The politics of vendetta and what comes after

MAY 18 — ABU or Anyone But Umno, or Asalkan Bukan Umno.

For the long Najib Razak years amid the rise of Pakatan Rakyat, its demise and the rise of Pakatan Harapan (PH), people having to justify the many weaknesses within the opposition had only this slogan to fall back on.

The logic being that however ridiculous Rafizi Ramli’s Kajang move may have been, or DAP’s verbal calisthenics over justifying its alliance with PAS may have looked, it was nothing in comparison to the excesses of the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration under Najib.

However unwieldy the opposition coalition, it could not be worse than the current regime.

When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad broke with Najib and Umno and wanted to join the ranks of the opposition, nobody even blinked, because of ABU.

Past enmities, jailings under ISA, his well-known authoritarian streak, racist outlook on Malaysian society, crony capitalism and dislike of a free press were seen to be lesser evils than the monumental corruption symbolised by 1MDB and the attendant national shame.

While the declining ringgit, GST, increasingly draconian measures to silence oppositional media and the ostentatious lifestyle of those in power also contributed to the rakyat’s anger, it was the brazenness with which the ruling coterie thought they could get away with was the final straw that united the most unlikely bedfellows into a cohesive bloc.

Specifically, mocking the rule of law in sacking the previous AG, classifying the Auditor General’s report under the OSA and closing all 1MDB investigations. Taking away Dr Mahathir’s security and outriders, ridiculing him in mainstream media and deregistering his party were just tying the bow to the gift of zero opposition to Najib’s GE 14 plans.

While GE 14 was won by PH, so far it is only Dr Mahathir who is calling all the shots. He announced three people to his Cabinet including Muhyiddin Yassin. No other appointments have been announced but for an advisory council which has his old buddies including Daim Zainuddin and Zeti Akhtar in it.

Which is why it’s no surprise that almost all the actions taken by him in the first week of gaining power have been about his primary motive for joining the opposition; cutting Najib and his abettors down to size. There is certainly a certain symmetry to Najib and Zahid’s police aides being taken away and Dr M’s restored, and now Zunar can fly but Rosmah cannot.

To that extent he is living up to the ABU promise and taking actions that the majority of those who voted for him will support, especially if they are taken scrupulously in line with the law.

What is less clear is where he stands on the rest of the PH agenda and manifesto. Will he move away from the Malay-first tilt of PPBM to a more Malaysian Malaysia? Will he truly restore the freedom of the press and ensure an orderly transition of power to Anwar?

Was this election won on the back of supporters of the old Umno under Dr M, but those who could not stomach the new Umno of Najib and chose PH because Dr M was in it?

Or was it a victory of ABU believers, but who also wanted a more forward looking, progressive government which believed in equality, rule of law and accountable governance with strong institutions like a free press to check the powers that be?

What really matters is what Dr M thinks. If Dr M believes in the latter, institutional reforms will take off, he will relinquish power to Anwar Ibrahim soon, who will use his stature to champion a more egalitarian and inclusive society where improving means and abilities will matter more than promoting racial and religious narratives.

If it is the former though, expect that when the politics of vendetta which currently unite the country are exhausted, there may be a return to an Umno of the 1990s with a few concessions to new friends. Then, how much a group of people who have never tasted power will bend their principles to stay in power will determine how long PH survives.

If there is a showdown between the two, a space will open up for the opposition. If Umno can genuinely reinvent itself as a party for all Malaysians as this column had postulated here, then, along with PAS, Malaysia may finally mature into a true democracy with plenty of options available for the voter to choose from.

Ideally though PH should find a middle path between its values and Dr M’s, at least for the next five years, to allow for space for a stable democracy to emerge.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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