When is the right time for passing the baton to Anwar?

After the public announcements by Pakatan Harapan (PH), affirmed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad on several occasions, the public were given the impression that the handover of power from Mahathir to Anwar Ibrahim would happen within two years of PH coming into power. It would happen on or before May 9, 2020.

That is all right with the people and in accord with the PH election manifesto and their subsequent decision to endorse it. Anwar would then have about three years before GE15 (the next general election) arrives, just the right sort of timeframe to build on the political momentum and face the nation as the worthy successor to Mahathir.

But the latest twist to the issue is the statement by Daim Zainuddin that the succession issue is secondary to the economic issue, and a few days later, when meeting the press a day before PH’s first anniversary, Mahathir side-stepped the question about the handover and downplayed any concern.

When pressed further, he replied: “I don’t know whether it is three years or two years, but I am an interim prime minister.”

The dynamics at play, the nation at stake

The people know that time is no longer on Mahathir’s side, at the age of 94. Sooner or later, he has to let it go, for his successor to take over and continue his good work.

At a forum early this year, political scientist Bridget Welsh said the succession issue had not been handled well. There was a power struggle going on between the two factions, fuelled largely by people around them, due to a lack of trust on both sides, which is destabilising the nation.

Welsh, however, said a peaceful transition was possible as long as there was enough public and political pressure. “The problem is the lack of trust, but I believe that if other options are put forward that does not make the transition a zero-sum game, a peaceful succession is possible.”

Yes, the problem is sometimes compounded and made complicated by those people manning the corridors of power. Shakespeare described these people in “Julius Caesar” as “sleek-headed men, men who have a lean and hungry look. Such men think too much and are dangerous”.

And we don’t know for sure whether it is the affairs of the nation and the people that they are thinking of or their own political, business and nefarious agendas.

Because of that, we have to send a very clear and loud message to them that no matter how eminent they may be, the fact still remains that this country belongs to the people and should not be treated like a privately-owned business corporation run by a handful of people.

We have every right to ask these people not to play God or assume that only they know the answers or hold the keys as to what is right for the nation and people, or for them to impose their sense of righteousness over the people’s collective wisdom. If the people could rise up to deal with Najib Razak and his regime under very difficult and challenging circumstances, then they could likewise do the same with Anwar in the event he does not live up to expectations.

All stakeholders should be allowed to partake in the discourse on political developments and the crucial subject of succession. Let us give room and space for the two leaders to discuss and decide on the right time.

Speaking to reporters at the sidelines of the National Youth Convention 2019, Anwar said the details of the succession plan, including the dates, would be discussed and agreed between them. He said Mahathir “will still play the role of a statesman” even after he had taken over, said the prime minister-in-waiting, adding that communication between them has been good.

Pressing national issues for Mahathir to address

Mahathir should be mindful of, and inspired by, the lines in Robert Frost’s poem: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep”.

The people understand that Mahathir has to deal with much unfinished business before he passes the baton.

These include the agenda to correct the national economy and finances and the monumental task to clean up the mess of 1MDB, FGV, Felcra, TH, LTAT and many other mega scale scandals that have bled the nation dry.

Structural reform of the civil service, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are still works-in-progress. Many draconian laws of the past are also under review to pave the way for a healthier democracy.

Last but not least, there is the need to work out a greater understanding and consensus with royalty on the rule of law and system of constitutional monarchy as the foundation to our democracy.

We understand that Mahathir has to be given a bit of time to address these issues, worked out within the larger framework of the succession plan so as to achieve a fair, reasonable and appropriate result.

The latest statements by Daim and Mahathir are already causing reverberations on the ground.

An article on May 16 said “Believe it or not Mahathir’s grip is starting to slip: There is no concrete succession plan in sight, only half-hearted promises and a slew of red-hot plots”. The Straits Times made a cursory observation that Anwar may be prime minister-in-waiting, but one year on, his position is still shrouded in uncertainty. On the other hand, Lim Kit Siang has responded by saying that he would retire from politics if the succession plan did not work out smoothly as planned and as should be. If it comes to that, the people too would be riled and incensed if their trust is betrayed.

Smooth handover

When Tun Abdul Razak died suddenly in office in 1976, the country was hardly prepared for his successor to assume leadership. Hussein Onn was not seen as having the same leadership qualities, but he did all right with his sense of righteousness and respect for law and order.

When he later passed the baton to Mahathir, the country was also clouded with uncertainty as people knew the new leader as a controversial politician and did not know what to expect from him. But not only did he deliver immensely for the nation and people but left us with a great legacy to continue.

Given the above circumstances and stories, there is no reason for the people to worry too much about what will happen after Anwar takes over, or to be overly concerned about the need to get the country sufficiently prepared first. The country will move on with the present checks and balances well in place. The people are now more aware of their rights and more willing to exert their demands.

Nevertheless the people are still very hopeful that the succession issue will be wisely handled so that the peace and unity within the coalition is preserved for the common good. Anwar is of course not without support within and outside the coalition. Any attempt to block or betray him will certainly attract a backlash and reaction from his supporters.

The last thing we want to see is the latter part of Mahathir and PH’s tenure sliding into a full drawn battle between the component parties and their leaders.

That is the prospect we have to avoid at all cost.

Wan Haron Wan Hassan is a senior practising lawyer, active in civil society movements.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect FMT’s views.