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APRIL 16 — Harapan top leaders’ weekly tour of the nation was scheduled to end in Pasir Gudang on the evening of 6 April (2018). At a small session with the Johor leadership, Dr Wan Azizah pinned a PKR logo on Dr Mahathir’s shirt. Many who were part of the Reformasi generation protesting Dr Mahathir and in support of Anwar in 1998 didn’t expect such twists and turns of history. The spirit of reconciliation carried great vibes. The small field within a housing area was flooded with 8,000 ceramah participants, mostly local Malays who arrived in private cars and motorcycles. No buses were deployed to ferry the crowd as accused by our opponents. The top leaders waved the PKR flag on stage after announcing the decision to use a common logo. It was a surreal moment. Officially, Pakatan Harapan was going to contest all the peninsula seats with a single common symbol to bid for power.
The bullying tactics of the establishment invited more hatred towards themselves and further boosted voter turnout, especially among younger voters. With the clear intention of suppressing voter turnout, the election authorities fixed a midweek working day Wednesday May 9 as polling day, provoking a nationwide uproar and igniting an uprising among young outstation voters. The turnout eventually reached 82.32 per cent. The EC also announced a rule which prohibited photos of figures who were not candidates in a specific constituency as well as leaders who were not of the contesting party. This strange rule was aimed at only one person — Dr Mahathir. As he was not the leader of PKR, whose logo the opposition parties adopted, the EC wanted to make things difficult for Harapan candidates all over the country.
My team had earlier put up a giant billboard featuring Dr Mahathir, myself and Chew Peck Choo, the Yong Peng state seat candidate, in Yong Peng. The election authorities told us his photo was not allowed and we must take it down. After our legal team fought back to tell them that they have no right to take down the photos of the local candidates, the enforcement team foolishly decided to cut a hole in the billboard to remove Dr Mahathir’s face. The act was broadcasted live via Facebook and it provoked another national outcry. Ayer Hitam became famous during the election campaign simply because certain people didn’t want to see Dr Mahathir’s face on billboards and posters. Their actions caused the exact opposite effect of what they intended to achieve.
Kit was defending his parliamentary seat renamed Iskandar Puteri. While travelling across the country to support Harapan candidates, he was also very concerned with the situation in Ayer Hitam. He insisted on coming to Ayer Hitam a day before polling for our final joint public event together before returning to Iskandar Puteri. I left Yong Peng just before 10pm on May 9 for Sheraton Hotel, Petaling Jaya. My team’s internal counts showed that I was on the verge of losing although one could also say that I could cross the line to win; wafer thin. Half an hour later, while I was on the highway, I was finally informed that I had lost the seat to MCA president Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong, who won this traditional BN stronghold with 303 votes. I called Wee to concede defeat but I was not sad at all.
On March 4, I told the Johor DAP state committee meeting that “as I contest in Ayer Hitam, while I may or may not win, all of you will win.” I was hoping that Harapan could win 15 out of Johor’s 26 parliamentary seats. We eventually won 18 seats on election night, exceeding my most sanguine prediction. Since Harapan won 98 seats in the peninsula, this meant that Johor contributed one-fifth of the total count. Nationally, Pakatan Harapan Johor contributed one-sixth of the total seats won, allowing us to form the new federal government.
I arrived at Sheraton Hotel just past midnight and missed the first press conference by Dr Mahathir and the other leaders. The second press conference was called just before 3am. Dr Mahathir walked into the hall with police special force guards armed with automatic rifles. Between the two press conferences, he had been accorded the prime ministerial security arrangement. Dr Mahathir announced that the chief secretary to the government, Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, had agreed to declare Thursday and Friday, May 10 and 11, as public holidays, a promise Harapan made during the campaign period hoping to boost voter turnout, indicating that Dr Mahathir was accepted by the permanent bureaucracy and the security establishment as the incoming premier.
Guan Eng arrived from Penang at 5am and had a chat with the key leaders including Kit, to discuss the next step. The air was not of jubilation but of a huge sense of responsibility. At 10am, Guan Eng, Anthony and myself met for breakfast; he suggested that he should stay in Penang as chief minister while Kit should join the federal cabinet, at least for a period of time. When we met Kit, he just said: “Let the younger people run the country.” An hour later, I joined Dr Mahathir, Dr Wan Azizah, Mohamad Sabu, Guan Eng and Kit, walking into a room with the intention of discussing the uncertain situation but instead our eyes were all fixated on the television watching Najib, flanked by Zahid Hamidi and Hishammuddin Hussein, addressing the nation on live telecast. It was not a concession speech as we had expected. He was just stating that there was not a singular winner and the king was to make a decision.
Najib was playing on the technicality as the seats won by DAP in Sabah and Sarawak, as well as that of Shafie’s Parti Warisan Sabah, were not counted as ‘PKR’ seats, since different symbols were used on the ballot. Dr Wan Azizah was absent at the 3am press conference as she was summoned to the palace. In the morning meeting, she informed the group that she reported to the king on the agreement to appoint Dr Mahathir as the prime minister of Pakatan Harapan. There were efforts by Najib to reach out to Anwar for a government with PKR. I always wonder whether Najib regretted on election night for jailing Anwar in 2015. Because the opposition was leaderless and thus had to keep searching for game changers, eventually Najib faced the formidable campaigner Dr Mahathir and lost to the master. After hours of anxious waiting, Dr Mahathir was sworn in as the seventh prime minister at 9.30pm. The next day, Dr Wan Azizah was announced as deputy prime minister.
Kit was not part of the delegation at the palace. Instead, he went to a shop in his shorts and a photo of him went viral, in many ways depicting his frame of mind. He was pleasantly surprised by the victory as he wasn’t sure if we could win due to the sheer arsenal of the incumbent and intensity of the campaign. But once Harapan won, he was ready to take a back seat, allowing Guan Eng and others to shine. In fact, for almost a year from the May election, instead of his regular statements, Kit only made his voice heard when there were by-election campaigns or when the issues were too important. He was consciously giving space to the government to find its bearing and footing. When parliament began to sit in July, Kit announced that he relinquished the title of DAP parliamentary leader to Anthony, further signalling to the party and the public that he was ready to scale down his activities and to give the government space to perform.
* Liew Chin Tong is a writer, politician and former Deputy Minister of Defence. He was a member of the Dewan Rakyat from 2008 until 2018, and is currently a member of the Dewan Negara (Senate).
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.