Mahathir and the Breakfast Club

Mahathir Mohamad addressing the United Nations General Assembly (September 25 2003)Mahathir Mohamad addressing the United Nations General Assembly (September 25 2003) PHOTO: public domain

By: Vanitha Nadaraj

90-year-old Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad stood up to tell the media that he wants his one-time protégé to step down at a press conference last Friday. Seated around him were mostly political enemies who along with him have decided to put all animosity aside for a common cause. Even his nemesis Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim sent a message of support from his prison cell.

Mahathir’s speech was succinct and he kept repeating the key point – that he was now coming together with his fellow citizens to get rid of the son of a prime minister and UMNO leader he respected very much. It was Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Razak’s father who brought Mahathir back into UMNO after he was expelled.

His fellow citizens who were seated near him were made up of a couple of old friends from his Cabinet, one-time Parliament Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang who was a thorn in his flesh, and civil rights activists who blamed him for institutional decay. A total of 58 of them signed the 37-point declaration to have Najib removed and reforms put in place.

How the world has changed. It was not just the odd political realignment but also the man himself.

Waning support for Mahathir

Mahathir was once the most powerful man in the country and under him civil liberties were curbed at the expense of development. He redefined the meaning of national development by corporatising and privatising parts of the public sector and its services to government-linked companies and investment companies. All this gave the government a bigger role in business and this gave patronage a stronger foothold in business, economy and politics.

He was also a natural leader and outspokenness made him the spokesman for developing countries. This was the man who often figuratively showed his middle finger at Western leaders, blamed just about every evil on the “Zionist regime” and Western media’s hidden agenda.

However, his support within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has waned over the years, as he is now perceived as someone who is pouting because his son was not selected to occupy a high position within the party and was lately removed as chief minister. (See: Is Najib an asset or liability to UMNO and Barisan Nasional?)

His resignation as UMNO member last Monday hardly created a whimper among members. If anything, Mahathir’s move to “work with the enemies of Umno” to get rid of the party president will not go down well in UMNO. This can be used to further strengthen Najib’s position in UMNO.

Mahathir may not have much support outside UMNO either. Mahathir made an appearance during the Bersih 4 mass rally in August last year, to get Najib to step down pending investigations into the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, and there was much excitement.

How much of this excitement had translated into support? Responses in social media on the signing of the declaration on Friday are an indication. Many are questioning his credibility in being part of the move to get Najib to resign, saying he is the one to be blamed for the present situation in the country.

Weak strategy

Mahathir now stands before the world saying he wants to get rid of Najib even if he has to swallow his pride and work with his enemies with whom there is little in common. And so the Declaration of 37 was signed on Friday but all who signed are probably aware that there is a lot more work to be done.

This declaration is nowhere near Indonesia’s Petition of 50 (Petisi 50), the document outlining how then president Suharto had defied the state philosophy Pancasila. This document played a huge role in the ouster of Suharto.

There is no mechanism that will compel Najib respond to Declaration of 37, neither in Parliament nor in Umno. “Use polls to make changes” was the quick response from Putrajaya to the signing of Declaration of 37. To expect anything beyond this would be wishful thinking.

Too many agenda dilute the cause

This is where the problem lies. The “getting rid of Najib” agendum may be good enough as a starting point and for this motley crew to come together, but it is a weak strategy. Almost all of those who had pledged to work with Mahathir have secondary agenda, which in some cases are more important than the agendum to get rid of Najib.

The activists are bent on including institutional reforms as the ultimate goal, Anwaristas want their leader to be freed, the UMNO members want the party to be strengthened, the opposition leaders want to take over the federal government. These secondary agenda can greatly influence the next step.

The politicians in the group may be there as individuals but they also have a party to serve. It will be hard for the politicians, many of who are top party leaders, to leave their party goals outside the door. Party needs and goals can influence the direction this team takes. All this can dilute the efficacy of this new group.

What other avenues?

So far, all avenues have been exhausted. There have been four mass rallies organised by election reform group Bersih and a few others earlier. The last rally in August last year was a clear call for Najib to step down.

There have been petitions and requests for the royalty to step in, calls for UMNO members to move against their president, move to get a no-confidence vote in Parliament, numerous scathing reports in local and highly influential foreign media, and investigations by at least five countries. But Najib’s position seems unthreatened.

What else can or will this team do? Malaysians are facing one of the bleakest economic situations and are not in the mood for wishy-washy moves. Bread-and-butter issues take priority at a time when retrenchments are getting worse.

The next question is who is leading this team? Mahathir at 90 can be an adviser but he does not have the energy and resilience to lead a team like this. This group would need a leader who commands the respect of all and who also has the ability to get this group with diverse political positions and agenda to operate as one.

How far this group goes will depend on what happens on Monday, like in The Breakfast Club. Will everyone forget each other after the weekend or will their differences bring them closer?