September 1, 2015
Malaysia: Mahathir–The Game Changer for Bersih 4?
by Scott Ng
Mahathir Mohamad’s presence at last weekend’s Bersih rally marked a watershed moment in Malaysian politics. Perhaps it was not the watershed moment Bersih was looking for, but it was of singular significance nonetheless, considering the less than illustrious history Mahathir has had with street demonstrations, something many felt compelled to point out.
Up till that point, Bersih 4 had been impressive, but lacking the needed impact to turn heads in Putrajaya. The crowds were well-disciplined and jovial, everything was proceeding as planned, but there was no spark to ignite the moment, unlike previous Bersih rallies, where turmoil defined the protests as some of the most significant in Malaysian history.
There was also the matter of the crowd’s racial composition, as the low Malay turnout led to government mouthpieces spinning Bersih 4 into a Chinese-DAP movement as opposed to a truly Malaysian one. The full spectrum of Malaysian colour needed to be on its most extravagant display, but it fell short and Najib celebrated another victory as media headlines painted the day’s procession as a largely tame event.
Then the rumblings started. Mahathir will be at Bersih. Tun M is coming. He’s coming when we need him. And sure enough, Mahathir appeared out of the blue, causing a media frenzy that shot Bersih back into significance. Although he left as quickly as he came, he had ignited a spark for Bersih. Immediately, Najib’s damage control team went into overdrive. They accused Mahathir of being a hypocrite and traitor, having betrayed Umno by having the sheer, unmitigated gall to step foot among the rabble rousers. How dare he consort with the enemy, they screamed.
Mahathir would make his intentions known the next day as once again, word spread of his impending arrival at the rally, this time accompanied by photos of him and his wife making their way to the crowds along with former law minister Zaid Ibrahim. And sure enough, he came and delivered a speech from the steps of Central Market.
In his speech, Mahathir made four very bold statements that may lay the foundations for future protests. One, he emphasised that he was at the rally for the people, placing importance on people power in the effort to oust Najib. Two, he announced that all UMNO MPs had been bribed by Najib, along with all of Umno’s division chiefs. Three, he proclaimed again that Najib’s RM2.6 billion did not come from the Arabs, but from 1MDB. Four, he told everyone to keep demonstrating, saying it was one of the last resorts in their attempt to be rid of Najib.
Mahathir’s presence changed the perception that Bersih 4 was a “Chinese thing” and legitimised Bersih and all future rallies as avenues to oust Najib, regardless of the intentions or agendas of the organisers. As an elder statesman, his words carry more weight than the voice of the multitudes, especially to the Malays.
Despite all this, some, including some people in Bersih, felt that it was an apt time to make Mahathir account for his past sins. Yes, his sins are numerous, and yes, there are people who cannot forgive him. He paved the way for Najib to act the way he does.
You can hate him all you want, you can criticise and you can mock, but do not pretend that you did not need him. He came when you needed him the most, deeply aware that some people in the crowd despised him.
Some have called this Mahathir’s repentance. Perhaps it really is his repentance for hand picking what many consider to be the worst Prime Minister in Malaysian history. Perhaps removing Najib is the last goal he needs to achieve so that he may rest a little easier when he goes off for his long sleep. If the old man wants to repent, who are we to stop him or mock him?
Mahathir changed the game for Bersih and the people. He repainted the battle lines as no longer being a case of “DAP/the Opposition against UMNO,” but a case of “The rakyat versus Najib.” Whatever you think of him, Mahathir came through for the people last weekend. Perhaps we should be focusing on that a little more.