Singapore — Historian Thum Ping Tjin claims that he pleaded with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to bring democracy to Malaysia and that Dr Mahathir rejected his plea during his “once in a lifetime” meeting with the Premier in 2018.

Dr Thum, journalist Kirsten Han, social worker Jolovan Wham and comic artist Sonny Liew met Dr Mahathir on Aug 30, 2018, at a gathering organised by Malaysian activist Hishammuddin Rais and exiled Singapore activist Tan Wah Piow.

The group had clarified that they merely wanted to get to know the man up close and said that they were attending the meeting as a group of individuals and not a collective. However, People’s Action Party (PAP) politician Seah Kian Peng had asserted that the group met Dr Mahathir to “invite Dr M to bring democracy to Singapore, and suggest that Singapore is part of Malaya”.

Mr Seah made several allegations against the group — particularly Dr Thum — and alleged that Dr Thum thought “it is permissible to ask its current prime minister to interfere in our affairs”.

He had added: “It appears quite clear to me that PJ Thum does not wish Singapore well. It is interesting that Kirsten, Jolovan and Sonny should associate themselves with Thum.”

Prominent members of the PAP backed Mr Seah amid the controversy, while civil society activists accused the MP of inciting an online lynch mob against those who met the Malaysian PM.

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More than two years later, Dr Thum has disclosed that he had at that meeting in fact pleaded with Dr Mahathir to bring true democracy to his country.

In a post published on Sunday (Oct 25), Dr Thum recalled: “Two years ago, amidst the euphoria in the wake of Mahathir’s victory, I warned that his victory was likely in defence of elite privilege, not heralding a democratic transformation.”

Dr Thum said that Dr Mahathir rejected his plea: “I spent my once in a lifetime meeting with him pleading for him to bring democracy to his country, which he rejected.”

Dr Thum’s post was published after current Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s recent request to implement a state of emergency failed to go through. The PM had sought the King’s approval to declare a state of emergency so that the country’s Covid-19 budget could pass without opposition in Parliament.

Mr Muhyiddin’s rivals, however, claimed that the request was a failed attempt to hold on to political power in the face of multiple no-confidence bids against him.

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As observers speculate whether Malaysia will see a third Prime Minister take office before 2020 ends, Dr Thum stated his view that changing political leaders is “insufficient for democratic reform” and that the institutions, structures, and incentives around these leaders must change to effect greater representation, accountability, and transparency.

He added: “As people all around the world (including here in Singapore) become frustrated with the poor performance of our governments, we need to keep in mind that we must also reform our political systems to be more representative, more inclusive, more accountable, more transparent.

“Otherwise, we can change our leaders all we want, but it will never be sufficient to create governments which actually have the people’s interests at their heart.”

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