by S Thayaparan
29 Mar 2016
“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
INTERVIEW | Very few Malaysians can say they have they lived up to the second part of the famous John F Kennedy quote “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” as DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang has.
After decades of wrestling with his political adversary, former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for the soul of Malaysians after years of being on the receiving end of the all-encompassing power of the Umno state, the honourable gentleman from Gelang Patah, found himself part of a joint declaration along with Mahathir, calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.
While the DAP has enjoyed a political resurgence with a newly awakened electorate, the long struggle against the Umno state has not diminished the enthusiasm and vigour of one the few people who can credibly claim title to elder statesmanship.
Here in two parts, Lim Kit Siang, explains what is at stake when it comes to the machinations of the Najib state, boldly answers questions from a sceptic (the writer) and reminds Malaysians that while we must never excuse the sins of the past, we can move beyond them.
Does “saving Malaysia” mean “saving Umno”, because Mahathir has made it clear that his agenda is to save Umno from Najib?
Interestingly, I issued a statement in Abu Dhabi on April 19, 2015 en route back to Malaysia after a DAP MPs fact-finding visit to Jordan and Egypt, where I differentiated between the “Save Malaysia”, “Save Umno” and “Save Najib” concepts.
This is what I said in my statement last April:
“When I said in my speech to Malaysian students in Alexandria on Friday that I am prepared to work with Mahathir on the ‘Save Malaysia’ agenda, I was not thinking of ‘Save Umno’ or ‘Save Najib’.
“In fact, there is nothing for me to work with Mahathir or anyone else as far as ‘Save Umno’ or ‘Save Najib’ is concerned, as Umno is an incorrigible party set in the ways of money politics and abuses of power, and the greatest contribution Umno can make to the healthy development of democratic politics and Malaysian nation-building is for Umno to go into the opposition benches to allow Malaysia to become a normal democratic country where the transition of power from one political coalition to another is not regarded as a national catastrophe but a necessary rite of passage from a country to graduate to become a normal democracy.
“I believe the first and third prime ministers of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn would agree with me and this was why both of them refused to join Umno Baru which was formed by Mahathir in 1988 and both remained outside Umno Baru till their last breath…
“I stand by what I said to Malaysian students in Alexandria that the focus of the present must be unwaveringly to ‘Save Malaysia’ from the present roller-coaster policies which threaten to plunge Malaysia down the slippery slope, whether in nation-building, politics, economics, education or other aspects of national life, to that of a ‘failed state’.
“I have said that for this formidable task, we must be prepared to put our differences in the past to one side and concentrate all our energies on one common agenda, to save Malaysia from all centrifugal forces to tear the country asunder.”
As far as I am concerned, “Save Malaysia” means saving the country, and not an individual, be he Prime Minister Najib Razak or a particular party, be it Umno.
How can meaningful reforms be carried out by anyone who has Mahathir’s imprimatur?
When Mahathir suggested that political and civil society leaders gather to sign and proclaim the Citizens’ Declaration to Save Malaysia, his first draft focused on concerns over the deteriorating political, economic and social conditions in the country and the damage done to the country under Najib’s premiership, in particular by the RM55 billion 1MDB and RM2.6 billion “donation” twin mega scandals.
However, as the problem is not just about the man but also the system, Mahathir agreed that apart from Najib’s resignation there would also be “much-needed democratic and institutional reforms” to restore the important principle of the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary and ensure the independence, credibility, professionalism and integrity of our national institutions.
This was highlighted in the last paragraph of the 37-paragraph Citizens’ Declaration, which has to be elaborated in the second step of a national consensus.
The original 42 signatories to the Save Malaysia Citizens’ Declaration, as well as all citizens I hope will endorse the Citizens’ Declaration, have our separate political and national agendas – but the salvation of Malaysia lies in our ability to agree on a core common agenda to save Malaysia, and to enlarge this core common agenda.
Could you describe the processes which led to the declaration and what was your reaction to potentially working with your long-time political adversary?
The country has reached a historic watershed where Malaysians must rise above racial, religious, regional and political differences to take a united stand on a common national agenda – to save Malaysia from hurtling down the slippery slope of a failed and a rogue state.
There have been historic examples, both international and in our country – from Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek forming a common front to fight a bigger common enemy in China, to the United States President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian dictator Stalin uniting to fight Germany’s Hitler in the Second World War, or the British colonialists teaming up with the Malayan communists under Chin Peng in the Malayan jungles through Force 136 during the Japanese Occupation.
What the Citizens’ Declaration to Save Malaysia sought to do is to spark off a national movement involving the unity all Malaysians, regardless of race, religion, region or politics to save Malaysia – the highest form of patriotism at this time.
You have said that we can’t undo the past. But how do we secure a future with someone who has been the cause of much of the damage of in the past, who has refused to even acknowledge the role he played, in destabilising our public institutions?
The March 4, 2016 Citizens’ Declaration is not Mahathir or Lim Kit Siang’s declaration – it is a declaration by citizens of Malaysia, regardless of race, religion, region or politics to save Malaysia.
The historic and unprecedented gathering on March 4 to sign and proclaim the Citizens’ Declaration is not about Mahathir or Lim Kit Siang, Muhyiddin Yassin or Mohamad Sabu or Ambiga Sreenivasan, but about 30 million Malaysians, their hopes, aspirations, dream and future.
How do you counter the perception that this declaration gives legitimacy to Mahathir and his decades long rule of Malaysia?
The declaration is a statement about the future as to how Malaysians can unite at present on a common platform to save Malaysia, not a judgement or verdict of the events of the past. The question of legitimatising or criminalising any individual or event in the past does not arise.
I am aware that questions have been asked as to how Lim Kit Siang and Mahathir can sit on the same table, considering the decades of differences and Mahathir’s responsibility in sending me and Guan Eng into incarceration, twice not once in Guan Eng’s case.
In my 50 years of politics, I have been accused of all sorts of things – of being a Chinese chauvinist; communist; cause of the May 13, 1969 riots; anti-Malay, anti-Islam, all completely baseless and pure defamation.
For my joint appearance with Mahathir for the March 4, 2016 Save Malaysia Citizens’ Declaration, I have been accused of being Mahahtir’s puppet and Mahathir accused of being my puppet.
I am used to all these epithets and abuses, but it must be the first time that Mahathir is being accused of being my puppet.
I am no puppet of Mahathir, just as Mahathir is no puppet of mine. It was not easy for me to appear on the same table with him just as it was not easy for Mahathir to appear on the same table with me.
This is a testimony of the exceptional times we are in, where Malaysian patriots must rise above their differences to reach an accord in the higher national interest, which is why the March 4 Citizens’ Declaration marks a historic watershed in Malaysia’s political development.
Although there seems to be a cautious optimism amongst the general vote base of the opposition, what do you think of the scepticism from certain quarters of civil society with regards to this declaration?
I can understand such reservations and even skepticism.
I can imagine similar debates before the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Kuomintang decided on a united front against the Japanese invaders in China, or in the capitals of Washington, London and Moscow before the conclusion of the “Grand Alliance” of the Big Three against Nazi Germany or by the British colonialists who had retreated to India during the Japanese Occupation and the Malayan Communist Party in the jungles before they cemented their operation and the infiltration of Force 136.
I believe many of the signatories also have doubts and reservations about whether what they had embarked upon will lead to success.
For the sake of saving Malaysia, it is better to have tried and failed than never to try at all.
If Najib carries out another Operation Lallang, do you think that politically the opposition can survive?
I was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) twice, first time for 17 months in 1969 after my first election as member of parliament for Bandar Melaka and the May 13, 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur and second time, under Operation Lallang for 18 months.
Although the iniquitous ISA has been repealed, the country appears to be heading to a new period of repression with new draconian legislative measures likely to be presented in the current meeting of Parliament, with new draconian provisions and increased penalties for offences under the Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act as well as giving the prime minister dictatorial powers to virtually declare emergency in the country without checks and balances from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Parliament.
While we must stay vigilant to safeguard our fundamental liberties entrenched in the Constitution and not allow these human rights to be diluted or taken away in any manner under any circumstances, we know that we are in situation where we must be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
The acts of repression, oppression and persecution have been the game of Barisan Nasional in their effort to maintain power. And as I mentioned, I too am a victim of the vicious ISA, and even the Sedition Act. But whatever bad things done to the opposition, we have always come back stronger, with the people’ support. This is the magnitude of the task and challenge confronting Pakatan Harapan.
How does the DAP counter the perception that their efforts to reach out to the Malay community is not an attempt to subvert “Malay” political control and do you think that compromising on core secular values to court the Malay vote is in the long run detrimental to the progressive agenda of the DAP?
There are two dangerous fallacies played up by some Umno leaders and their cybertroopers. Firstly, that the defeat of Umno in the next general election will result in Malay losing political power in country, and secondly, the defeat of Umno will result in the defeat of Islam in Malaysia.
Let me quote our national laureate A Samad Ismail, who is also a DAP member, who has asked Umno many times: how would the Malays lose political power if Umno is defeated in a general election? He also asked: “How are Malays under threat? How can religion (Islam) and Malays be threatened when those in power have been Malays for over five decades?”
Pakatan Harapan will ensure that the defeat of Umno will not be a threat or disaster for Malays or Islam, or for that matter, for any race or religion in the country. Will Umno’s electoral loss in the 14th General Election be such an unmitigated disaster than it will end in Umno’s demise?
I do not believe Umno is in such a terminal stage of political cancer that it will die and can never recover if it loses the 14th General Election. Both DAP and our Pakatan Harapan partners have been explaining the issue in all our ceramahs and forums, and our views are disseminated through our respective party publications.
On the question of compromise, let me reiterate the fact that people support DAP because they believe we can lead them to a better Malaysia. However, we cannot lead them to a better Malaysia unless we are a part of a coalition to be able to govern, formulate and implement policies for the whole country.
We are in need of change and we must dare to reach out, and to do that, we must dare to transform the DAP into a truly Malaysian party, with the support of all Malaysians, including Malays, Ibans and Kadazans as well as Chinese and Indians.
Nobody is suggesting that we betray or compromise or sell out our principles, ideals and objectives. What we need to change drastically is our modus operandi, and not our ideals and principles, to be more inclusive to appeal to all Malaysians. We have always been a constitutional secular social democratic party fighting for all Malaysians based on the fundamentals of freedom, justice and solidarity.