By Holly Reeves
Rushed. Surrounded. Carried along by men in uniform. A few words for the gathered press from Anwar Ibrahim: “Do not follow his [Mahathir’s] agenda. Follow the agenda of the people.”
Admitting that he wrote a letter to opposition party leaders on the next steps in Malaysia’s stalemate between leaders old and new, the imprisoned reformist and former deputy leader made a brief appearance back on the national stage.
A quick catch-up on the current state of play. Malaysia is under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak of the United Malays National Organisation. Allegations of corruption swirl his every step.
Former leader Mahathir Mohamad is leading a “Citizen’s Declaration” intended to force Najib to resign under a swell of public pressure, following damning investigations into mismanagement of a state-owned development fund.
The man claiming the need to follow the will of the people, Anwar Ibrahim, is himself a former protégé of Mahathir. That is, until the elder statesman put him in jail under allegations of sodomy. It was suggested that this was to remove from politics a liberal reformer who had become the greatest threat to an authoritarian regime.
Whether he deserves that reputation is debatable, to say the least. He has resorted to unabashed and at times ugly populism, but is his voice still heard in the chaos of modern Malaysian politics?
The citizen’s agenda
The eight-page letter written by Anwar that went around the world this week is, in essence, pulling the brakes on his party’s involvement with his old nemesis. In it, the de facto chief of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) asked those working with former leader Mahathir to remember their commitment to the people.
Speaking as he left court after an unsuccessful challenge to his convictions, he told baying members of the press, “With regards to the Citizen’s Declaration, maintaining the cooperation is not an issue. It is not about following his agenda but the citizen’s agenda, such as price increase, welfare, [independent power producers] and not about the crony system, corruption and past tyranny.”
And according to member of parliament, Ramasamy Palanisamy, who is himself part of Anwar’s broad opposition group, his “letter from prison cannot be easily dismissed as his personal opinion. There is more to this letter than meets the eye.”
“While Mahathir Mohammed might disagree with the contents of the letter,” and he’s quite right – Mahathir has dismissed it out of hand – “members of Pakatan Harapan, (the coalition of PKR, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Amanah Negara), whether they like it or not, must take the contents expressed in the letter seriously.”
“It is not only directed at PKR members, it cautions those who have been too accepting of the objectives of the Citizens’ Declaration and to what extent the movement behind the declaration will strengthen the objectives of Pakatan Harapan for a comprehensive reform of the Malaysian political system”.
To be precise, Anwar Ibrahim said, “In looking at this current conundrum, we must not question the wisdom of those who have decided to take part and sign the Citizens’ Declaration. In my previous letters, I urged leaders to act cautiously when dealing with the ruling elite and to defend the principles of our struggle. The question now is, what next?”
He calls out Mahathir, the man who put him in prison, for his singular focus on removing Najib. For Anwar Ibrahim, the problem is not so much Najib, but Mathahir. “Obviously, the veteran leader who does not support the concept of the rakyat (the people) should not come into prominence because it will confuse the rakyat; obscure the reform agenda and even betray the trust for reform.“
From his current position Anwar can do little but write letters and snatch moments in the political press. Even the act of carrying his letter means someone performed a criminal act, say authorities.
“In the discourse about the matter… If the majority chooses to support the declaration fully, I will abide by it but I will retreat and only repeat the desire for an intact form of change,” he says.
The case for reform
The Citizen’s Declaration which Mahathir champions calls for “much-needed democratic and institutional reforms, and to restore the important principle of the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary which will ensure the independence, credibility, professionalism and integrity of our national institutions.”
But looking at his record in power; of suppression of human rights; of arbitrary imprisonment; of crackdowns on freedoms: it is a surprise that Mahathir even knows those words – let alone advocates for them.
Mahathir did not come up with a genuine Citizens’ Declaration, because he knows that he was instrumental in creating the conditions that have led to the need for such a document.
Anwar is right. The former Prime Minister, having being part of the problem, can never be part of the solution.