A FEW months ago, the thought of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad running as the prime minister candidate for Pakatan Harapan seemed outlandish at best. There was just no way the opposition would let a 92 year old man—one they had demonised for decades—represent them as their number one.
But by the afternoon of Sunday, 7th January, the deal had been set—controversially. Dr Mahathir and Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail were announced as the coalition’s candidates for prime minister and deputy prime minister.
They promised that Pakatan Harapan, upon winning elections, would apply for a royal pardon for PKR’s adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Purportedly, Anwar would be made the prime minister if the royal pardon is granted.
It didn’t take long however for the resolution to meet its messy reality. A day after the announcement, Selangor PKR voiced its opposition to Dr Mahathir’s selection, claiming that the youth wanted a new leader to guide the country forward: “Millennials certainly want to see a fresh character, rich in farsightedness and effective to bring the country out of the catastrophic damages induced by the UMNO and BN leadership,” said Selangor PKR communications head Hizwan Ahmad.
This week, I decided to ask some undecided youth voters on what they actually thought of Mahathir’s appointment as Pakatan Harapan’s prime minister candidate.
A Tough Reception
“I disagree with his appointment as the PM candidate,” said Gajen, 24. “As a young voter, I grew up with stories of Tun Mahathir’s corruption and abuse of power. How he made his family and cronies billionaires at the expense of the taxpayers. How he silenced opposition by throwing them in prison, torturing them and trying to break their spirit,” said the young engineer.
Trinna, a 27 year old entrepreneur, thought the selection of Dr Mahathir was insulting to the youth of Malaysia. “I felt personally mocked. All these months they talk about youth voters being the game changers and then they choose Mahathir to represent them. Did they think we would not know about Mahathir’s past? That all youths are like Fathia Latiff? That we would just mindlessly be in awe of Mahathir and vote for him?”
Certainly, Dr Mahathir the elderly former prime minister receives a different reception from Dr Mahathir the opposition leader. In a Vision 2020 Forum held last week, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) organizers were left scrambling to remove empty seats after only 300 people attended an event prepared for an expected 1000. Morale seemed on the low with the venue half empty.
It’s hard for the youth today to accept Dr Mahathir without recognizing the skeletons in the closet. “I’m mixed because just as I’m aware of his gargantuan impact in the country, he has also played a major role in creating systems that have led to the problems we have today,” said Ryan Chua, an intern at a think tank.
On whether Ryan agreed with Pakatan Harapan’s reasoning to select Dr Mahathir, he thinks it may have been the most practical choice. “If there is anyone who is capable of beating the incumbent government in GE14, it would be Mahathir. He knows the political system inside out and as you can see with the creation of PPBM and PPBM’s seat allocation for the upcoming elections, he certainly has his finger on the nation’s pulse.”
Melati, an intern at a local NGO shared Ryan’s views. “But I’m a bit more wary about Tun Mahathir’s nomination because of his past. I see his nomination as necessary evil for the Opposition team. He’s been in the game. He knows what works and doesn’t. The reality in Malaysian politics now is that you need to be a little cunning to win.”
Trinna was less accepting. “We understand that politics is about a balance between idealism and pragmatism. You want to win, yes, but don’t lose yourself completely just to get there. Opposition choosing Mahathir is one u-turn too many. It shows us they have lost all sense of identity. I don’t know what they stand for anymore.”
For Gajen, the selection sends a few clear signals: “One, that they (opposition) are willing to sacrifice any principle to take over Putrajaya. Two, that wrongdoings do not matter if it is done by your ally. Three, the “reformasi” is just an empty slogan.”
Gajen continues, “Personally, I understand why Pakatan Harapan needs Tun Mahathir. He counters the anti-DAP fear-mongering, he brings in an influx of money, has the authority to stabilize the coalition and most importantly, he can tap into the Malay romanticism of his era. If Pakatan wants a “Malay Tsunami” in the next elections, he is their best bet.”
A Pakatan Harapan that could have been
With so much focus on Dr Mahathir, there is little to no hype that Dr Wan Azizah could potentially be the Malaysia’s first woman deputy prime minister. If anything, people have been joking that Nurul Izzah could be the most powerful daughter in Malaysia, potentially having both her parents leading the country.
Unfortunately, Dr Wan Azizah is still in hot water after her comments in an interview with Al Jazeera where she admitted that she did not mind being a “seat warmer” for Anwar. “I think frankly he is a better leader. He is a better administrator. He’s the better guy for the job. Why not?” said Dr Wan Azizah on Al Jazeera’s Upfront program.
Since the backlash, Dr Wan Azizah has reiterated that she is not just a seat warmer, “I think I’m more than that.”
For Melati, the lack of excitement about Dr Wan Azizah could be “because news outlets would want to cover topics that will sell (that will get people to click on their links and buy their papers). At this juncture, covering about the battle between the infamous leader of the past with the current leader has more sale value than covering about a female leader breaking the glass ceiling.”
Trinna made a good point. Politics is a struggle between idealism and pragmatism. You want to bring forward your beliefs, your visions but at the same time, you need to cater to the voters, putting up a familiar face that the rakyat would be comfortable with.
Che Guevara is a mystifying figure. His very portrait represents revolution. Although it’s been 50 years since the Argentine was killed in the Bolivian jungle—chasing his endless rebellion— many still idealize him today. Che has lived longer as an idea than he has as a man. He has become the symbol of dying for what you believe in, the greatest romance in world history. He represents sticking it to the man and never letting the lure of power detract the cause.
Choosing Dr Mahathir to represent the opposition—the brand of so-called change and revolution—was always going to be a huge gamble. Dr Mahathir left UMNO and joined the opposition based on the simple fact that he disagreed with Najib. Dr Mahathir’s position now as leader of the opposition has seemingly lowered Pakatan Harapan’s politics into a single focus of “anything but Najib.” They cater the anti-Najib rhetoric and forego a less character attacking politic.
But perhaps Pakatan Harapan’s greatest loss now is that they have abandoned whatever remained of their Che Guevara-esque movement. It’s no longer a story worth telling. That iconic 1998 image of Anwar standing on the balcony of Masjid Negara to a crowd of thousands shouting “reformasi” is now a chapter the opposition can never turn back to. Ever.
It’s come down to just a game of numbers. Plain politics. Bashing. Egos & personal ambition.
Only time will tell whether Pakatan Harapan’s gamble will pay off.
* The writer is a special officer to a Malaysian politician. He voices his opinions in several English dailies about the local political landscape and general news.