At last, a live debate between two icons of the political rivalries in the new Malaysia. And without the journalistic twaddle to interrupt our attention.
But wait a minute. DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang has backed out of the debate two days after accepting the challenge that former prime minister Najib Razak issued during an interview with FMT.
Lim said he was heeding public pressure for him to desist from stooping to an immoral, unconscionable, irresponsible and malignant politician like Najib.
He gave about 10 excerpts from the “avalanche” of advice he had received from members of the public, including a “Malay academic” who warned him of a racial twist that could benefit Najib.
One wonders if this Malay is among the four academics who painted a similar picture of chaos when they advised the Malay rulers on the threats that the Rome Statute posed to them.
Nobody is questioning Lim’s decades of experience as someone who would speak fearlessly against his opponents. He was jailed, called names, even accused of starting a riot that killed hundreds.
For someone who has walked through the fire for 50 years or more, one would think that debating with a fallen man, defeated by what was once a ragtag coalition led by a nonagenarian, would be a walk in the park.
Lim might as well have said he feared he could not effectively thwart Najib’s “toxic and vicious politics of lies”, as he put it. The veteran MP would then have won accolades for his honesty.
He did not. Instead, he swam through a string of labels before citing reasons that were repeatedly used by the old regime every time a political debate was proposed.
Among the pieces of advice he said he got was that he should not give respectability to a “tarnished” Najib. Another excuse is the all-too-familiar one of racial harmony and national security.
Lest we forget, Najib was once the most powerful man in the country. He was prime minister and finance minister, but most important of all, he is the person blamed for all the financial headaches that the current leadership is facing. So let us not kid ourselves that he and his viewpoints are irrelevant in the new political landscape.
Another narrative – that a Kit Siang-Najib debate will be turned into a “Malay vs Chinese conflict” – is an insult to the millions of Malaysians of all races who voted for change, especially so when a far more sensitive topic – “Islam is not kleptocracy” – was proposed by Lim himself in July last year when he challenged Najib to a debate.
A debate between political giants is something rarely heard in our political theatre. The last time it happened was in 2008, when the BN government threw a lowly Cabinet member under the bus, pitting him against Anwar Ibrahim on live television.
Most times, we were given false build-ups to major political debates. Whether it was the famous 1980s Umno-PAS debate, the Nazri Aziz-Mahathir debate or the Nothing-2-Hide no-show, the cancellation was explained with a narrative that is similar to the one Lim has now offered.
Here was a chance to prove that a debate from two mudslinging politicians could take place in the new Malaysia.
Sadly, it’s off.
To Najib’s supporters, he may have scored some political points. Alas, it’s probably not the kind of thing a man who is facing years of prison needs.
The important thing to the rest of us is whether or not Lim has forfeited his right to target Najib again.
Abdar Rahman Koya is editor-in-chief of FMT.