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COMMENT | I was there outside the gates of Istana Negara on Thursday night when Dr Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as the seventh prime minister. What an awesome thing to see Malaysians of every race and religion standing together as one, ready to storm the gates, if necessary, in defence of our newfound freedom.

I have never seen such joy on the streets. Suddenly, sectarianism’s hold was shattered as people stood together, Malaysians above all else, singing “Negaraku” and waving the Jalur Gemilang. For those few moments in time at least, every man became his brother’s keeper.

People in other nations long to see such days; how blessed we are!

Now the work begins

The early days of freedom are always heady; now the hard work of giving substance to our hopes and dreams begins.

Expectations are high; it will take time to undo the years of misrule, to rebuild national unity and heal our land of the politics of bigotry, and to forge a new consensus on core national issues. Some unpopular but necessary compromises will have to be made; not everyone will be happy.

We must give the new government the time that it needs to accomplish its promises. Mahathir is very committed to the Pakatan Harapan agenda. Already he is off to a good start with Lim Guan Eng at the Treasury, Muhyiddin in the Home Ministry and Mat Sabu in Defence Ministry.

The appointment of Lim itself immediately sent ripples of hope across the land that Mahathir intends to bring a new inclusiveness to the nation. The appointments of Muhyiddin and Mat Sabu will reassure our Malay brothers that their interests will also continue to be protected. How far we have travelled in the span of just a few days.

Democracy a messy affair

But democracy can sometimes be a messy affair, particularly when coalitions are involved. It took Angela Merkel of Germany months to negotiate with her coalition partners to form a cabinet.

Some are distressed that differences have emerged over the allocation of cabinet assignments. Social media is already awash with angry exchanges. Everybody needs to chill out and not get so worked up over these things.

Harapan is, after all, a coalition of equals, unlike BN, where Umno dominated the decision-making. We should expect that there will be differences. After all, they each have their own agendas, histories and ambitions, and all have sacrificed much in the service of our nation. Now they will need to learn the art of give and take. It is a new experience for them, too.

In all probability, things are going to get even more challenging when Anwar Ibrahim is fully in harness. With several strong personalities in the same room, Malaysians are in for an interesting ride.

Whatever it is, all Harapan leaders know full well that the public who voted them to office is very focused on rebuilding the nation and will have little patience with anyone who hinders the reform agenda.

In any case, Mahathir is fully up to the challenge of balancing competing agendas and demands. His face-to-face meeting with Anwar on Saturday night is a clear indication that he will do whatever it takes to maintain the unity of PH.

Mahathir is a stabilising and reassuring figure in a rapidly changing political environment. Malaysians are comfortable with him in charge and want him to stay at the helm at least until the process of transformation becomes irreversible.

The prime minister’s team of eminent persons also evoked much praise. With the nation in transition, nothing is more important than assuaging investors and business leaders.

Inspired appointments

Other equally important appointments, including the attorney-general, election commission head, chief secretary and MACC chief, need to be made in due course. Many are hoping that people of calibre, integrity and a proven track record will be selected.

After years of institutional decay and political interference, it is important to fill key positions with professionals who will immediately inspire confidence and respect for both the position and the institution.

The choice of MACC chief in particular will demonstrate just how serious the new government is about tackling corruption across the board.

In the meantime, the fact that Mahathir has moved decisively on the 1MDB issue sends a clear signal that he is dead serious about cleaning up the government.

The plague of frogs

The other issue that has cropped up concerns BN frogs who are now jumping to Harapan. How ironic that the frogs are now jumping into the arms of pharaoh!

I dare say that many people are unhappy with this development. Having voted BN out, they are not pleased to see these turncoats being given a new lease of life in Harapan. Almost no one I know relishes the thought of Sarawak governor Abdul Taib Mahmud, in particular, being welcomed into the Harapan fold, not with his shameful record in office.

Hopefully, we won’t go back to the old days of wheeling and dealing just to secure power. I think most will agree that we should uphold the principles which informed our struggle.

Clearly, we must take nothing for granted and continue to be active participants in our democracy, watching everything like hawks, insisting on transparency and accountability at every turn.

If there’s a lesson to be learned, it is that the people themselves must be the watchmen on the walls of democracy, sentinels of our own freedom.


DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former ambassador. He blogs here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.