Say what you want, come what may, it looks like former prime minister Najib Razak is here to stay. He is no longer in Seri Perdana, may not be in Taman Duta or Pavilion Residence for long now, given his many brushes with the law and with some of them expected to be concluded at the court of first instance before the year is over.
But he is set to stay, etched and alive in the minds of the people and the public’s imagination.
He has managed to reinvent himself as a political leader of considerable pedigree and mantle after being ousted from office as a prime minister. He has managed to generate people’s interest in him through a concerted effort of a charmed offensive in public relations exercises, including his much-hyped “Malu apa bossku” initiative. His willingness to go to the ground to meet the people to show the human side of his character and personality seems to have endeared himself greatly to the grassroots and gained good traction with them, especially among the less politicised young people.
He has also created a great impact on national politics with his relentless efforts to engage and trade barbs with the government on a variety of political issues. He has raised many relevant questions on the new policies and programmes of the new government, taken to task many cabinet ministers, challenged many adverse indictments and judgments of his record as the previous prime minister. Many of the questions posed by him remained unanswered or simply unsatisfactorily answered.
It is fair to say that despite no longer being the main leader of any opposition party, Najib still remains the most prominent, dominant and de facto opposition leader, easily eclipsing the likes of Abdul Hadi Awang, Mohamad Hasan and Zahid Hamidi with his political and intellectual tenacity.
Then came the planned debate between Najib and Lim Kit Siang. After being under constant attack by Lim, Najib finally challenged him to a no-holds-barred debate, which was promptly accepted by the DAP supremo.
But after two days of excitement with preparations underway for the said debate to be held after Hari Raya, Lim suddenly called it off citing the fear and anxiety of it degenerating into a racial issue and conflict.
Of course, we remember that Najib did not turn up at the dialogue session organised by Sukaguam to discuss and debate 1MDB under the heading “Nothing to Hide” with the public including Dr Mahathir Mohamad. But then, he could assert that he did not turn up because the then inspector-general of police had advised the said programme to be cancelled for security reasons. Our minds are also fresh with the memory of an incensed Najib walking out of an Al-Jazeera interview after facing awkward questions and inconvenient poses from the interviewer. To Najib’s credit, he immediately apologised to Al-Jazeera and the audience while at the same time expressing his readiness to be interviewed again on the subject.
Najib’s latest challenge to an open debate with Lim could be seen as an attempt by him to redeem his tattered reputation for the said fiasco. And credit should be given to him for the courage and bravado. It is as if we were given glimpses of another redeeming feature and character of Najib which we had not known before.
We know Lim also as a fearless critic of his political opponents, which at one time included even Mahathir. We know him as one who would not shy away from a gauntlet thrown at him including a challenge to a debate by anyone.
But alas he did actually back out, much to our dismay and disappointment. All the display of guts and courage by him earlier on came to nothing at the end. Now no matter what excuses or reasons he comes out with, it will not placate nor go well with the public. This sudden volte-face to his position and stand would only serve to undermine his reputation and credibility. As they say, don’t start something that you can’t finish.
This episode is a gift on a silver platter to Najib to claim the higher moral ground by emerging as the more courageous leader between the two, one who is prepared to stand his ground and stick to his guns. Lim, on the other hand, is seen as a spineless sniper in the dark. One who takes potshots at a convenient target but who does not have guts and courage to fight to a finish in an open duel under The Marquess of Queensberry Rules.
What started as a great hype to a vibrant democratic practice is set to end with a whimper. What a sad sad situation for the country.
Wan Haron Wan Hassan is a senior practising lawyer, active in civil society movements.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.