I had hoped that Dr Mahathir Mohamad would merely be a temporary nuisance frustrating the opposition’s soul-searching prior to GE14. His gradual slide back into megalomania in the past month convinces me that the threat he poses is far more serious. (Harapan’s Classic Deal With The Devil)

His recent ‘dictator’ humblebrag is as much an insult to the country’s intelligence as any dimwitted Umno rant. It calls for choice words.

Some opposition hardliners are covering their ears and refusing to address the concerns over Harapan’s PM candidate pick. Others like Bersih’s venerable Ambiga Sreenevasan have been more sensitive.

We are in agreement that mobilising Harapan’s membership base is the only way out. The question is how.

There are harsh truths that all freedom-loving people in this country must face and accept now.

I am confident that if we use these as a starting point we will someday achieve the complete and total destruction of Umno and the toxic ideology it stands for, for this is the only way we will get out of our current mess for good. Be warned, you may not like what I have to say.

Let me lay out for you all the things that could possibly happen upon a Mahathir-led Harapan battle in GE14. I do this under the thesis that there is no point in handing Putrajaya to the opposition if the whole show will fall apart immediately after.

If the government wins, they will claim ‘mandate’ (although the scope for ordinary people to challenge this will depend on voter turnout and popular vote), at which point they will use the state of grassroots struggle to determine how and how hard to crack down on the opposition.

Najib Abdul Razak will have a field day if the result is good. If it is poor, and the popular backlash around 1MDB immediately after the election is strong, a leadership challenge may follow.

If Harapan wins, but by a very slim margin, the government will attempt to pull some last-minute tricks to retake power, which Harapan will resist ‘within the bounds of the law’ and accept whatever judgement is handed to them by the biased courts, or God forbid, the gun barrels of the police and army.

If Harapan wins, by a slightly more generous margin, the government will attempt to cobble together a coalition to hand them the balance of power. The only component party within Harapan that has any real reason to accept such a deal is Bersatu.

They may be motivated by the offer of posts, money, safety from an impending purge, a desire to uphold ‘Malay interests’, the possibility of fatally disrupting the non-Malay opposition, a leadership challenge against Najib or any other number of potential draws.

Alternatively, Harapan will peacefully take power, at which point the component parties will immediately begin quarreling over the terms of the PM’s rule prior to Anwar’s release.

classic deal

If the attempt at getting a pardon for Anwar fails, Harapan will offer no resistance, and we will have to make do with Dr M. There will likely be intense disagreements over economic policy, including privatisation, cost of living controls, whether or not to replace the GST with a sales tax (yes, Mahathir said that), and, of course, the question of preferential Bumiputera treatment.

Harapan has campaigned hard on an anti-corruption basis. Any BN cronies that still have money stored domestically will attempt to drain it as fast as possible.

Harapan must quickly institute brutal capital flight controls if it doesn’t want to expose the rakyat to even more crippling debt. Meanwhile, Umno and Malay conservatives will be free to bide their time and use the disarray to recruit for the next election.

In short, the only outcome which would qualify as being ‘part of the plan’ would be for Mahathir, the entirety of Bersatu, as well as Umno to play nicely within the bounds of the law, legally implement the Harapan manifesto vote by vote, and start the so-called ‘national conversation’ about race relations while expecting zero resistance from all Malay hardliners.

Against the backdrop of such an open debate, Bersatu must feel no urges to continue restraining freedom of speech and association in this country, and nothing can threaten Harapan’s unity, especially internal quarrels over leadership positions and policy.

There is one final possibility, which I consider to be the true best case scenario – Harapan wins enough seats without Bersatu to form government outright, and does so.

At this point, Malaysia will finally have a liberal democracy of sorts, and we can proceed to try and do what the Indonesians and Filipinos have been trying to do since they got rid of their dictators: stamp out corruption, eliminate racism, and stop foreign powers from buying up the country bit by bit under the noses of a new, tame government, all while holding back the hardline racists.

There is no guarantee that the new government will not deploy anti-protest laws when it feels threatened.

The fragility of Harapan’s design is because it lacks a common ideological framework. So far it has operated on a shared agreement of problems in Malaysia, things that must be got rid of, but there is no agreement among the parties beyond that.

Their budget is quite reasonable, but the fixation on the lowest common denominator of ‘corruption’ means their calculations depend on the removal of corruption alone to balance the budget.

Between all the component parties, there is no single demographic or sector they will be willing to turn to for taxes if there is a shortfall.

Harapan is now totally devoid of a class analysis of Malaysia’s situation in practice. It has no hope of appealing to the working class and rural poor Malays who need a better reason to switch loyalties than ‘corruption is bad’ and ‘let’s work for all Malaysians’.

Will they tax the rich? Will they use those taxes to extend the benefits received by some poor Malays to everybody? Will they enforce a good minimum wage and union rights?

Time was that DAP would still make occasional jabs at Article 153, and Harapan was toying with the idea of a needs-based welfare system. With Bersatu in the mix, Harapan is now totally disarmed from any notion of anti-racism.

There can be no talk of systemic change. Our quasi-apartheid economic system is here to stay. As long as we all act nice to each other, don’t use slurs and stop waving a keris around, racism will not be a problem.

Do anything else, and the alliance with Bersatu is in danger. Leave those Perkasa types alone. If it involves refugees or migrants, who cares?

Despite these flaws, Pakatan has held the loyalty of opposition supporters for a long time. Not everybody thought that Pakatan would swoop in and fix everything, but we all believed they’d give us the space to finish the job eventually.

In 2017, Harapan finally cottoned on to this fact, that their selling point was the offer of opening up politics to the people, and then they went and shot themselves in the foot.

If I’d gone back to just after GE13 in a time machine and told the opposition top brass that Mahathir would be leading them into GE14, I would have been laughed out of the room. I expect a handful of them would even say that they would never work with someone as petty and vile as he.

Mahathir’s latest note, ‘I, dictator’ perfectly illustrates why he is such a terrible choice for literally anything to do with the opposition. The note is essentially one long sarcastic jab at everyone who calls him a dictator, whom he assumes are all either BN supporters or have been fooled into spoiling their votes.

classic deal

The logic of the note is quite simply: ‘I am not a textbook dictator. I did not deck out my wife in jewelry, released a handful of political prisoners when I took office, and did not have a massive bodyguard team. Therefore, I was not a dictator.’

You all know he arrested half the people he is currently working with during Ops Lalang. He simultaneously orchestrated the artificial breakup of Umno during a leadership challenge (look up ‘Umno Baru’).

Before that he worked with Najib’s father, Abdul Razak to whip up racial tensions during and after May 13, and then spent his short political exile writing The Malay Dilemma, the literal precursor to ketuanan Melayu, which somehow manages to justify the oppression of non-Malays by insulting Malays themselves. Among other things.

This is a man who has been handed multiple opportunities on multiple silver platters to offer an apology, fake or not, for literally any of the times he stepped on the rakyat while lording over us. To this day he is unable to do such a thing without immediately offering some qualification like ‘it was necessary’ or ‘I would do it again’.

I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s refused to say that the University and University Colleges Act, which today continues to frustrate the work of pro-opposition student activists, was a mistake and should be repealed.

And now we trust this man to overturn the raft of anti-protest legislation that he once used to great effect ‘because it was necessary’?

Harapan has made a classic deal with the devil. In exchange for a shot at winning GE14, it has traded away everything else. Political principles, a plan for implementing its manifesto in full, the hope that someday we may aspire to a deeper critique of racism, credibility in the mass movement.

Najib does not laugh because vote spoilers will hand him victory. We’ve dealt with BN victories before. Najib laughs because he knows that even in victory, Harapan is not a real threat to Umno, ketuanan Melayu, possibly not even himself. Tun Razak rejoices in his grave.

The opposition is in no shape to challenge Umno on an ongoing basis today, even more so with Mahathir at the helm. Their vision for government must go off perfectly or the entire project will fall apart and Umno will swoop in to claim the spoils.

I will vote without quarrel for a DAP, PKR, Amanah or Gabungan Kiri candidate. But for all the political and practical reasons above and more, I refuse, categorically, to be made to choose between an Umno (or PAS) or Bersatu candidate.

I will not be blackmailed into that choice, and if Harapan suffers defeat once again because of that, they will have learned a lesson they would have had to learn eventually.

Our fight is not just against Umno. It is against the system and its racist ideology, and the inequality and brutality and ignorance that it stands for.

Pakatan understood this once, when they marched with us at Bersih and helped carved out the rakyat’s hard-earned space for protest. Their leadership have thrown up their hands and said, ‘It’s too hard, we pick the shortcut’.

I don’t want their voters and volunteers to follow blindly. I want them to join together and build ‘people power’ to where it was before 1969. I want students and workers and Malays and non-Malays and NGOs and unions and opposition supporters and everyone else to be marching whenever the government messes up.

Our vote is, after all, the weakest expression of democracy. True democracy happens when the government does as the people say, for the benefit of all, and especially the marginalised, whether it wants to or not.

Much remains to be said about how we can build such a popular movement and I hope to write on that soon.

Suffice to say for now that the so-called spoilers and ‘selfish privileged urban youth’ that pundits so enjoy trashing are precisely the people that are waiting for the opportunity to make real change.

Mock them at your own risk. You will be following them onto the streets when your options run out.


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

LETTER | I refer to the Malaysiakini article I, dictator.

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