Jomo Kwame Sundaram–Need to Speak Truth to Power


October 16, 2017

Jomo Kwame Sundaram–Need to Speak Truth to Power

by Malaysiakini Team

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Tomorrow: Jomo on why Malaysians are worse off today

INTERVIEW | Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development at the United Nations, talks about the need to “speak truth to power,” among others.

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Question: In a recent speech, Prime Minister Najib Razak accused you of taking “every opportunity to attack me and my policies, from our participation in the TPPA, to the administration of welfare payments, to foreign investment in Malaysia.” What do you have to say?

Jomo: What can I say? One should not read him out of context. He said this as proof of freedom of speech and democracy in the country. Obviously, I appreciate his commitment to freedom of speech, and presumably, freedom after speech [laughs]. In fact, some people now tease me as the PM’s “poster boy” for free speech in Malaysia.

But unfortunately, his fact-checkers did not do their homework, or perhaps facts don’t matter in this age of fake news. As many know, I have also been criticised by the PM’s critics for supporting several of his policy initiatives, most notably BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia) and the minimum wage policy.

BR1M goes directly to beneficiaries and is hence much appreciated by recipients. Understandably, as with the mid-year deal for Felda settlers, opposition politicians see BR1M as bribing the electorate, but one should not condemn BR1M itself.

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However, labour market interventions, such as the minimum wage policy, have been far more significant for improving a lot of low-income earners although the public may not realise it.

I recently lauded the Health Ministry initiative to get an affordable Hepatitis C treatment, for a small fraction of the US price, for the almost half million Malaysians who suffer from it.

So factually, his speechwriters were wrong. But he was right to say that I do not blindly support everything his government has done, and have been critical of specific policies, which I have done for decades, long before he became PM.

Najib said you have been critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

Jomo: He is correct that I have long been critical of the TPPA. Before I came back to Malaysia last year, I joined some UN colleagues to critically assess the TPPA. The report was launched in Washington DC in early 2016, soon after I left the UN.

That work was not focused on Malaysia, and simply pointed out that the methodology used simply assumed away the problems the TPPA would generate, including for the US. In the US, both Democrats and Republicans cited our work to oppose the TPPA.

After returning to Malaysia, I felt obliged to point out that the gains promised by the TPPA, even by its most fervent US advocates, were actually very modest and exaggerated by its Malaysian proponents.

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I also pointed out that most of the gains to the US were at our expense. Strengthened intellectual property rights (IPRs) would raise the costs of medicines, for example.

The TPPA’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions would allow private tribunals to make rulings in favour of powerful foreign corporations at potentially great expense to the Malaysian government.

Even now, although the TPPA is dead in law because President (Donald) Trump rejected it, there are those trying to push TPP 11 through while the government and public are distracted by other matters.

This would be worse as it would sell out the national and public interest for next to no gain. My concern throughout has been the Malaysian public interest, including the government interest.

What about foreign investments?

Jomo: As for foreign investment, again he is correct that I am concerned about how the government is encouraging foreign portfolio investment, as in the period before the 1997-98 crisis.

Unlike Thailand and Indonesia then, the government and Malaysian corporations had not borrowed very heavily from abroad. But we were vulnerable because of the sudden exit of mainly foreign holdings from the Malaysian stock market.

Such investments have grown so much in the last decade that some estimates suggest that they exceed foreign share ownership in the mid-1970s, more than four decades ago. It is also misleading to think that because Malaysians have been encouraged to invest abroad, we should encourage foreign portfolio investments here.

 

Greenfield foreign direct investments are a different story as they may bring in new productive capacities and capabilities, including technology, management and market access. But my concern remains that Malaysian industrial capacities and capabilities remain modest, and we still have relatively few internationally competitive industrial firms.

My concerns have been expressed with the country’s interests and future progress foremost. I pray that the space for such discussion and debate will be expanded, not diminished. The PM’s affirmation of freedom of speech should, therefore, be welcomed, not feared.

So, what inspires you to do what you do?

Jomo: Many people have inspired me. Those who fought to free us from imperialism, oppression and exploitation. While in school, especially at the Royal Military College, I was inspired by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Yasser Arafat, Kwame Nkrumah, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela.

And yes, I do not identify with the other man I was named after – Jomo Kenyatta, father of Kenya’s current president, who was unfairly jailed by the British from 1952 until 1959, but became increasingly corrupt and tribalistic after becoming president in 1963.

Chinua Achebe’s writings turned from the disruptive colonial impact to the gangrene of corruption. Then, in 1983, I was shaken by the brutal torture and murder of my senior in school, the late Jalil Ibrahim, in Hong Kong.

We are all enjoined to “speak truth to power.” Initially, when I was at UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) with the late Ishak Shari, Osman Rani and Ismail Muhd Salleh, and later with others after I moved to Universiti Malaya.

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During Dr Mahathir (Mohamad)’s long tenure, I was also known as a critic, even though I appreciated many aspects of particular policy initiatives. Although I was quite outspoken in those days, BN politicians did not harass me.

 

Rather, petty university administrators who had ambitions or agendas of their own were the vindictive ones. But most left me alone as I had no ambitions in terms of university positions.

Also, there is no personal animus on my part towards the Prime Minister. As is well-known, I greatly admire his late father (Tun Abdul Razak )for many reasons. In fact, I wrote an article early last year, just after leaving the UN, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his untimely passing.

As a student then, in the cold winter of early 1976, we organised a memorial meeting at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to honour his contributions soon after he passed.

Tomorrow: Jomo on why Malaysians are worse off today

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?


September 28, 2017

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?

by Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng*

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sdgs-global-cooperation-trump-un-speech-by-andrew-sheng-and-xiao-geng-2017-09

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably.

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US President Donald Trump’s recent speech at the United Nations has gotten a lot of attention for its bizarre and bellicose rhetoric, including threats to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and “totally destroy” North Korea. Underlying his declarations was a clear message: the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives. This does not bode well for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Adopted by the UN just a year before Trump’s election, the SDGs will require that countries cooperate on crucial global targets related to climate change, poverty, public health, and much else. In an age of contempt for international cooperation, not to mention entrenched climate-change denial in the Trump administration, is achieving the SDGs wishful thinking?

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably. Simply put, populations are losing faith that the global development orthodoxy of good governance (including monetary and fiscal discipline) and free markets can benefit them.

With all of the advanced countries confronting serious fiscal constraints, and emerging markets weakened by lower commodity prices, paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing. Budget cuts – together with accountability issues and new technological challenges – are also hurting those tasked with delivering good governance. And markets increasingly seem to be captured by vested interests.

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Economic outcomes often have their origins in politics. Harvard Law School’s Roberto Unger has argued that overcoming the challenges of knowledge-based development will demand “inclusive vanguardism.” The democratization of the market economy, he says, is possible only with “a corresponding deepening of democratic politics,” which implies “the institutional reconstruction of the market itself.”

Yet, in the US, the political system seems unlikely to produce such a reconstruction. Harvard Business School Professors Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter argue that America’s two-party system “has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge” facing the country.

Political leaders, Gehl and Porter continue, “compete on ideology and unrealistic promises, not on action and results,” and “divide voters and serve special interests” – all while facing little accountability. A forthcoming book by University of San Francisco Professor Shalendra Sharma corroborates this view. Comparing economic inequality in China, India, and the US, Sharma argues that both democratic and authoritarian governance have failed to promote equitable development.

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There are four potential combinations of outcomes for countries: (1) good governance and good economic policies; (2) good politics and bad economics; (3) bad politics and good economics; and (4) bad politics and bad economics. Other things being equal, there is only a one-in-four chance of arriving at a win-win situation of good governance and strong economic performance. That chance is diminished further by other disruptions, from natural disasters to external interference.

There are those who believe that technology will help to overcome such disruptions, by spurring enough growth to generate the resources needed to mitigate their impact. But while technology is consumer-friendly, it produces its own considerable costs.

Technology kills jobs in the short term and demands re-skilling of the labor force. Moreover, knowledge-intensive technology has a winner-take-all network effect, whereby hubs seize access to knowledge and power, leaving less-privileged groups, classes, sectors, and regions struggling to compete.

Thanks to social media, the resulting discontent now spreads faster than ever, leading to destructive politics. This can invite geopolitical interference, which quickly deteriorates into a lose-lose scenario, like that already apparent in water-stressed and conflict-affected countries, where governments are fragile or failing.

The combination of bad politics and economics in one country can easily produce contagion, as rising migration spreads political stress and instability to other countries. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there were 65 million refugees last year, compared to just 1.6 million in 1960. Given the endurance of geopolitical conflict, not to mention the rapidly growing impact of climate change, migration levels are not expected to decline anytime soon.

The SDGs aim to relieve these pressures, by protecting the environment and improving the lives of people within their home countries. But achieving them will require far more responsible politics and a much stronger social consensus. And that will require a fundamental shift in mindset, from one of competition to one that emphasizes cooperation.

Just as we have no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods, we have no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace. That is why multilateral institutions need to be upgraded and restructured, with effective decision-making and implementation mechanisms for managing global development challenges such as infrastructure gaps, migration, climate change, and financial instability. Such a system would go a long way toward supporting progress toward the SDGs.

Unger argues that all of today’s democracies “are flawed, low-energy democracies,” in which “no trauma” – in the form of economic ruin or military conflict – means “no transformation.” He is right. In this environment, reflected in Trump’s embrace of the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states, achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible.

*Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the UNEP Advisory Council on Sustainable Finance, is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His latest book is From Asian to Global Financial Crisis.

*Xiao Geng, President of the Hong Kong Institution for International Finance, is a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick


September 16, 2017

The Guardian Book Review

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick

State of desperation: a hunger march in 1935 before the creation of the welfare state.
State of desperation: a hunger march in 1935 before the creation of the welfare state. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
A new account shows how Attlee’s reforms built on foundations laid down decades earlier – and that was the key to their success

Contrary to what some may believe, the welfare state did not come into existence solely as a result of some sort of post-second world war big bang caused by the election of the Attlee government. To be sure it was the Attlee government that supplied the political will, but many of the principles and some of the measures evolved over the preceding half-century. One or two were of even earlier origin.

Chris Renwick, who lectures in modern history at the University of York, has produced an account of the origins of the welfare state, from the Elizabethan poor law to the Beveridge report, which is at once both learned and highly readable. Until the mid-19th century, most politicians and political philosophers were instinctively against the notion that the welfare of its citizens was any business of the state except maybe in the direst circumstances, and perhaps not even then. The late-18th-century philosopher Malthus argued that the poor law was an interference with the natural checks and balances on a growing population.

There were also arguments that will be familiar today about escalating cost, fecklessness and the undermining of the market, with the result that early social reformers sometimes found it easier to focus, not so much on the moral arguments, but on the suggestion that it was simply not efficient to have perhaps one-third of the population unable to make any meaningful contribution to the wealth of the nation if they were laid low by disease, malnutrition and lack of education.

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The first stirrings of ruling-class interest in the welfare of the masses began in the 1830s with the appointment of a royal commission into the workings of the poor law. Remarkably, however, it concluded that the existing patchwork of local provision was too generous and needed to be replaced by a centrally imposed system of workhouses where living conditions were sufficiently unpleasant that no one save the destitute would want to live there.

Gradually, though, the grim realities of working-class life in 19th-century Britain began to impinge on the comfortable world of the Victorian middle classes. A combination of the rise of trade unions, the founding of the Labour party and the extension of the franchise, along with a handful of enlightened employers and social reformers, forced social welfare on to the political agenda. The revelation, during the Boer war, that up to two-thirds of the recruits from industrial cities such as Manchester were physically unfit to fight came as a particular shock to the political classes.

Only with the election of the 1906 Liberal government did the state start to take a serious interest in the welfare of its people. One of the new government’s first measures was to introduce legislation permitting local authorities, should they choose, to introduce free school meals. Predictably, however, many declined to do so with the result that, after five years, only a relative handful of children benefited. The first old age pensions were introduced in 1908 (£13 a year for the over 70s), but once again provision was far from universal. Only those with incomes of less than £31 a year qualified. David Lloyd George’s attempt to introduce a national insurance scheme to cover the sick and unemployed, funded by increased taxes, was famously blocked by the Tories in the House of Lords and needed two further general elections to force through.

It took two world wars and the extension of the franchise to women before the welfare state as we know it today, universal and comprehensive, became politically possible. Although the greatest credit lies with the Attlee government, Labour did not pluck ideas and legislation out of thin air. During the first four decades of the 20th century, governments of all persuasions had begun to turn their attention to improving the education, housing and welfare of all citizens. As the author says, “The fact that there were Labour, Tory and Liberal fingerprints on the welfare state was an important reason why it was not instantly dismantled by the Tories when they regained power in 1951.”

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick is published by Allen Lane (£20).

John McCain’s Act of Defiance


July 30, 2017

John McCain’s Act of Defiance

by Mark Singer

http://www.newyorker.com

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Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona–An American Legislator, Patriot and Vietnam War Hero

I had agreeable disagreements with two friends yesterday, several hours before the Senate’s 1:30 A.M. vote on the Republicans’ scaled-down motion to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When the final vote was called, three Republican senators—Susan Collins, of Maine; Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; and John McCain, of Arizona—drove a long knife through the cold heart of Trumpcare/McConnellcare/Ryancare.

Senators Collins and Murkowski had stuck their necks out much further than any other Republican politicians in the country. For this they had been trolled, slandered, subjected to sexist insults, and bullied—most prominently by the President of the United States, a career scam artist who ages ago lost his marketing mojo. They weren’t buying it. For at least a few hours this week, Ryan Zinke, the never-not-an-Eagle Scout Secretary of the Interior and, until January 20th, a Republican member of Congress, was running strong in the competition for the most despicable thug in Washington, after he reportedly called Murkowski to indicate that her state would suffer as a result of her no vote. (Beautiful, Zinke! Beautiful!) Senators Collins and Murkowski weren’t buying that, either. Nor was Senator McCain.

One of my friends had read my piece about the dilemma McCain confronted, and told me candidly that he wasn’t really buying my argument, either. “An action that merely avoids indecency,” he said, “has only the palest claim to decency.” My friend has worked for many years in many ways on behalf of social and—especially—economic justice. Though he respected Barack Obama, and had voted for him, he took a dim view of many of Obama’s more centrist or conservative policies.

For McCain my friend had no regard (though he forgives him); his sins of commission and omission were many. Sarah Palin, in his view, was the most egregious transgression (hardly a minority viewpoint), but there were others, largely sins by association. In general, my friend loathes what he perceives as the rapacious capitalist cynicism of all the money-grubbing liars who run the banks and grease politicians of both parties and shuffle in and out of corporate boardrooms and Presidential Cabinets and talk out of every side of their mouths as the nation’s and the planet’s wealth and resources and social-justice gaps grow beyond their already criminally negligent dimensions. He detested Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. As for Trump, why bother? For months last year, the Republican nominee, anticipating electoral defeat and extreme humiliation, whined and screamed about a “rigged” election, all the while sliming his way to the White House.

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My friend is certainly not alone in seeing that we are in a Hobbesian present. The United States as a nation of laws, as he sees it, is over. Certainly for the time being, and likely forever. The U.S. as a governable nation, also over. The U.S. as a world power bringing (mostly) democracy and goodness to others—over. And so on. My friend is a wholly decent, patriotic citizen of a country he no longer recognizes, even as the view from his window remains a rural New England pasture.

My other friend shared an equally jaundiced view: she had always thought of McCain as a conventional company man. “His sincere fidelity is to the institution,” she said. “It’s not an issue of humanity, or even a lack of humanity.” So, as an Annapolis graduate and a Navy pilot, and, likewise, as a prisoner of war, he behaved as he thought he should. McCain had been equally a creature, especially in recent years, of a Republican Party that moved further and further to the right, and further away from the bipartisan comity that he had for decades claimed to revere. “Let’s agree that a part of his biography is a tale of heroism and selflessness,” she said. “But if we’re talking about motivation, that’s far more banal.”

I agree with some of my friends’ sentiments. But, in my understanding, as the hour of the vote approached, John McCain elected not to be a company man. The institution that he had belonged to and loved for thirty years, the U.S. Senate, had become intolerable. Dishonorable.

For weeks and months, a burgeoning-until-overwhelming majority of Americans told their senators and congressmen that they did not want Obamacare declared null and void, its knotty flaws notwithstanding. Many of the forty-nine Republicans who cast votes in favor of this repeal knew that those votes bore the stench of unforgivable betrayal of the once-American ideal: equal treatment under the law, due process, and the unwritten imperative for a common purpose. Or perhaps they recognized that in their heads but were blind in their hearts—to their everlasting shame.

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John McCain, bearing scars ancient and new, acutely aware of his mortality, humble but standing a very tall five feet nine, approached the hour when he had to choose. He chose to vote with his soul—in defiance of the bottomless soullessness that, when the ultimate moment arrived, he rejected.

Mark Singer, a longtime contributor to the magazine, is the author of several books, including Character Studies.

On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt


July 24, 2017

On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

Petter Naessan examines Harry Frankfurt’s famous little book On Bullshit

Harry Frankfurt, a moral philosopher, starts this little book with the following observation: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” He then proceeds to develop a theoretical understanding of bullshit – what it is, and what it is not.

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Aspects of the bullshit problem are discussed partly with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, Wittgenstein and Saint Augustine. Three points seem especially important – the distinction between lying and bullshitting, the question of why there is so much bullshit in the current day and age, and a critique of sincerity qua bullshit.

Frankfurt makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting. Both the liar and the bullshitter try to get away with something. But ‘lying’ is perceived to be a conscious act of deception, whereas ‘bullshitting’ is unconnected to a concern for truth. Frankfurt regards this ‘indifference to how things really are’, as the essence of bullshit. Furthermore, a lie is necessarily false, but bullshit is not – bullshit may happen to be correct or incorrect. The crux of the matter is that bullshitters hide their lack of commitment to truth. Since bullshitters ignore truth instead of acknowledging and subverting it, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies.

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Having established the grave danger of bullshit, Frankfurt’s next step is to ask why there is so much bullshit around. The main answer to this is that bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about “events and conditions in all parts of the world”, about more or less anything and everything – so they speak quite extensively about things they know virtually nothing about. Frankfurt is non-committal as to whether there is more bullshit around now than before, but he maintains that there is currently a great deal.

There is an interesting problem sketched at the end of the book, wherein sincerity is described as an ideal for those who do not believe that there is any (objective) truth, thus departing from the ideal of correctness. Now, Frankfurt does not mention the word ‘postmodern’ at all in his book (which is a good thing, I think), but to some extent the last pages may be understood to be a critical punch on a postmodern rejection of the ideal of the truth. Be this as it may, when a person rejects the notion of being true to the facts and turns instead to an ideal of being true to their own substantial and determinate nature, then according to Frankfurt this sincerity is bullshit.

Bullshit seems to be defined largely negatively, that is, as not lying. Frankfurt’s discussion – which he admits is not likely to be decisive – reveals that there is nothing really distinctive about bullshit when it comes to either the form or meaning of utterances. It is predominantly about the intention and disregard for truth of the bullshitter. How then do we discern bullshit from other types of speech behaviour? Is it really possible to accurately know the values (or lack thereof) involved when a person speaks?

Probably not. One may have some intuition that certain utterances constitute bullshit. Frankfurt does not provide any answers here, but one could perhaps suggest that the ‘cooperative principle’ of H.P. Grice (1913-1988) might provide some further food for thought within the emerging field of bullshitology (as I would like to call the scientific study of bullshit). Grice, in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, outlined a number of underlying principles (‘maxims’) that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. Speakers and listeners assume that the others abide by certain, predominantly unstated, speech norms. The cooperative principle can be divided more specifically into the maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. For bullshitological purposes, the violation of the maxims would appear to be relevant. So if utterances convey not enough or too much information (quantity), are intentionally false or lack evidence (quality), are irrelevant to any current topic or issue (relevance), and are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly (manner), they would seem to qualify, although not necessarily, as bullshit (minus the intentionally false utterance, of course). These elements may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Then again, can we be certain that to identify utterances as bullshit in any given situation necessarily is connected to an understanding of the bullshitter’s indifference to the truth?

Needless to say, there are numerous problems which may be expanded, looked into and analysed concerning bullshit. And I dare say that Frankfurt’s little book is a nice starting point.

© Petter A. Naessan 2005

Petter Naessan is a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Adelaide.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press (2005). £6.50/$9.95 pp.67.ISBN: 0691122946.

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Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics


July 3, 2017

Banyan

Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21724432-former-prime-minister-reinventing-himself-leader-opposition-mahathir-mohamads

The former Prime Minister is reinventing himself as a leader of the Opposition

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The Doctor seeks a Return to the House

WHEN Mahathir Mohamad spent a week in hospital last year, at the age of 91, talk naturally turned to his legacy as Malaysia’s longest-serving former Prime Minister. How naive. Dr Mahathir may have stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office, but he has hardly been retiring in retirement. His constant sniping helped topple his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, who lasted until 2009.

Now the old warhorse is picking a fight with Najib Razak, the Prime Minister since then and now leader of Dr Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has run Malaysia for the past 60 years. Dr Mahathir has registered a new political party and persuaded Pakatan Harapan, the fractious coalition that forms Malaysia’s main opposition, to admit it as a member. Now Pakatan is debating whether to make Dr Mahathir the chairman of their coalition—and, perhaps, their candidate for Prime Minister at elections which must be held within 13 months. Having long said that he would not be returning to Parliament, Dr Mahathir has lately been hinting that he would consider another stint in the top job.

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In Politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests

It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely turn of events. The original incarnation of the coalition Dr Mahathir might soon be running was formed in the late 1990s to oppose his own interminable rule. Its founder, Anwar Ibrahim, was Dr Mahathir’s deputy until the latter sacked him during a power struggle; he was later jailed on sham charges of corruption and sodomy. The current government’s methods are copied directly from Dr Mahathir’s playbook. Since 2015 Mr Anwar has been back in prison following a second sodomy conviction, this one just as dubious as the first. The reversal of the authoritarian turn Malaysia took under Dr Mahathir is one of Pakatan’s main objectives.

What makes all this even tougher to stomach is that Dr Mahathir’s conversion to the Opposition’s cause looks disturbingly incomplete. Though he is hobnobbing with former enemies, the old codger still finds it difficult to apologise for the excesses of his tenure. Many of his views remain wacky: in May he told the Financial Times that he still thinks the American or Israeli governments might have arranged the attacks of September 11th 2001. Can Malaysia’s opposition really find no more palatable leader?

These are desperate times, retort Dr Mahathir’s supporters. Since 2015 news about the looting of 1MDB, a government-owned investment firm from which at least $4.5bn has disappeared, has dragged Malaysia’s reputation through the muck. American government investigators say that 1MDB’s money was spent on jewellery, mansions, precious artworks and a yacht, and that nearly $700m of it went to the prime minister. Mr Najib says he has not received any money from 1MDB, and that $681m deposited into his personal accounts was a gift from a Saudi Royal (now returned). He has kept his job, but only after replacing the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General.

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The Prognosis is that Najib Razak is likely to win GE-14

One might expect this scandal to propel Pakatan into power at the coming election, but instead the opposition looks likely to lose ground, perhaps even handing back to UMNO and its allies the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. This bizarre reversal has much to do with Malaysia’s regrettable racial politics: the Malay-Muslim majority largely favours the government and the big ethnic-Chinese and -Indian minorities tend to vote against it. Mr Najib has baited an Islamist party into renewing calls for more flogging for moral lapses, forcing them to leave Pakatan. The split in the opposition will lead to lots of three-candidate races, in which UMNO will romp home.

Put in this context, Dr Mahathir’s reappearance is a godsend. It stands to transform Pakatan’s chances by granting access to a broad swathe of rural constituencies that they had previously thought unwinnable. Many Malays have fond memories of the booming economy of Dr Mahathir’s era (they overlook its crony capitalism and his intolerance for dissent); in their eyes, he put Malaysia on the map. As coalition chairman, Dr Mahathir might also bring some order to Pakatan’s noisy council meetings. His backing could be invaluable after a narrow victory or in a hung parliament, when UMNO’s creatures in the bureaucracy might be expected to put up a fight.

All these benefits could probably be obtained without offering to make Dr Mahathir the Prime Minister. But he may be the only front man upon whom most of the coalition can agree. That role had previously fallen to Mr Anwar, but it has become clear to all but a few holdouts that he cannot continue to manage the quarrelsome coalition from his cell. Voters are not sure whether to believe Pakatan when it says that, should it win, it will find some way to catapult Mr Anwar out of his chains and into the country’s top job. Nor are they much inspired by the notion of accepting a seat-warmer to run the country while this tricky manoeuvre takes place.

It could be worse

This is a depressing mess, even by Malaysia’s dismal standards. The opposition bears no blame for the dirty tricks which, over several shameful decades, the government has used to hobble Mr Anwar and many others. But by failing to nurture—or even to agree upon—the next generation of leaders, they have played straight into UMNO’s hands.

It is possible that the thought of hoisting Dr Mahathir into the top job will at last force the coalition to thrust a younger leader to the fore (some suspect that this is the outcome that Dr Mahathir, a shrewd strategist, has always had in mind). But it is also possible that, facing only uncomfortable options, they will end up making no decision at all. Some in Pakatan seem happy to barrel into the next election without telling voters who will lead Malaysia should they win. That might seem like pragmatism, but it is really just defeatism.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Doctor on call”