Malaysia’s turning point 

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When the dust settles after the next general election, especially if a Pakatan Harapan government were to be installed, history is likely to mark 14th July 2017 as the turning point that made the difference.

A press conference was held at 1230a.m. on 14th July 2017 at the Parti KeADILan Rakyat headquarters. Pakatan Harapan unveiled its symbol, leadership line-up and initial policy platforms.

The historical moment could be experienced in many ways. It was the end of a four-hour long meeting; the joyous conclusion of months of agony on how to effectively consolidate Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia with the existing Pakatan Harapan parties, namely PKR, DAP and Amanah; and the grand reconciliation of an acrimonious two-decade political battle between Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and the forces aligned with them.

Now BN can be defeated

Regardless, a new air prevails everywhere. There is a sudden surge of hope that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, UMNO and Barisan Nasional can now be defeated.

And visibly, the Najib government did panic. Ministers were still sticking to the old script that the DAP calls the shots in Pakatan Harapan in order to put fear into Malay voters while Najib stood in front attacking Dr. Mahathir as if their roles changed – Mahathir the establishment and Najib the opposition.

What was not articulated but was nevertheless most significant was the complete collapse of Najib’s three-pronged strategy to dismantle the Opposition which he had been using since the 2013 general election.

Najib lost the popular vote then and knew very clearly that, despite all the built-in advantages of incumbency, he and Barisan Nasional would not survive another direct head-on electoral clash with an Anwar-led Pakatan Rakyat.

The Pakatan formula back then presented Anwar Ibrahim as the central protagonist with a prime ministerial aura, who could bring together all Opposition forces onto a common platform. There were two ways for Najib to counter the challenge. The democratic—and ethical—route was to reform the government and genuinely win the hearts and minds of voters. But, as the 1MDB scandal showed, he had instead no qualms about using underhanded methods and highly dubious means.

How to destroy Pakatan Harapan

Najib’s strategies have been:

First, to take Anwar Ibrahim out of the equation and thus leave the Opposition without a leader with prime ministerial appeal;

Second, to lure PAS into Barisan Nasional’s orbit and thus split the Opposition along ethnic and religious lines (making PAS the main spokesperson against DAP), and coordinating with PAS to run three-cornered fights to split Opposition support; and,

Third, since the central figure of Malay leader (Anwar) was removed and with PAS in BN’s pocket, the most convenient campaign was to call the Opposition “Chinese” and DAP-dominated to worsen fears among Malay voters in the hope that they would then vote for BN in droves.

In short, Najib planned to win by default by systematically dismantling the Opposition. And, in the first half of 2017, Najib was under the illusion that he would win a landslide and retain the seat of power and perhaps stay for as long as another decade. And so, with great confidence, he was seen attempting to remove prominent UMNO leaders and warlords before the next general election and putting in a new generation of loyalists in their stead.

Had Najib called for snap elections in the second half of 2016, or even early 2017, the chances of a handsome victory for Barisan Nasional was in fact highly possible.

Between the May 2013 election and the huge turnout of 300,000 at BERSIH 4 on 30th and 31st August 2015, the Opposition’s non-Malay support base generally held on despite numerous setbacks. After the opposition’s defeat in the Sarawak State Election in May 2016 and in the twin by-elections in Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar in June 2016, hope that a change of government was still possible finally waned.

Fatigue, disappointment and hopelessness dominated public conversations.

Luring PAS

Before this, the year of 2014 had seen Anwar’s attempt to resurrect his leadership through the Kajang Move being immediately stopped by the courts, by PAS, by the royal house and other rivals. He was sent to Sungai Buloh prison on 10th February 2015.

Two days later, PAS’ pro-Pakatan Mursyidul Am Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat passed away on 12th February 2015, paving the way for the Hadi-Najib/PAS-UMNO collaboration.

Datuk Seri Hadi Awang’s rejection of Anwar’s Kajang Move and the subsequent snubbing of Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s candidature as Menteri Besar of Selangor throughout 2014, as well as the open collaboration of PAS with UMNO on the hudud issue from March 2014 onwards, meant that Pakatan Rakyat was no longer tenable and PAS was no longer be a reliable coalition partner.

Since the 8th March 2008 election, UMNO has in fact been attempting to lure PAS into forming a de facto coalition in order to break up the multi-ethnic Pakatan Rakyat and thus end the possibility of a change of government.

PAS remained in Pakatan Rakyat very much because of Nik Aziz’s commitment towards defeating UMNO, as well as the presence of progressive leaders within the party, most of whom had emerged during the reformasi period with a clear idea that PAS must work as a coalition partner in a multi-ethnic setup.

Fundamentally, the only way to defeat UMNO and Barisan Nasional at the ballot box is to form a formidable coalition that can win across ethnic lines, as well as gain significant ground across the South China Sea in Sabah and Sarawak.

The progressives in PAS left the party after the muktamar in June 2015, which also marked the demise of Pakatan Rakyat. They formed Parti Amanah Negara instead on 16th September 2015, and already on 22nd September 2015, it had joined PKR and DAP to form Pakatan Harapan.

Vacuum of leadership

From early 2015 onwards, detailed information about scandals involving Najib, Jho Low and 1MDB became available through Sarawak Report. New York Timesreported some of the details in March 2015, which shocked the nation and caused Najib to rally the divisional chiefs of UMNO.

The July 2015 report by Wall Street Journal about the USD 681 million deposit in Najib’s personal account triggered an attempt to dislodge Najib from within, but was thwarted through his removal of Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal and the Attorney-General Tan Sri Gani Patail on 28th July 2015. Some other critics were co-opted, such as former Public Accounts Committee chairman Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed.

Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir was ousted in February 2016, confirming Najib’s grip over UMNO but widening the gulf between the UMNO elite and non-partisan ordinary Malays.

UMNO leaders who couldn’t accept Najib’s grand corruption yet refused to be co-opted found themselves voiceless. Najib’s support among Malays specifically and among Malaysians in general plummeted hugely by the end of 2015.

There was a vacuum of leadership for the anti-Najib Malays.

Mahathir’s move

There were attempts by Dr. Mahathir to realign with civil society such as his two visits to BERSIH 4.0 rally on 30th and 31st August 2015 but did not get very far due to huge resistance from civil society leaders.

Finally, Dr. Mahathir moved boldly by quitting UMNO on 29th February 2016 and initiating the Citizen’s Declaration on 4th March 2016.

The Citizen’s Declaration as a social movement didn’t get much beyond collecting some signatures, but the visual impact of Dr. Mahathir sitting alongside Lim Kit Siang sent shockwaves throughout the country. I was with a senior minister from Mahathir’s era the day before the event. He was trying to persuade Mahathir to avoid having Kit Siang at the first press conference. “Leave it to the second phase.” Also within DAP, many were unhappy with Kit Siang’s gesture.

Both Kit Siang and Dr. Mahathir knew that for a grand coalition to be effective in countering Najib’s systematic dismantling of the Opposition, they had to find a way to cooperate. Both were attacked by their respective constituencies savagely but they held their ground. And they eventually prevailed.

Muhyiddin and Mahathir then formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia in September 2016 to serve as a platform for anti-Najib Malays.

Dr. Mahathir was quick to recognize that a single coalition was crucial for winning the next election. He told the Pakatan Harapan convention on 12thNovember 2016 that Bersatu was prepared to be a member of Pakatan Harapan. Other Bersatu leaders were still thinking of a loose coalition with Pakatan Harapan parties so as to enable Bersatu to have a separate arrangement with PAS.

On 4th December 2016, two events were held in the capital. Najib attended together with Hadi Awang an event for showing support for the Rohingyas while Dr. Mahathir, together with other Pakatan Harapan leaders attended DAP National Conference. The contrasting visuals were very telling about the new political landscape.

New solid Pakatan Harapan

Bersatu and the original Pakatan Harapan parties signed an agreement on 13th December 2016, commencing the “PH + Bersatu” period of cooperation. On 27th March 2017, Bersatu joined Pakatan Harapan as an official component in line with Dr Mahathir’s wish for a tighter format in order to maximize public confidence in the Opposition.

The big announcements that elated the nation on 14th July and gave everyone hope did not come out of nowhere. It was the result of many difficult negotiations.

Four Presidential Council meetings were held on 30th April at the PPBM office, 31st May at Perdana Leadership Foundation, 9th June at the PPBM office and 13th July at the PKR office, not to mention the numerous smaller meetings in between held in multiple formats and groupings.

That the parties come together as a coalition naturally means that they are different and have different constituencies, otherwise they could have just formed a single party. At the heart of it was the question of how the 1997 split between Anwar and Mahathir could ever reconcile in 2017. After all, there is the subtle question of competing pre-eminence between PKR and PPBM.

The process was deadlocked at the 9th June meeting but “unlocked” after Dr. Mahathir and Nurul Izzah Anwar met in London during Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The London meeting paved the way for the eventual deal.

During the months of deadlock, whenever I was asked about the situation, my standard answer was that I didn’t mind giving the 20-year rivalry a few more days or weeks to reach a genuine, candid and full reconciliation. And if it was genuine, the nation would feel it and it would be inspiring and uplifting, which is exactly what is felt now.

Together again

Now the nation feels that a change of government – led by Mahathir and Anwar together – is the return to the golden era of the pre-1997 roaring ‘90s. There is a new ambience.

Significantly, the 14th July meeting was Mahathir’s first visit to PKR headquarters – the home base of the party formed to oppose his rule two decades ago.

Anwar and Mahathir have been the most important voices shaping national politics since the late 1960s. Dr. Mahathir became an MP in 1964, Anwar was a well-known student leader in the second half of the 1960s. The duo had collaborated since those early days. Dr. Mahathir’s supposedly secret letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman calling for the latter’s resignation after the May 13th riots was widely distributed in Kuala Lumpur by student groups linked to Anwar.

Anwar was seen as Mahathir’s political son between his entry into UMNO a week before the 1982 general election until his dismissal on 2nd September 1998.

In the last half a century, both Anwar and Mahathir had their devout followers and were also able to reach out to the middle ground in a way no other politician could. There have always been some who sacrificed for their idol even when he was in the political wilderness or, in the case of Anwar, prison.

Najib has never enjoyed such devotion, and Khairy Jamaluddin functions more like a celebrity. People may like them but they never love them.

No other Malay leaders beyond Mahathir and Anwar have enjoyed deep devotion from their supporters. The combined effect of Anwar and Mahathir is easily filling the Malay leadership vacuum at a time when Malay voters generally hate Prime Minister Najib and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

Both Anwar and Mahathir had periods in their political careers when they were seen as “ultras”, detrimental to the interests of non-Malays. But both made amends and have being embraced with respect and devotion by non-Malays and those in the political middle ground. Dr. Mahathir’s Vision 2020 period made him the Prime Minister of choice for non-Malays. Anwar was also well liked by non-Malays in the 1990s and during the Pakatan Rakyat era as Prime Ministerial candidate.

Promising moment

After the opposition leadership structure was unveiled on 14th July, it was most comical to see how one after another UMNO Minister trying to stick to their old script of claiming that the DAP calls the shots in the Opposition. Such claims won’t stick now that it is the joint Mahathir-Anwar leadership team that they are facing.

The 14th July New Deal is the turning point where the Opposition returns from the doldrums inflicted by Najib through the jailing of Anwar and the cooption of PAS into BN’s fold.

Malaysian political history enters its most unpredictable yet most promising moment.

(Published by Penang Monthly www.penangmonthly.com, August 2017 Issue)

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