Malaysia’s turning point

Liew-Chin-TongBy Liew Chin Tong

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

A press conference was held at 12.30am on July 14 at the PKR headquarters. PH 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 meeting; the joyous conclusion of months of agony on how to effectively consolidate PPBM with the existing PH parties, namely PKR, DAP and Amanah; and the grand reconciliation of an acrimonious two-decade political battle between Anwar Ibrahim and 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 Najib Razak, Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) can now be defeated.

And visibly, the Najib government did panic. Ministers were still sticking to the old script that DAP calls the shots in PH in order to put fear into Malay voters while Najib stood in front attacking Mahathir as if their roles had 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 BN would not survive another direct head-on electoral clash with an Anwar-led Pakatan Rakyat.

The Pakatan formula back then presented Anwar as the central protagonist with a prime ministerial aura, who could bring together all opposition forces on 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 no qualms about using underhanded methods and highly dubious means instead.

How to destroy PH

Najib’s strategies have been:

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

Second, to lure PAS into BN’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 PAS was 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 by 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 BN would have been high.

Between the May 2013 election and the huge turnout of 300,000 at Bersih 4 on Aug 30 and 31, 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 immediately stopped by the courts, by PAS, by the royal house and by other rivals. He was sent to Sungai Buloh prison on Feb 10, 2015.

Two days later, on Feb 12, 2015, PAS’ pro-Pakatan spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat passed away, paving the way for the Hadi-Najib/PAS-Umno collaboration.

Abdul Hadi Awang’s rejection of Anwar’s Kajang Move and the subsequent snubbing of Dr 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 a reliable coalition partner.

Since the March 8, 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 to 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 BN 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 Amanah instead on Sept 16, 2015, and by Sept 22, 2015, it had joined PKR and DAP to form PH.

Leadership vacuum

From early 2015 onwards, detailed information about scandals involving Najib, Jho Low and 1MDB became available through Sarawak Report. The New York Times reported 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 the Wall Street Journal about the US$681 million deposit in Najib’s personal accounts triggered an attempt to dislodge Najib from within, but it was thwarted through his removal of Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal and Attorney-General Gani Patail on July 28, 2015. Some other critics were co-opted, such as former Public Accounts Committee chairman Nur Jazlan Mohamed.

Mukhriz Mahathir was ousted in February 2016, confirming Najib’s grip over Umno but widening the gulf between the Umno elite and ordinary, non-partisan 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 Mahathir to realign with civil society such as his two visits to the Bersih 4.0 rally on Aug 30 and 31, 2015, but these did not get very far due to huge resistance from civil society leaders.

Finally, Mahathir moved boldly by quitting Umno on Feb 29, 2016, and initiating the Citizen’s Declaration on March 4, 2016.

The Citizen’s Declaration as a social movement didn’t get much beyond collecting some signatures, but the visual impact of 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 Lim at the first press conference. “Leave it to the second phase.”

Also within DAP, many were unhappy with Lim’s gesture.

Both Lim and 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 savagely attacked by their respective constituencies but they held their ground. And they eventually prevailed.

Muhyiddin and Mahathir then formed PPBM in September 2016 to serve as a platform for anti-Najib Malays.

Mahathir was quick to recognise that a single coalition was crucial for winning the next election. He told the PH convention on Nov 12, 2016 that PPBM was prepared to be a member of PH. Other PPBM leaders were still thinking of a loose coalition with PH parties so as to enable PPBM to have a separate arrangement with PAS.

On Dec 4, 2016, two events were held in the capital. Najib attended together with Hadi an event for showing support for the Rohingyas while Mahathir, together with other PH leaders, attended the DAP national conference. The contrasting visuals were very telling about the new political landscape.

New solid PH

PPBM and the original PH parties signed an agreement on Dec 13, 2016, commencing the “PH + PPBM” period of cooperation. On March 27, 2017, PPBM joined PH as an official component in line with Mahathir’s wish for a tighter format in order to maximise public confidence in the opposition.

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

Four presidential council meetings were held: on April 30 at the PPBM office, May 31 at the Perdana Leadership Foundation, June 9 at the PPBM office and July 13 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 was the subtle question of competing pre-eminence between PKR and PPBM.

The process was deadlocked at the June 9 meeting but “unlocked” after 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 July 14 meeting was Mahathir’s first visit to the 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. Mahathir became an MP in 1964, and Anwar was a well-known student leader in the second half of the 1960s. The duo had collaborated since those early days. Mahathir’s supposedly secret letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman calling for the latter’s resignation after the May 13 riots was widely distributed in Kuala Lumpur by student groups linked to Anwar.

Anwar was seen as Mahathir’s political son from his entry into Umno a week before the 1982 general election until his dismissal on Sept 2, 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 that 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 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 been embraced with respect and devotion by non-Malays and those in the political middle ground.

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 July 14, it was most comical to see how, one after another, Umno ministers tried to stick to their old script of claiming that 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 July 14 New Deal is the turning point where the opposition returns from the doldrums inflicted by Najib through the jailing of Anwar and the co-option of PAS into BN’s fold.

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

Liew Chin Tong is Kluang MP and DAP central executive council member.

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