The Next 100 days: The Battle for Malaysia’s Soul

9th June was the 100th day after Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Prime Minister. The next 100 days until Malaysia Day will likely be the most intense period ever in our nationhood. 

The battle for Malaysia’s soul is more than just a numbers game in Parliament. It is about our collective future.   

The Old Order (UMNO) which sneaked back into power through the Sheraton coup will not give up without a fight. This means that every one of us who opposes the Old Order (UMNO) must unite to ignite a movement that will bring back hope and dignity to the nation. 

The Old Order (UMNO) 

Make no mistake, the Perikatan government is the political tool for UMNO, particularly former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, to get out of jail and to make it back to the centre of power. 

UMNO and Najib-related personalities such as Musa Aman and Riza Aziz are walking free, let off one after another. That is the real battle

Muhyiddin is merely the midwife for the resurrection of the Old Order (UMNO).

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad saw it very clearly at the onset. He told Bersatu and Pakatan leaders that had he accepted UMNO and Barisan Nasional en bloc (42 seats) on the pretext that DAP (42 seats) had to be sacked from the government, he would have to accept Najib, Zahid Hamidi, Tengku Adnan and the rest. Even if they did not demand that charges against them be dropped on Day 1, they would do so further down the road, and within six months. 

Three months have now passed, and Dr. Mahathir was right. 

Muhyiddin is hoping to divide Pakatan Harapan and its allies. Threats, pressure and dirty tactics are now being applied to Opposition MPs in the hope that some of us will break. If Muhyiddin can increase his majority to 125 seats in the next two weeks, he will be able to walk in style into Parliament on 13th July, feeling secure in his seat. If so, he may sit comfortably in power for a while, before starting out on an authoritarian path to crush any new threat to his rule. 

But Muhyiddin still has UMNO especially Najib breathing over his shoulder, waiting for their chance to overthrow Muhyiddin and fully restore the Old Order in which UMNO reigns supreme. 

UMNO (Barisan Nasional) and PAS together have 60 seats in Parliament, and can therefore trigger a snap election by suddenly pulling out of the Perikatan coalition.

Another possible scenario keeps closer to the present situation. Should Muhyiddin fail to boost his majority in the next two weeks and would therefore need to avoid the July sitting of Parliament, he may pursue a September/October general election, as is currently being rumoured. In doing that, he hopes to secure a fresh mandate; for him, the situation is getting desperate, and his government going before an unchanged parliament with its Budget 2021 would be pointless since in all likelihood, it will not have the necessary support on the floor. 

Needless to say, in considering an early election, Muhyiddin is hoping that UMNO and PAS will accommodate his faction of Bersatu in seat negotiations. 

Anyhow, Malaysians who toppled the Old Order (UMNO) in 2018 should be aware that Perikatan’s situation is precarious and that the only way for us to prevent a full restoration of the Old Order (UMNO) is to put our differences aside, mobilise and gear up for a general election in three months’ time. 

Only if Muhyiddin and Najib know that they are unlikely to win a general election even if they form a tight electoral pact where they avoid contesting against each other—and such an agreement between them is indeed a tall order— can we then keep the fight within parliament. 

Mahathir and Anwar

Whether we mobilise for a general election or seek to restore the Pakatan government, both Dr. Mahathir and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will have to fully realise that they have to come together—and not just as a coalition of convenience but as a solid progressive coalition fighting against a protracted war against the Old Order (UMNO). 

The Old Order (UMNO) is not going to just go away and disappear. It will take years to make kleptocrats like Najib accountable for their crimes. It will also take years to develop a government free of corruption and to shape a democracy that serves the interests of ordinary Malaysians. 

Dr. Mahathir and Anwar, and the forces aligned to them, should recognise that if we make it back to power, we will need to build a government that has a strong cabinet, a strong parliament and a prime ministership that is more collegial and consultant, and less dominant. 

During their 22 months in office, Dr. Mahathir and Pakatan did in fact reduce the powers and the reach of the Prime Minister’s office and department. Economic planning was taken out of the Prime Minister’s Department to be part of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Attempts were made to return agencies with duplicating functions to their respective ministries. For instance, public transport is no longer a function of the prime minister’s department but, rightly, a part of the Ministry of Transport. 

But the structure and spirit underpinning the Malaysian Prime Ministership are still relics of a one-party state. 

Moving forward, we need to recognise that coalition governments will remain the norm in Malaysian politics. For coalition governments to keep together—in the present case, for forces aligned to Dr. Mahathir and Anwar to coexist for the long haul— it is important that a format is created in which all sides feel comfortable even when their leader is NOT the prime minister. 

Managing differences or even distrust, and building a coalition government that can stand the test of time and crises should be a major concern for political leaders who wish to build back better. 

I hope both Dr. Mahathir and Anwar see their historic roles akin to that of Nelson Mandela’s. Not the Mandela that was in jail for 27 years but President Mandela who knew that his responsibility was—in a short span of time in office—to lay a solid foundation that can last a generation or two.  

Malaysians unite

After a hundred days under the Old Order (UMNO), many Malaysians now realise that while the Pakatan government was not perfect it was trying to do good. It was perhaps clumsy, but it was honest. 

As soon as the change of government in 2018 happened, very quickly the mainstream media and those who filled these pages – who had written off Pakatan’s chance to win GE14 – went all out to “hold Pakatan accountable” under the toughest scrutiny. It is interesting to note that these same media outlets have not applied the same level of scrutiny on the Perikatan government. 

The Pakatan government was held to a standard of perfection. Such moralizing sentiments quickly permeated many Malaysians. Friends in civil society also took on this line of distrust very early on. 

What we should learn is that framing and context are very important. 

Winning GE14 was the collective effort of millions of Malaysians. What happened on 9th May 2018 was not a normal change of governments like that which happens in Australia, United Kingdom and other democracies.

GE14 was a peaceful and bloodless uprising of the people against an Old Order (UMNO) governed by kleptocrats. It was the first-ever democratic transition from an authoritarian state to a nascent democracy in the region. 

A new democracy needs nurturing and consolidation. During Pakatan’s time in power, whenever I was asked about the transition from Dr. Mahathir to Anwar, I kept repeating that the real transition is that of handholding Malaysia in its conversion from an authoritarian society to a democracy, and of resisting the push-back from the Old Order (UMNO).  

Malaysians should now understand that we all have to protect the fruits of democracy together. To build back better, we need everyone who dreams of clean government and of democratic space to come together, and in our turn, to push back the Old Order (UMNO). 

The next hundred days will be crucial. 

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