Is the PM on marshy ground?

M Santhananaban


LETTER | A sitting member of parliament who belongs to the biggest parliamentary caucus in the ruling government has called on Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to step down as he thinks the latter had shown incapacity in handling certain sensitive issues. This call from Hassan Abdul Karim who represents Pasir Gudang in Johor seems to be a lone and isolated voice but it betrays a wider sense of foreboding in the country over the government’s overall leadership and the handling of various issues in rather tense and trying times.

Until very recently Mahathir was a popular, preeminent and an almost perfect fit for a reconstituted leadership of the so-called "new" Malaysia. He was viewed as an excellent, energetic leader and a good consensus builder in a multiethnic and multi-religious society.

Since the middle of June when some issues cropped up over a video of a scene in a Sandakan hotel room which allegedly featured a cabinet minister, Mahathir’s performance has come under increasing scrutiny. The acclaim and adoration that he had enjoyed from his Pakatan Harapan’s stunning victory began to come under strain because he was widely perceived to be not evenhanded in his treatment of the video controversy.

Instead of allowing the relevant and competent authorities to do their work professionally Mahathir began questioning the authenticity of the video and making other comments about it. The country’s rather bland and compliant press and media capitalised on the issue and the issue of the production of the video loomed, for a short while, larger than the allegedly delinquent principals featured in the video. Later, much later Mahathir resiled somewhat from the issue and affirmed that the relevant authorities have to be entrusted to do their investigation work.

This Sandakan sex video issue is important in analysing Mahathir’s current dilemma in providing masterful leadership of the country to a mixed and mutually distrustful diehard group of elected lawmakers.

Mahathi had on that historic morning of May 10, 2018 announced his Harapan’s momentous victory over the sitting prime minister’s BN and had hinted in rather plain and simple language about his own Bersatu party’s relatively small role in a coalition that contained at least two partners who had more than three times the power of his own party’s parliamentary strength. While this was only hinted at, it was categorically stated that there would be power-sharing with the other parties which made up his government. 

This relatively smaller parliamentary presence did not however stand in the way of his becoming prime minister. His party which won only 13 of the 52 seats contested managed to also secure for itself the powerful home affairs portfolio and in the initial stage, he also attempted to keep for himself the education portfolio. There was opposition to his assuming the education post but he gave it to one of his own party members, who after a promising start is unfortunately regarded widely as unsuitable. 

Mahathir also gave his party members three other ministerial slots assuring that six Bersatu parliamentarians became full ministers while the two largest parties were given a total of 13 slots for the ninety seats they had jointly secured while the other three smallest parties were allotted a total of nine ministerial portfolios.

This Harapan victory was widely perceived to be drawing its strength primarily from urban areas and hence there was a concerted effort to recognise, compensate and give due importance to not only rural constituencies but also Peninsular Malay sentiment and representation. Despite such accommodation Umno and it’s a newly-discovered ally, PAS, have been successful in waging psychological warfare against the Mahathir government by averring that it represents a loss of Malay political power.

Given this alluring power play in the background, Mahathir has demonstrated himself as having the provenance to run the government as if he was the uncontested leader of the strongest parliamentary force. Invariably this demonstration of authority on Mahathir’s part and the existence of the world’s highest power distance in Malaysia has further prompted him to act as if he could act without any compunctions. He came across as the most powerful and authoritative ( some would say, even authoritarian) leader of the Harapan government.

This was to be expected.

You cannot realistically take a ninety three-year old man of a strong character and tell him to refer matters to his 50- year old colleagues and defer to them. Mahathir is accustomed to being in power for the longest possible time in Malaysia. He loves to be questioned by the press and media and provide answers, often tautological and trite, even if it involves other ministers’ portfolios.

Mahathir himself may not see the inappropriateness or irregularity of such responses but in the "new Malaysia" that he promised, he himself agreed to play by some new rules. Those rules are now being breached and while the cabinet ministers accustomed to his style are circumspect, the other members of Parliament who are a lot more distant from him are speaking out.

Some weeks ago Mahathir was asked about an India- born Indian-Muslim preacher and instead of a thousand tactful replies that he could have given, he maintained that the preacher would be allowed to remain in Malaysia in spite of an extradition request from the Indian government. Mahathir is also on record as saying that if this person were to be extradited he would not get a fair trial. On another occasion more recently Mahathir said Naik would be killed in India!

When Mahathir ended his first prime ministerial term in office as the leader of the dominant peninsular Malaysia Umno on Oct 30, 2003, he could have sounded presidential, persuasive and amusing saying such things.

Currently, he does not enjoy that powerful preeminent status and he also does not have a mild-mannered preordained successor to gloss over such antics. He has failed to fully realise the erosion of power that the prime minister’s office has suffered. Today’s IT-savvy younger and older generation are exposed to a viral media culture that renders into sound bytes the most innocuous remarks and the expectations of a prime minister are at a much higher threshold than at the turn of the century.

Further, with the ongoing case of the outrageously scandalous criminal conduct of a former prime minister whose kleptocratic instincts are legendary, no Malaysian wants a prime minister who is not seen to be respecting convention, the constitution and who is not measured and meticulous in his governance.

Mahathir can say almost anything derogatory about his predecessor, Najib Abdul Razak, and not cause a stir. But his perceived mollycoddling of this controversial preacher, Zakir Naik, who has questioned the credentials of non-Muslim Malaysians and hurt the position of moderate Muslims, has hardly won him any empathy.

An overwhelming majority of Malaysian Muslims are moderate and accustomed to living harmoniously with people of other religions and cannot fathom Mahathir’s efforts at going the extra mile to defend Naik.

In this call for Mahathir to step down, it appears Hassan Abdul Karim has not considered the power vacuum that would arise if the inevitable eventually happens. The widely discussed successor Anwar Ibrahim’s prospects, while bright are not certain.

If the inevitable happens there are many possible scenarios.

Both Umno and PAS lately seem to be Mahathir’s greatest supporters and they might seek crossovers from amongst Harapan’s members of Parliament to form a new government that would retain the incumbent.

If that fails and Anwar is unable to marshal sufficient support they will have to look to other leaders, particularly those who are known to be not particularly enthusiastic about Mahathir because it is unlikely Mahathir will relinquish his post willingly.

In that situation, discounting Najib and his former deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, there may be other respectable alternatives known for their integrity, intellect, wide experience, energy and acceptability.

The writer is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience

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

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