The untouchable Dr M

Kapil Sethi
The Malay Mail Online
June 22, 2015

JUNE 22 ― On the surface, it seems even more lopsided than a David and Goliath battle. On one side is a frail, almost 90, long gone from the corridors of power old man whose bark is practically all that is left of what was 22 years of autocratic but arguably economically robust rule. On the other is a man decades younger and a second term prime minister controlling all the levers of power who is increasingly comfortable in deploying them to crush all dissent, whether through legislation, 3am wake-up calls by the police or even by suing through the judiciary.

The PM also has publicly-funded government largesse to dole out as and when the situation requires. He has a plethora of government and party posts and contracts to hand out to keep his party cadres in line. He controls all the mainstream media and has a large, ever-expanding public relations machine at his disposal to run down all enemies, real or imagined.

So it would seem bizarre that things have reached such a head that the battle is not only not over, but has spilled out on the international stage courtesy of the New York Times. In a sign of exactly how difficult the situation is for the incumbent PM, his foreign minister is reduced to replying to the article by criticising Dr Mahathir for internationalising the issue rather than rebutting the issues themselves.

So why is it that the government is incapable of coming down hard on a person who is, in their own words, pursuing a personal political vendetta against the current regime? Why cannot the IGP, through one of his now infamous tweets, order the same treatment as has been dished out to dozens of activists, Opposition politicians and the nine times seditious cartoonist? After all, he has called the PM’s conduct verging on the criminal in an interview with the NYT, no less?

The answer may lie in part in the nature of 1MDB, in part the nature of Malay and Malaysian society, and in part in the nature of Umno, the political party both men belong to. 1MDB is proving to be a complex matter which defies easy answers and solutions, so carries the potential of being dragged on for a long time as an issue, all kinds of audits notwithstanding. When nobody can say anything definitively, it becomes hard to silence the questioner.

Secondly, in the Malaysian context, it would be extremely rude for a younger man to even criticise, let alone arrest or charge a much older man who is also his political mentor without whom his becoming prime minister may not have even been possible. The same logic also applies to all the ministers still in power from Dr Mahathir’s time as PM, which is why the ones attacking him are newer members of the administration.

And finally, in a way because Umno is built around the politics of patronage, the loyalties of many within the ranks are divided based on the duration and quantum of favours received. Both men can call on powerful interests to be counted on their side. But what makes the current PM’s job much harder is the nature of the issue Dr Mahathir has chosen to base his attacks on. Whatever be the final outcome of all the enquiries, in the court of public opinion 1MDB is an unholy mess that stinks to the high heavens.

But scandals have been a plenty in Dr Mahathir’s time too, as have been critics of his administration. He never stepped down. But the defining difference lies in who is doing the critiquing. Dr Mahathir is the only leader that a generation of Malaysians has seen. At a time of economic gloom and bitter political divisions, many look back on his years in power with qualified nostalgia and in the absence of an Opposition figure of the stature of Anwar Ibrahim, are happy to see him take the role of a check and balance to the perceived excesses of the current administration.

Even more tellingly as a predictor of who may emerge victorious in this tussle is a comparison of who has more to lose. Hands down it is the person currently in power. All his opponent has to do is keep the heat on. If Dr M cannot be silenced or even critiqued in any meaningful way through either the use of the carrot or the stick, then he cannot lose.

He can carry on in this vein forever while the PM cannot allow him to do so. Which is why the longer this goes on, the weaker the current government looks. The open feud in MIC, the economic drift, the fall of the ringgit, the angst against the GST and the sliding share market are all matters the government is unable to respond effectively to, transfixed as it is by this unprecedented war.

While this column predicts only one winner to this conflict, if it carries on much longer they may be 30 million losers.

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