Former PM Mahathir Mohamad’s appearance at the DAP convention on Sunday gave a fitting end to 2016, a year filled with political turmoil. It marked a complete about-face for the Umno veteran. However, it was a move that was not completely out of character for Mahathir, given his penchant for political histrionics.
The questions now, as raised at the convention by now-former DAP member Shamsher Singh, are: What are DAP and Mahathir up to, and is the quest to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak worth an alliance between two formerly bitter rivals?
DAP’s decision to forge an alliance with Mahathir’s new party, PPBM, seems to fly in the face of its decades-long struggle against the government. Even as an ex-Umno man, Mahathir is a perfect representative of everything the Umno-led government stands for: immovably Malay, stubbornly authoritarian. His mingling with civil rights activists and opposition politicians isn’t going to shake his long history of iron-fisted politicking.
Many observers must have dismissed his glowing words about DAP as facetious. The more he praises his former enemy’s “multiracialism”, the more his intentions are suspect. Commendable as its efforts at multiracialism are, DAP’s public identity remains entrenched in Chinese sentiment. So far, about the only voices of caution have come from the party’s non-Chinese members; besides Shamsher, Sangeet Kaur Deo also cautioned the party, albeit in a less explosive fashion, to be wary of PPBM.
DAP is now strongly espousing its tenet that there are “no permanent friends or foes in politics, only permanent principles.” That said, it remains hard to see how it plans to work with the firmly Malay PPBM in the attempt to oust Najib and, once that is done, how the two intend to remain in cooperation. After all, it was those “principles” that enabled the political cooperation between DAP and PAS. We know how that has ended.
There is another question, one only tangentially related to Mahathir’s alliance with DAP, but relevant nonetheless: Has Mahathir updated his political playbook to reflect 2016?
One of Mahathir’s moves immediately following his Operation Lalang in 1987 was to strengthen the Printing Presses and Publications Act, silencing whatever voices of dissent that could, until then, come from the media outlets. At the time, these outlets were about the only means of disseminating political rhetoric. It was much easier then for Mahathir to control public perception.
However, times have changed. Today’s mass media is a real beast to handle, with the Internet and social media forcing the government to step up its public relations game after its near trouncing in 2008 by the then more Internet-savvy opposition.
The government’s public image, despite occasionally seeming to crack, has proven resilient to attacks in recent times, thanks to Umno’s increasing mastery of online tactics. Can Mahathir reliably match Najib at this game, even with DAP as an ally?