Mahathir’s X and the storm in a tea cup

When Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad unilaterally appointed Abdul Hamid Bador as the inspector-general of police there was no controversy. When he appointed Tengku Maimum Tuan Mat as chief justice without consulting the Parliamentary Select Committee on Major Public Appointments, there was no controversy.

But his appointment of lawyer Latheefa Koya as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief has created a controversy, with two groups signing petitions for and against her appointment, and infighting in Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Why the controversy now? I think this is because the public had been primed to expect Hamid, a career policeman, as the next IGP. And Maimum was eligible for the post as a Federal Court judge. Also, there were reports about who would be the new chief justice, with her name being mentioned as one of the possible choices of Mahathir.

There was no such, shall we say, prelude to the appointment of Latheefa. It took everyone by surprise, including Mahathir’s Cabinet colleagues. In fact, the early exit of the then MACC chief Mohd Shukri Abdul was shocking to many. He had a two-year contract but left after a year, saying he had promised Mahathir to serve only one year and that he was merely keeping his word. I wonder how many people knew of this before the announcement of Latheefa’s appointment.

There is little doubt that the controversy has dented PH’s image in the eyes of the people who voted the coalition into power.

This episode proves, yet again, that PH coalition partners are not on the same page. But that is to be expected as this is a coalition of disparate parties with a host of different pulls and pushes.

It also shows, importantly, that Mahathir will continue to do things his way, and that Mahathir 2.0 may very well turn out to be a clone of the original Mahathir.

Some things are clear at this juncture of PH’s rule:

  • The ruling coalition is still fragile and there is much suspicion in the air, especially between PKR and PPBM leaders. And no matter how much Mahathir and Anwar insist their relationship is good, there will always be a question as to the truth of such statements.

The appointment of Latheefa has ignited yet another round of this inter-party conflict, just as the rumble from PPBM’s acceptance of former Umno members is fading.

Most respected organisations and lawyers think Latheefa is a good choice but criticise the manner of her appointment. They say there should have been consultation, especially with the Parliamentary Select Committee on Major Public Appointments.

  • Latheefa’s appointment has intensified internal squabbling between two factions – one aligned to Anwar and the other to PKR deputy president Azmin Ali. Latheefa, before quitting the party, was seen as being aligned to Azmin.

This has made some within and outside PKR question if Latheefa’s appointment is part of a grand Mahathir plan to check Anwar, especially as the prime minister is seen to be supportive of Azmin. How many people do you think would be shocked if this were to be true?

  • Mahathir has chosen on several occasions to make unilateral decisions, ignoring the PH presidential council and even his Cabinet. One is the third national car, which only he and a few others believe is “crucial” for Malaysia. The latest is Latheefa’s appointment.

Cabinet members said they did not know about it but have been afraid to criticise their boss.

Anwar called on Mahathir to explain the appointment of Latheefa. This was his reply: “What clarification? I have appointed many people and many officers and she is one of the officers.”

Saying the decision was final, Mahathir dismissed Anwar’s call by adding: “He has the right to raise questions and I have a right to answer.”

His reply, in no uncertain terms, tells PH leaders and the rest of the nation: I’m the boss. Just follow. This, of course, is vintage Mahathir.

To be fair, it is possible that he may have felt it would be an exercise in futility to get everyone’s agreement on an appointment or an idea. Those who are or have been heads of organisations – whether government departments or NGOs or cultural bodies – would know how difficult it is to get everyone aboard on certain plans.

Also, Mahathir is a man in a hurry. He may want to rush things through before passing the baton of power to Anwar as agreed by the PH leadership. As such, he may feel that debates and disputes would only delay implementation of what he thinks are meaningful changes.

And don’t forget, Mahathir has never been much of a team player. He likes to do things his way, whether you and I like it or not.

  • It is very clear that the PH coalition chairman does not think too highly of the coalition’s election manifesto. He has said the manifesto is not like a religious text that has to be followed, and that it’s only a guide.

So, we can expect Mahathir to selectively implement PH’s manifesto promises, which could hurt the coalition in the next general election.

One of the promises was to have key public posts, such as the appointment of the MACC chief, approved by a parliamentary select committee. This was to reduce the ability of the prime minister to control the person appointed.

Which is why Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man of PAS, a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Major Public Appointments, has called for its disbandment as it is not being allowed to play its role.

  • This parliamentary committee was part of PH’s plan for structural reforms. The fact that it has been sidelined indicates that under Mahathir, structural reforms may be selectively implemented or delayed.

To those who want democracy and freedom to prevail, this is the most important pledge of the PH. They fear that putting too much power in the hands of the prime minister will, as happened in the past, result in a climate of fear, blind loyalty to the leader, abuse of funds, and even failure of the nation.

But this affair has had a beneficent effect too, one I consider to be very important. It shows that people will not remain silent.

The fact that so many have criticised the manner in which the appointment was made – the unilateral decision of the prime minister – shows they have put an X mark, not a pass mark, for Mahathir’s way of doing things.

The fact that petitions have been started and people are openly criticising the appointment or the manner of the appointment of Latheefa is proof that Ahmad, Ah Chong and Appu are no longer intimidated by powerful political leaders – not even if that person is Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In the past, except for the opposition parties, everyone would have remained silent if such an appointment had been made by the prime minister. The media then would have carried only news supportive of the move and letters criticising the prime minister would have landed in the wastepaper basket.

Not so today. Newspapers and news portals continue to carry statements and letters of criticism by individuals and organisations. And as far as I know, editors have not received any calls from the Prime Minister’s Office or “Level Four” or PH or PPBM telling them what to publish.

That is a victory for the New Malaysia. The voice of the people is growing stronger, and somewhere along the line the leaders will have to listen.

Finally, how important is this controversy in the greater scheme of things? Certainly, the fallout from Latheefa’s appointment will not scuttle the PH coalition, although it will temporarily strain relations between Mahathir and Anwar supporters. And government business will proceed as usual, as will yours and mine.

I’d say that in a month or two most people would have forgotten this storm in a tea cup.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

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