Dennis Ignatius: Generational Change of Leadership Is Our Best Hope Now

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We need leaders who can connect with the millions of younger, newly empowered voters (the majority of whom are Malay) who currently feel alienated and left behind, leaders who can articulate a new, more inclusive vision for Malaysia.

The “Sheraton Move” which saw the fall of Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the rise of Perikatan Nasional (PN) has deeply shocked and disappointed many Malaysians. Thanks to the treachery of a few unprincipled politicians, power has now slipped back into the hands of the very parties that Malaysians decisively rejected at the polls.

Mahathir and other PH leaders are now seeking to challenge Muhyiddin’s numbers in parliament in an attempt to restore PH to power. Even if they succeed, the result will be an unstable and deeply fractured government. Ultimately, only the people can settle this issue through fresh elections.

Instead of whipping a dead horse, PH would do better to start preparing for GE15 – the next best opportunity there will be for effecting a meaningful change of government. It’s time to look to the future, time to restrategize, refocus, rebuild and mobilize for the critical battle ahead.

UMNO-PAS will be a formidable foe – they are better organized and more established. And now they have the power of incumbency and the vast apparatus of government behind them as well.

But they also have their vulnerabilities – their sleazy track record in office won’t be quickly forgotten. And neither will anger over the way they stole the people’s mandate dissipate quickly. If anything, it is being reinforced by the way the government is dishing out appointments to its cronies and making sweetheart deals on high profile corruption cases.

PN is also going to face huge challenges on the economic front. With national debt at an all-time high, massive pandemic-related economic dislocations, lower oil revenues and a global economic downturn, the nation is going to feel a lot of pain; PN will have to answer for it.

But to succeed in reclaiming the mandate of the people, PH has to quickly learn from its mistakes and make some tough choices going forward; none will be more critical than the issue of leadership.

Mahathir, at 94, is no longer a serious contender for the job. Besides, it was difficult enough for voters to set aside decades of animus to unite behind him in the run up to GE14; after what has happened, few will follow him again.

Anwar has, of course, been recently appointed leader of the opposition but is he the right man for the task? If both PH and PKR are honest with themselves, they would see that Anwar does not have the kind of popular support that is needed to win an election. People have enormous sympathy for him, but they don’t trust him enough to elect him prime minister. Malay voters, in particular, appear ambivalent, even suspicious, of him. In a country where the Malay vote is critical, that is a serious disadvantage.

As unkind as it may sound, his time is clearly past. If PH is to have any chance of ousting UMNO-PAS, someone else will have to lead PKR into GE15. As well, PKR must urgently get its own house in order, move beyond the Anwar saga and refine its ‘reformasi’ agenda. With Azmin Ali and the rest of the conspirators gone, PKR can now focus on its message of reform and national renewal.

The DAP too has a lot of soul-searching to do. Not only were their leaders too mesmerised by Mahathir to stand up to him, they became his most ardent apologists even when many were growing disillusioned with his leadership. Even now, after all that has been said and done, they still seem to support him oblivious to the sentiment on the ground. They certainly have a great deal of fence-mending to do with their own supporters before the next election.

Their greatest blunder, however, may have been their failure to win even grudging Malay support. With key positions at the federal level, they had a unique opportunity to shake off the anti-Malay, anti-Islam label that UMNO-PAS had unfairly attached to them. Instead, they appear to have opted to shelter in Mahathir’s shadow.

Whatever it is, Malay voters in general no longer trust the DAP (and any party that it is associated with) and that too is a huge disadvantage going forward. Clearly, if the DAP is to play a more meaningful role in helping PH to recapture Putrajaya and in governing the nation, it must find a way to urgently reinvent itself. They might even want to explore a merger with PKR.

Like Anwar, Lim Guan Eng and other older leaders should now make way for younger leaders who will have a better chance of galvanizing the widest possible support. As well, the DAP must become the truly multiracial party it has always aspired to be if it is to help break the tired old structures of race-based politics. In particular, it must prioritise the recruitment and empowerment of younger Malay leaders who are committed to the DAP’s vision of a more inclusive nation.

What all this means is that our only hope for national redemption is a generational change of leadership. We need leaders who can connect with the millions of younger, newly empowered voters (the majority of whom are Malay) who currently feel alienated and left behind, leaders who can articulate a new, more inclusive vision for Malaysia.

They won’t have to look far; both PKR and DAP have a reservoir of younger leaders who are smart, talented, professional and above all, still honest. There’s also a whole generation of young leaders in industry, business, academia and elsewhere who are currently outside the political system; they ought to be tapped and inspired to public service. If the clarion call goes forth, many will respond because they too are absolutely fed up with all the racism, corruption and abuse of power.

Some might argue that they are too young and inexperienced to take the reins of a complex nation such as ours. All we need to do is look around at where we are today – the cynicism and hypocrisy, the corruption and abuse of power, the appalling income inequalities, the bigotry and the injustice – and ask ourselves whether any of the current crop of leaders can deliver the change that is desperately needed.

We can learn something from the generational change now underway in other countries – the Chancellor of Austria is just 31; the PM of Finland 34, Ireland 38, the President of France 39. Jacinda Ardern, also 39, is already one of the most admired leaders in the world today.

Our young leaders – male and female – are more than capable of leading our nation too. If they are appointed to positions within the shadow cabinet and turned loose against the tired, corrupt and morally bankrupt warlords of UMNO-PAS and the whole bunch of fumbling cabinet ministers who now disgrace the front benches of parliament, there’ll be no stopping them.

Recent political events ought to convince all Malaysians that we are, as a nation, in deep crisis. We are stuck in a time warp of bigotry and corruption, fake democracy and poor governance. Instead of making progress we are going backwards.

There’s little point in trying to bring down the PN government if the end result is a continuation of the same old corrupt politics, the same old moribund leaders and the same old failed policies. Only a sea change in the way we do politics will suffice. PH leaders can show the way by putting aside personal ambition and making the kind of generational changes that will, in time, usher in the Malaysia Baru that the people long for.