The 2018 general elections presented a conundrum to a democrat like me. Yes, most of you, my readers, know perfectly well which coalition I voted for. But it was not as simple as it appeared.
I voted for Pakatan Harapan not because I truly believe in the coalition’s democratic potential. In fact, I was one of those people who truly hated their populist manifesto, and just by going through it, I knew they had no confidence of winning the election. More importantly, I entertained the idea of not voting because I didn’t want to re-elect a former prime minister who had had his chance.
Although I joined in the chorus of “Malaysia Baharu”, privately, to those closest to me, I expressed my doubt. How “baharu” can Malaysia be if we just elected a leader from “zaman lama”? For me, I see it clear as day. There was no “Malaysia Baharu”. At the very least, I laughed at the irony of “Malaysia Baharu” being helmed by a former prime minister who had led the government for 22 years in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. That seems like eons ago, now.
There were two things that made me doubt the coalition, especially with the addition of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Firstly, like I expressed to those closest to me, I have doubted the intention of those who formed and joined Bersatu. For the simple reason that if they truly believed in the reformasi movement, why didn’t they join one of the other parties already available?
Maybe I’m naïve. I do understand the political motivation behind the creation of Bersatu. None of the other then-opposition parties had the support of the rural Malay voters, and it is impossible to win the election without the support of this group of electorates. But on an individual basis, why didn’t these new Bersatu members—except for former UMNO members—joined PKR or DAP or Amanah before GE-14? Did they join Bersatu simply to gain political power or to fight for justice and equality as done by PKR and DAP for decades prior?
My second grouse is the role of Mahathir. Yes, again, I understand the political calculation of bringing him on board. His leadership definitely brought success to Pakatan Harapan in a way that has evaded Anwar Ibrahim for decades. Tun has the trust of the Malays. It just seems that everyone has suddenly forgotten the allegation of nepotism and cronyism during his first tenure as prime minister. I know that kleptocracy is the ‘in’ word these days, but there were other words filling the alternative media in the first decade of the 21st century. Sometimes I think it is true that “Melayu mudah lupa”. People say give him a chance, as people do have the ability to change for the better. Maybe I’m just a pessimist. I’m not sure how much someone in his 90s can change when he has lived the previous nine decades a certain way.
Just to be clear, I’m talking specifically about his political ideology. I am refraining from using the word authoritarian or dictatorship. Like Tun himself said, he would be the only “dictator” to resign. He is a politician. But is he a democratic politician? In the literature, we know there is a difference between a change in political behaviour and one of political ideology. The former simply means he has changed his outward conduct to appear more democratic. For example, choosing to form a new party to compete against the party that gave him a platform many years ago. Yet, it is very difficult to ascertain if a person has changed his or her political ideology to become more democratic because that is more entrenched. At the end of the day, it is our ideology that directs our behaviour.
People also say that if Anwar can forgive him, so should the rest of the country. This is when I had to check myself from giving my rude eye-roll. Anwar is a politician himself! Of course, he has forgiven Tun, because he knows without Tun’s support, he will never be the next prime minister. Anwar is a calculative politician himself, and that is how he has survived until today. God knows, maybe he has sincerely forgiven Tun, and I do hope so. But that is not reason enough to put someone in the highest office in government.
Why do I sound so bitter? Because I can see my prediction slowly unfolds itself right now. I’ve always had respect for Tun, even post-1998, but not for any democratic credentials he may have, but for his statesmanship. No one can deny Tun is a great statesman. Without him, who knows what Malaysia would look like today. When I was in the LSE, I only needed to say “Malaysia” and my classmates would say “Mahathir”. That is how synonymous he is with this nation.
Since he is such a great statesman and politician, I know that nothing happened in the country without his astute calculation. I am starting to question everything. From his “equal” distribution of ministerial positions, to his appointment of first-term MPs as ministers, to his acceptance of former UMNO members to join Bersatu, and to his CALL for more UMNO members to join Bersatu. When you say that the Malays are weak, you are implying that the non-Malays are gaining strength. This, in my opinion, is a very smart move to gain the attention of the Malays. For that, I am in awe of Tun as a strategist. Maybe I am too invested in the reformasi movement that I cannot fathom why we would want to sleep in the same bed with our ideological nemesis? In the name of democracy, let there be healthy opposition.
So why did I vote for Harapan? Because like I always tell my students, politics is about choosing the lesser of evils. I’m not saying that all politicians are evil, but I believe in the saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. These politicians are in the game to gain power. Nothing morally wrong with that! We need people who are ambitious to run the government. But as mindful citizens, we need to always be on guard. Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan, both have their flaws. But “tepuk dada” and ask yourself, which coalition would do less damage to the country. Some of my students answered PAS. Fine.
What would happen in GE-15? At this point, no one knows. But if the country decides to vote Barisan Nasional back into power, I have no problem with that. See, I’m a democrat. I believe in the democratic process to choose our government. Democracy is a process; it is not the outcome. I support the people’s right to vote in a free and fair election. That is all I have ever wanted. For as long as I can remember, Malaysia has never had a free and fair election. 2018 was NOT a year where we had free and fair elections. Yet, Harapan was able to dethrone Barisan Nasional. I tear up every time because it reminds me of the “people’s power”.
If the people decide Harapan is a one-term government, so be it. Japan had the same experience and so did Mexico. The important lesson is that as a nation, we have proven to the world that we were able to change administration peacefully, and thus the people shall not worry if one day we decide to change administration again. It can be done, and it can be done without blood being shed. That is the victory.