Women who speak truth to power

Nurul Izzah Anwar.

The obsequious protestations of mainly male politicians over Nurul Izzah Anwar’s frank opinion about the prime minister in her Straits Times interview brings to mind my article last year: “Thank goodness for daughters!” (Jan 9, 2018).

At that time it was a breath of fresh air to read the late Karpal Singh’s daughter Sangeet Kaur Deo’s critical statement on Pakatan Harapan’s endorsement of BN 2.0 with Malaysia’s infamous autocrat as its “interim” prime minister. She also pointed out that the leaders in the opposition had remained silent in the face of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s hollow “apology” over his use of the ISA during his first term as prime minister. Then there was Anwar Ibrahim’s other daughter, Nurul Nuha, who, on Sept 14, 2016, felt she had to uphold her family’s dignity by demanding that Mahathir apologise for “trumped up” charges against her father. The men currently critiquing Nurul Izzah so loudly doth protest too much…

Is it not Malaysian to criticise the prime minister?

Some of these male politicians have spouted the old feudal argument by saying that Nurul Izzah should show more courtesy towards the prime minister. Really? If Malaysians want to learn about the correct etiquette with regard to respecting prime ministers, they should learn from the recalcitrant Dr M himself! Didn’t he teach us the art of the “surat layang” when he wrote his piece against the Tunku during the May 13 crisis? It certainly was not “sopan santun” the way he slammed the “Father of Independence” on his way to political power.

And if the office of the prime minister has to be so respected, why did Mahathir proceed to humiliate and denigrate then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after he had ascended the post in 2003 and to do the same against prime minister Najib Razak after 2009? Wasn’t it the only way to get rid of the “Great Kleptocrat” as Mahathir has reminded us? Let’s not forget that Mahathir does not respect prime ministers and presidents in other countries either and that was why the former Australian PM Paul Keating bequeathed Mahathir with the epithet “recalcitrant”.

Calling a spade a spade

Was Nurul Izzah wrong to refer to Mahathir as a former dictator?

Some young male politicians in PH may have been born after Mahathir left office in 2003, but they only need to talk to their older colleagues like the former leader of the opposition and the PM-in-waiting himself to know that Mahathir was called worse things after 1998. Nurul Izzah and her siblings know this only too well. Or if these male politicians in PH are keen to learn, they can start reading all that was written about Mahathir during his first term as prime minister by writers such as K Das, Barry Wain, Kua KS and others.

Nurul Izzah resigned from the Public Accounts Committee because PH’s promised reform of having an opposition MP chair the committee was overruled by Mahathir. This is but the latest in a series of unilateral decisions by Mahathir since he took office in May 2018, including the plans to privatise Khazanah and to start another national car. The Cabinet will have to bear collective responsibility for the consequences in the event of its failure. We are witnessing the same “silence of the lambs” culture for which the DAP used to criticise the BN leaders under Mahathir 1.0 with the new ministers saying “We’ll leave it to the prime minister” and “I’ll discuss this with the prime minister to let him decide”, ad nauseum.

The PH manifesto prohibits the prime minister from also taking over the finance portfolio but Mahathir has, in the 100 days, taken over the choicest companies, namely Khazanah, PNB and Petronas under his Prime Minister’s Department. It is a return to the old Mahathirist autocracy. The appointment of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali to the board of Khazanah Nasional Berhad also goes against the PH manifesto promise of keeping politicians out of publicly-funded investments since it leads to poor accountability. Only by insisting on rigorous parliamentary checks and balances for bodies such as Khazanah, and that boards comprise of professionals, can we ensure a high level of transparency and accountability.

Mahathir’s response to this criticism was the old feudal justification: “I started Khazanah so why can’t I be in it?” In other words, “Stuff your high ideals and democratic principles!”

What spat with Singapore?

Some of these male politicians have further claimed that Nurul Izzah should not have made her views known to a Singaporean newspaper because of our supposed “spat” with Singapore over the water agreement. Do we have “spats” with either Singapore or China or are these issues just another diversion created by Mahathir to cover up his unfulfilled reforms and failed economic policies?

Let us be clear. The 1962 water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia is sacrosanct just like all the other international agreements made with China and other countries. Mahathir himself should be held responsible for failing to amend the agreement with Singapore when we had the right to do so in 1987. In fact, this is another issue that he should apologise to Malaysians for.

Malaysia’s current financial difficulties are strictly of our own doing and we cannot rely on other countries for alternative sources of revenue growth. Creating a “spat” over the water agreement is another vain attempt at creating a storm in a teacup out of a tired issue when the new administration should be doing its best to nurture good bilateral relations with all our neighbours in the region.

The importance of speaking truth to power

Malaysians in the “New Malaysia” need to value and practice “speaking truth to power”. Instead of criticising Nurul Izzah based on feudal obeisance to authority, let her be an example, especially to the opportunistic men who have lost their principles and integrity. It means that we have to take a stand if we truly want reformasi and to challenge injustice and authoritarianism.

All it takes is courage, courage to stand for one’s convictions and not the courage to throw conviction out the window for personal gain or political opportunism. “Speaking truth to power” means believing deeply in what you say – it may not be popular. It means taking a risk, it means standing for something without fearing condemnation.

After witnessing these interventions by Karpal Singh’s daughter Sangeet, and Anwar Ibrahim’s daughters, Nurul Nuha and now Nurul Izzah, at critical junctures, I say again: Thank goodness for daughters. They have shown the male politicians that they have the gall to speak truth to power…

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.

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