The return of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the forefront of Malaysian politics at the age of 92 — 19 years after he sacked his deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and 14 years after he retired as prime minister — is astounding not only in a Guinness Book of World Records kind of way but also because of some interesting things it articulates about Malaysian politics in the 21st century.
Foremost is the apparent stagnated political transition that the country is caught in. The reformasi or reform movement that Anwar got off the ground in September 1998 captured the imagination of Malaysians and brought forth a generation that did not share the fears instilled in their forebears by the consensual nature of inter-ethnic Malaysian politics. This generation of Malaysians did not buy the conservative “this is as good as it gets” idea nor did they think that the only way to discuss politics was to tiptoe around the most difficult subjects. That much Anwar managed to inspire.
Although the movement was partially headed by older leaders, the impetus came from the young and youthful — and these included those who went into politics then, those who now write for the new media and on social media, and those who voted for the newly energised opposition coalition.
And so, even if the leader of the opposition today is in his nineties, he should not be seen as a symbol of or a throwback to the politics of the pre-reformasi era. Societies are never stagnant and politics can, therefore, not be unchanging. And even if a transitional period appears stagnant, it nevertheless is spiralling off in a certain direction.
And it is that direction that needs to be identified and named. Malaysia in 2017 is not the same as Malaysia in 1998. And even if many of the leading names are from an earlier period, the battle is not the same one.
After the “tsunami” in 2008 gave five states to the opposition, the Barisan Nasional failed to recover and instead weakened further in 2013, when it lost the popular vote. The coming 14th general election is, therefore, understandably seen by many as a new arrangement of reformasi forces bent on toppling the Umno-led BN. This time around, it has the man that the reformasi movement once saw as its arch-enemy, Mahathir, as its frontman.
This paradox needs explaining, and part of that explanation is found in the fact that while all previous opposition coalitions since 1990 had included PAS, this time it does not. This difference is highly significant.
After the excesses of the later period of the Mahathir government, the Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administration chose to define itself when it took office at the end of 2003 through a reform agenda. Abdullah was in effect stealing Anwar’s thunder and it worked. He captured over 90% of the parliamentary seats in the 2004 election.
It was also important to Abdullah to expound a new perspective on the role of religion as well — his Islam Hadhari idea. As his reforms proved ineffectual, voters turned against him in 2008. By April 2009, a “coup” had been launched within Umno against Abdullah. Datuk Seri Najib Razak took over and he understood the times well enough to adopt the term “Transformation” to replace Abdullah’s “Reform”.
He also attempted to popularise the term “One Malaysia”, which tried to reflect Mahathir’s impressively successful “Bangsa Malaysia” from the 1990s. Sadly for the country, Najib’s term now carries very negative connotations worldwide.
Strongly disappointed by weak voter support in 2013, Najib appeared to switch strategy from trying to gain the middle ground to strengthening his hold on BN and its core constituencies. By courting PAS, he managed to break up the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. This use of religion — something Abdullah realised he had to do, which Najib did not consider during his first term in power — succeeded beyond what he could have hoped for. But it came at a huge price.
It led to splits not only in PAS, which was expected, but in Umno as well. The dissent in Umno and the reasons for that dissent appear at least to be twofold. One is the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal that rocked the administration and dented Malaysia’s international reputation significantly, and the other is the central government’s encouragement of Islamist tendencies and tolerance of Malay-centric racism.
It also led to Mahathir becoming Umno’s blood enemy.
GE14 has been identified as a do-or-die situation by many pundits. This is because it is difficult for them to imagine that the country will remain the same whoever the winner turns out to be. Should the opposition win, then, of course, great changes are expected to come. But even if BN manages once again to retain a majority in Parliament, that success — that narrow escape, as some would definitely think it to be — should precipitate harsh measures aimed at consolidating the coalition’s power.
Since the 2013 election, the federal government has in many ways been acting the way one may expect an administration under great duress to act. The sense of mission that is so vital to a developing nation is no longer felt, and certainly not in the way it was felt in the 1990s. In its place is a sense of entrenched warfare.
In its search to rejuvenate itself, the reformasi movement now strangely finds itself in need of Mahathir’s strategic skills and sense of national purpose to accomplish — come to power and reform the system of government. And even if the leaders continue to be from another age, the stage cannot be soon taken over by much younger players. Many are already standing in line. Whether we like it or not, time is always on the side of the young.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Merdeka for the Mind: Essays on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century.