September 7, 2016
Mahathir-Anwar Handshake: A New Dawn?
by Cmdr (rtd) S. Thayaparan
Bukan Malaysia da, UMNO yang akan lingkop
COMMENT: If former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is really a spent force, then why is UMNO so afraid of him? Furthermore, why is it that most UMNO operatives I talk to fly into paroxysms of rage whenever the subject of political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim is broached?
While personality politics of course plays a role in this matter, the real reason – the most important reason – is that these former UMNO members did what is anathema to UMNO. They split the Malay vote.
Many of my friends–considering what I had written of the former Prime Minister– are mortified of my sceptical support of this new alliance in the opposition. While I dismiss those criticisms drenched in schadenfreude, I take note of the cogent arguments against the former Prime Minster “hijacking the opposition for his own agenda”.
I have made the argument that having shared goals and reforms are mutually exclusive. This again made many question my loyalty to the forces of change in this country. To be clear, and in case you missed it, I do not have any loyalty to political parties in this country.
When I wrote – “Political adversaries working together is unfortunately what democracy is all about and this has nothing to do with having a saviour – an unfortunate straw man – but capitalising on political resources to overcome a political foe who is turning this country into another failed Islamic state” – I was acknowledging the realpolitik of the situation, not legitimising this meme that this new phase of political cooperation amongst the opposition in this country heralds a new dawn for Malaysia. What I hope it heralds is the destabilisation of UMNO hegemony and a recalibration of Malay, or should that be ‘Melayu’ politics, in this country.
The former Prime Minister, as I said when I interviewed him, “paints in broad strokes not because he doesn’t get the details but rather because the former allows him more control of the narrative and he understands that people more often agree on the bigger picture but get bogged down in the details.It is a useful political and rhetorical tactic that appeals to the pragmatic nature of the polity that has sustained him all through his political career.”
This meeting between Mahathir and Anwar is significant for two reasons. It is akin to a dog whistle for the anxious Malay polity, which is why UMNO’s knickers are in a twist. Actually they have been in a twist for a long time, ever since the power brokers discovered the depths of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s corruption and financial malfeasances.
The first reason is that Anwar’s legal action challenging the National Security Council (NSC) Act is also a defence of the institution of (Malay) royalty, which is a sacred cow of the Malay/Muslim community.
The former Prime Minister’s rhetoric, whether it is an admission of regret for curtailing the powers of the royalty or saying outright that Najib is usurping the powers of the Agong – “Najib’s rights are far more numerous and superior in comparison with the rights and powers of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. There is no more need for reference or approval of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong” – is meant as an appeal to Malay preoccupations that their culture and traditions are being eroded by the corrupt Najib regime.
Indeed, Mahathir is using an old PAS tactic of the Mahafiraun narrative to paint his current nemesis as an usurper attempting to subvert Malay institutions for the benefit of his family and coterie of mercenaries.
I made the same claim, writing, “…this new law is perhaps the most audacious play of tyrant-hood by a sitting UMNO Prime Minister. Not only has he militarised UMNO, he has done it with very little resistance from the Malaysian polity.”
The irony of course is that some of Mahathir’s biggest supporters, namely the renegades of PAS who formed Amanah, have used the same tactic against the former Prime Minister. It is an important stratagem when it comes to a certain demographic and something that has worked well for PAS in the rural heartlands even though it was not as effective against Mahathir, who despite what many would argue, kept a close watch on the hands that were raiding the cookie jar. It should work better against Chairman Najib, whose excesses are many and who maintains loyalty with fast running out cash.
No magic bullet
The second reason is more opaque. Many people, especially younger opposition supporters, may not remember the manner in which the Mahathir regime carried out its persecution of Anwar. People also forget that in those early days, the rallies and opposition to the treatment Anwar was a mostly Malay affair.
While I never had a problem defending Anwar, people should be cognisant of that “painting Anwar as some sort of saviour who is the magic bullet to the UMNO cancer is self-defeating, indulgent propaganda of the worse kind. It promises everything but delivers nothing. A shrill clarion call to inaction of putting our collective destiny in another’s hand, while doing no hard work but voting. Change by proxy instead of being the change you want”.
Indeed, those days when I walked the streets with other people, mostly PAS comrades of old, there was this sense that the very foundations of Malay hegemony were cracking under the weight of the bitter conflict between master and protégé. There was the sense that Mahathir had transgressed Malay civility with his pornographic descriptions of sex acts and the means – the sodomy trial – in which he chose to dispatch his then-political rival and pretender.
One of the reasons why there was tremendous support for Anwar, especially in those early days, was the rejection of the type of poison pen letters and the scandalous antics of the so-called pious Muslim politicians that UMNO bred, who were rejected (perhaps hypocritically) by PAS, most definitely by the conservative Malay demographic and the Malay professional class who welcomed Anwar’s third way.
The sight of Mahathir and Anwar, two Malay political rivals, appearing civil and finding common ground in their war against the current UMNO potentate makes it easier for Malay supporters of both to find common ground, even though the wily old master had explicitly said that this is not a gesture of peace. To a specific demographic, in this instance, actions speak louder than words.
Make no mistake about this meeting. Ultimately this was about the demographic that the opposition needs to win over – if they want to be successful in removing Najib. While lip service is paid to the ideas of reform, Mahathir has made it very clear what his goals are.
What the opposition should do is to make clear what their goals are. And if it is just removing Najib, that is fine, too, especially since they have given no evidence that they want the kind of reforms they occasionally preach but which is more often articulated by political parties such as PSM and other NGOs. However, what is important to remember, if you want to save the china in the shop, is to first get rid of the bull (Najib).
Before he resigned the former Prime Minister lamented, “I feel disappointed because I have achieved too little in my principal task of making my race a successful race, a race that is respected”. Much could be said as to why he failed, why his successors failed and why any new UMNO potentate will also fail. However, it all begins with those handshakes with no peace, which is the UMNO way.