Mahathir’s karma

By Vanitha Nadaraj

A former prime minister, coming out of retirement and travelling around the country to persuade the people to oust the sitting prime minister, criticising him for arresting arbitrarily, muzzling the media, abusing institutions and destroying UMNO.

That is what Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman did 28 years ago. The octogenarian was in poor health and confined to a wheelchair, but was determined to stop Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The Tunku gave scathing interviews to foreign media, very much like Mahathir in recent years.

He was afraid that the policies initiated by Mahathir would destroy the country that he had helped form. He died in 1990 at the age of 87, with Mahathir still very much in control of the country and the party.

So many similarities

The similarities between what happened in 1987 to 1990 and now perhaps show the power of karma. It seems like what Mahathir had done to Tunku is returning to taunt and haunt him, and it goes back to the time he pushed for the Tunku to step down as prime minister in 1970, claiming that the elder statesman was doing nothing to help the Malay struggle.

Now, Mahathir is on a warpath against Najib Razak, claiming the prime minister is destroying the country by annihilating the economic progress he had made during his time in office from 1981 to 2003.

But the 90-year-old Mahathir must realise that he is fighting an uphill task. He no longer has government machinery or institutions at his disposal, and hardly a sliver of support within UMNO, the party he led for 22 years, and in the process made the position of party president even more powerful.

A few weeks ago, he left the party with hardly a whimper from UMNO members. Since he stepped down from power, support for him from UMNO has waned, and the signs were evident almost immediately.

In 2006, barely three years after he stepped down as prime minister, Mahathir could not muster enough votes from his own division to get him elected as a delegate to the UMNO assembly. He got the ninth highest number of votes out of 15 candidates, and only the top seven were eligible to attend the assembly.

Mahathir and Ops Lalang

Tunku wrote a highly influential and inflammatory weekly column under “As I See It” in The Star, published by the Star Publications where he was the board chairman. During the security crackdown by Mahathir called Operasi (Ops) Lalang in October 1987, the publishing permits of three newspapers were revoked and one of them was The Star.

Six months later, when The Star was allowed to recommence publication, the Tunku’s column was discontinued. ”Even my paper won’t publish my articles,” he was reported to have said.

Ops Lalang was purportedly enacted to stem racial clash, but in fact, history shows that it was move to quash dissent within UMNO. In the UMNO elections in April that year, Mahathir narrowly retained his presidency by 43 votes against Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who was removed as finance minister three years earlier by Mahathir.

In mid-October, a group of UMNO members decided to go ahead with a legal suit to overturn the election results, claiming there were illegal votes and tampered documents. This, along with events and a rally triggered by grouses raised by Chinese educationists, made UMNO Youth headed by Najib to call for a counter-rally. Then came the mass arrests on October 27 where 106 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act. Mahathir was also the home affairs minister then.

In February 1988, UMNO was deregistered, much to Mahathir’s chagrin. But he quickly registered a new party under the name Umno Baru (New Umno), and excluded his opponents as members.

The Tunku found himself out of UMNO, and so was Mahathir’s predecessor, Tun Hussein Onn, uncle to Najib and father to present Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. Both the Tunku and Hussein, who was equally critical of Mahathir, teamed up to support Tengku Razaleigh’s new party, Semangat 46, and campaigned against Mahathir in the 1990 general election. They hardly made a dent in Mahathir’s armour.

How far will Citizens’ Declaration go?

The same fate could also befall Mahathir. His latest ammo against Najib is the Citizens’ Declaration made public on March 4. This declaration, which spells out demands for Najb’s removal as prime minister, has the support of politicians from both sides of the divide, civil society leaders and non-governmental leaders.

A poll showed that more than 76% of 5,852 respondents on Malaysiakini’s English Facebook and Twitter accounts were in favour of the declaration. However, the atmosphere at the town hall meeting in Petaling Jaya on Thursday night, to gain support for the declaration, showed otherwise.

For one, it was poorly attended – there were fewer than 300 people – despite there being rally heavyweights like activist Hishamuddin Rais and DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang. Had it been a political rally, thousands would have been there. Apparently, the town hall meeting in Penang held a week earlier was attended by even fewer people.

The Mahathir factor is still strong. Many voiced their reservations about Mahathir leading this movement, saying Mahathir has a narrow intention of ousting Najib but no desire to have more systemic changes like institutional reforms or protection of rights. Throughout the meeting, the speakers were trying hard to justify Mahathir’s leadership in the movement. Even Lim Kit Siang, one of the 106 who was jailed by Mahathir during Ops Lalang, pleaded to the audience to move on and not dwell in the past.

On March 27, about 1,000 political, civil society and rights groups leaders will have a closed-door meeting to discuss the next move under what is called the People’s Congress 2016.

Even if this group of 1,000 come to a consensus on the next course of action, trying to get the public on board will be an arduous task. Because of Mahathir.

The former prime minister needs to realise that he now has very little support, and even less sympathy. The man who wielded so much power is now powerless. Karma bites hard.