular vote – for the first time in the electoral history of Malaysia – but came short of winning sufficient seats to capture the Parliament.

With Anwar Ibrahim in jail, the opposition successfully rallied Mahathir, a retired political figure of the ruling Malay party the Umno despite massive criticism from various quarters.

But what the critics of Mahathir failed to see was that without Mahathir’s efforts, his skills and the overall respect the Malays, in particular, have for the old fox, the opposition Pakatan Harapan would not have been able to broker a deal that might derail the Barisan Nasional (BN) in some of their safe seats in peninsula Malaysia.

Mahathir unites the opposition

Mahathir brought back the lost unity among the opposition parties, getting them to sit down and focus on the real issue at stake: that is the removal of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Which clearly means that winning or not winning the upcoming elections, the opposition will fight to the last ballot cast with the objective of getting Najib out.

Mahathir gathered the divided opposition – which was as divided as that of Singapore with a number of priorities not shared by all of the forces at play – to narrow down their struggle.

Instead of campaigning almost solely for the release of Anwar Ibrahim from jail, the PKR was made to understand that the battle had to be about removing Najib, the most unpopular Prime Minister in Malaysian history.

Mahathir then got the opposition pact to move on to the next big headache for the Pakatan Harapan: the seat allocation.

The opposition could have done better in the 2013 elections had it got it right in its seat allocation. In 2013, the PKR – which was the leading opposition party during the electoral campaigns thanks to Anwar’s captivating presence on the podium – ended up with 32 seats, eight short of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) which snatched most of the urban seats in peninsula Malaysia.

Thus Mahathir got the Pakatan to forge an agreement on the thorny issue of seat allocation at a very early stage of the pre-election process. This was not seen before in the opposition.

Destroying Umno’s focus on DAP

Under the agreement, Mahathir’s Bersatu Party will get 52 Parliamentary seats in Peninsula Malaysia, while the PKR will have 51 seats, the DAP 35 and Amanah 27.

Given the complexity of the Malaysian electorate and the fear of the Malays that the Chinese would take control of the country if the Umno is weeded out of power, the seat allocation is sensible as it quashes those fears.

This was possible only thanks to Mahathir’s stature and negotiation skills. It would not have been easy for Anwar alone to strike such a deal with DAP, for instance.

The Umno’s and BN’s electoral campaign were being prepared on this singular element: The number of seats the DAP will win and how this would undermine Malay power in the country and in the Parliament.

With this single element, Mahathir destroyed Najib’s ploy to focus his entire campaign on the power of the DAP and the number of seats the DAP could win in the Parliament.