Strange things are happening in Malaysia

Reuters pic

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Alice says in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, as her neck gets stretched and she experiences a strange change in her body and the landscape.

Like Alice, I have a sense of something odd or atypical happening in our nation, especially in Malaysian politics: that it’s getting curiouser and curiouser.

Let me give you some examples. In a live telecast over TV1 yesterday, new Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he was using the Cabinet appointment model used by the first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in naming his Cabinet members.

Mahathir said this in explaining why he had initially appointed only a deputy prime minister and three ministers, and why he intended to have only 10 ministers for the time being before expanding it to about 25, or a maximum of 30, Cabinet members.

He said the 10 ministers were to get Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) election promises off the ground. He said: “This is a new Cabinet that has never been set up before, apart from the one by Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1957, where he at the time started with a small Cabinet with less than 10 people that included three British officers. It was later expanded with other ministries to become bigger.”

What’s curious about this? Simply that Mahathir is saying he is borrowing from the Tunku. The older generation would know that the Tunku and Mahathir were not the best of friends, and Mahathir did not admire the Tunku.

As a young turk, Mahathir used to attack Tunku, the Umno president and prime minister. The Tunku said, in an interview long after he had retired, that Mahathir had blamed him, in a letter, for the May 13 race riots and being pro-Chinese, and that this had made the Malays hate the Tunku. Mahathir was sacked from Umno, but a year later, the Tunku was forced to resign.

Later, when Mahathir became prime minister, the Tunku complained – including to me at his house in Penang – that Umno members and other friends of his were afraid to visit him for fear that Mahathir would penalise them. The Tunku often criticised Mahathir’s administration.

The Tunku did not join Umno Baru after the old Umno was declared illegal in 1987. Instead, he joined Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46. The Tunku, in fact, called Mahathir a dictator.

So it comes as a surprise that Mahathir says he is emulating the Tunku. I would like to think it is an indication that Mahathir, the seventh prime minister, is different from Mahathir the fourth prime minister.

Another strange occurrence is the stand by two Barisan Nasional (BN) assemblymen in Perak to prop up the PH state government, yet remain with Umno.

I don’t recall such an episode before this. In other states, such as Johor and Sabah, the BN assemblymen quit their party and joined PH. In Sabah, for instance, PH would not have been able to take power if not for the crossing over of several BN assemblymen.

PH in Perak had 29 state seats, BN had 27 and PAS had three. Having 30 assemblymen would allow a simple majority, and PH got 31 when Zainol Fadzi Paharuddin and Nolee Ashilin Mohamed Radzi told Perak’s Sultan Nazrin Shah that they supported PH’s bid to form the state government.

They say although they back the PH government, they are still BN assemblymen. Curiouser and curiouser. Nolee explained that she had done it in the interest of the people and stability in the state, as otherwise there would be a hung assembly.

Of course we have had other strange occurrences, the most significant being the jailor and the jailed working together to unseat former prime minister Najib Razak. PH’s Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng and Mohamad Sabu, for instance, were jailed or detained under the Internal Security Act during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister. The ISA was repealed by Najib, who was defeated by PH led by Mahathir in the 14th general election on May 9.

Another strange fact is that Malaysia’s fourth prime minister is also the nation’s seventh prime minister. And that at 92, he is the oldest prime minister in the world.

Yet another strange situation is that the man who was once the most powerful person in the country – Najib – now finds that he cannot even leave the country. And that he is under close watch by the very police force which rushed to obey his commands until a few days ago.

Then, we have the curious case of the man who used to decide who should be prosecuted and who should not, and therefore held the fate of many in his hands: Attorney-General Apandi Ali. He has been given verbal notice that he may be prosecuted for possible abuses under the earlier regime.

He is among several top government servants against whom restrictions have been placed for “wrong doing or making wrong decisions”, according to Mahathir. This has never happened before, certainly not after a general election.

Another curious occurrence is that a student, P Prabakaran, 22, who only wanted to show youths that they should take politics seriously but who was expected to lose his deposit when he stood for the Batu parliamentary seat has, by a strange turn of events, made history by becoming the youngest ever member of Parliament.

For Prabakaran it must seem like a dream right now; as it must for seasoned opposition politicians such as Guan Eng and Mat Sabu who are now ministers. Their adventure, like Alice’s has a happy ending.

However, for Najib, Apandi and several others whose names we will know over the weeks, the situation may seem a nightmare. They may not, like Alice, gleefully run off.

At the end of the story, Alice finds that nothing has really changed as it was all a dream. It will be a tragedy for those who voted in a PH government, if, after all the fantastic things that have happened, they find, five years from now, that nothing has changed.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.