His good deeds in the epic fight against Najib Razak’s kleptocracy are now giving way to an image of power-grabbing without a legitimate cause.
At Sheraton Hotel in the early hours of May 10, 2018, the mild-mannered Muhyiddin Yassin pulled me and Lim Kit Siang aside to ask DAP to support a Bersatu candidate for the post of Johor menteri besar. He needed the favour to acknowledge his contribution to swinging the state’s vote to Pakatan Harapan.
Despite DAP winning the largest number of seats in the state assembly at 14, compared to Amanah with nine, Bersatu (8) and PKR (5), DAP was not claiming the post of MB. Kit Siang was open for discussion. After DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng consulted Amanah president Mohamad Sabu, DAP agreed to support Muhyiddin’s nominee for MB.
On May 11, 2018, the Johor sultan sent an aircraft to pick up Muhyiddin from Kuala Lumpur. I tagged along. It was my first-ever experience on a private jet.
Three months earlier, on February 8, 2018, Muhyiddin and I travelled together on a Malindo flight after a Johor PH meeting. He told me that when he was deputy prime minister, he travelled on a government jet dedicated to him.
As an opposition leader without any privileges, Muhyiddin said he felt good that people appreciated our struggle. When he was in Barisan Nasional, he did not experience random members of the public paying for his meals at coffee shops or warung to show their support. The public enthusiasm was very encouraging.
On that May 2018 flight, Muhyiddin’s aide told me that it was the team’s first experience flying aboard a private jet since their boss was sacked as DPM in July 2015. They felt great with the 14th general election because we created history by doing the right thing for the nation, albeit Muhyiddin’s personal sufferings between 2015 and 2018.
The next day, May 12, 2018, PH decided on Muhyiddin as home minister, Mat Sabu as defence minister and Guan Eng as finance minister.
And the following day, I was at Muhyiddin’s house, just me and him. He was feeling dejected. He told me he had wanted to resign from all positions the night before, because his request to be made finance minister was turned down by Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He was persuaded to stay on.
He also told me that in 1995, being the Umno vice-president with the highest number of votes, and after serving as Johor MB for nine years, he moved to the federal level expecting to hold a senior economic portfolio. But Dr Mahathir as prime minister appointed him only to the most junior position of youth and sports minister. He informed me that Anwar Ibrahim told him to be patient and wait for 1998, hinting that Muhyiddin would be his choice of DPM.
In deep reflection that tranquil morning, Muhyiddin told me that after more than 20 years, after being DPM for six years (2009 to 2015), would he still go on to serve as Anwar’s deputy should the transition of power between Dr Mahathir and Anwar happen? Between us, there was no answer.
Muhyiddin was diagnosed with cancer in July 2018. I visited him twice at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore. Once by myself, and the second time, I accompanied Guan Eng. I considered Muhyiddin an elderly friend and was really worried about his health.
In the months following his gradual recovery, at many of our meetings, he confided in me that he was thinking of calling it quits. The illness had changed his perspective on life.
The Johor quandary
On April 24 last year, after Muhyiddin and Dr Mahathir clashed over the choice of Mazlan Bujang as Johor Bersatu chief, I was with him at his Home Ministry office. He told me that he was thinking of throwing in the towel as Dr Mahathir wouldn’t listen to his views even though Johor was his home state. Muhyiddin was chairman of the state Pakatan Harapan council.
Muhyiddin was upset, but still signed Mazlan’s appointment letter. He told me that Bersatu’s constitution dictated that as president, he had to consult with and accept the decisions of the chairman, Dr Mahathir.
In subsequent meetings over the next several months, he repeatedly told me that he was still bitter with the Bersatu chairman over the choice of Mazlan as chief of the state chapter.
On June 6 last year, Muhyiddin told me he had mostly recovered from his illness. His doctor, who sat with us at the open house of Muhyiddin’s son, also said he was recovering very well. I was relieved to hear the news.
Fast forward to last October. The attempted political coup by the troika of Mohamed Azmin Ali, Hishammuddin Hussein and Hamzah Zainudin kicked up racial sentiments on both the Malay and non-Malay ends. It was an attempt to form a new Malay-unity coalition government without the participation of DAP and Amanah.
Muhyiddin was very concerned that “divergent views among us because of different ideological beliefs are becoming more pronounced now”. The viability of Bersatu-DAP coalition relations was being seriously questioned, and there was huge pressure from the hawks in Bersatu on him to act against DAP.
He hosted a small dinner between top Bersatu and DAP leaders on October 29 last year to find ways to save the coalition. Both parties agreed that the extreme narratives on the Malay and non-Malay fronts were resulting in us suffering in the middle. We should do more to hold the coalition together.
The meeting effectively, but temporarily, fended off the attempted coup that month by Azmin, Hishammuddin and Hamzah using DAP as a bogeyman.
However, PH’s image did not recover, especially when abused racially by its opponents.
On the night of November 16 last year, I was in the operations room with Muhyiddin and his inner circle, watching the results of the Tg Piai by-election streaming in. The demoralised Muhyiddin commented that “this is worse than a tsunami.”
Peculiar moves, stranger motives
A special PH presidential council meeting was held on November 23 last year, with the sole agenda of discussing the presentation by Muhyiddin as chairman of the PH election campaign committee.
He outlined the following political challenges:
- racial sentiments resulting in negative effect on PH’s standing;
- Malays perceiving that PH was controlled by DAP;
- Chinese perceiving that PH was controlled by Bersatu and Dr Mahathir;
- the question of transition of power between the seventh and eighth PMs caused the perception that the PH government was not stable; and,
- PH cabinet perceived as incompetent.
He proposed that PH:
- handle the issues of race and religion wisely by taking a more moderate and cautious approach;
- change the image of DAP being anti-Malay, and Bersatu, anti-Chinese;
- discipline party members who criticise their own party or leaders of another PH component;
- handle the transition of power between the seventh and eighth PMs wisely; and,
- reshuffle the cabinet to show that PH has a high-performance cabinet.
Muhyiddin said PH should work to recover to a level of 60% public approval within a year’s time.
After the special meeting, and as Parliament went into recess, Muhyiddin went on an overseas trip in late December and parts of January. He returned looking very fresh, and he was in good health.
Mat Sabu met Muhyiddin on January 22. Their meeting left Mat Sabu with a very strange feeling. The then defence minister confided in me that he was worried that Muhyiddin had a new idea that was against the basic principles of PH.
It seemed that Muhyiddin was thinking of some form of Malay-unity government, and he was no longer keen on Anwar becoming the next PM.
On January 31, I attended a Chinese New Year event with Muhyiddin in Grisek, in his Pagoh constituency. Subsequently, I visited Muhyiddin at his house for a long chat on February 5.
He was very friendly to me, as always. But I detected a change in his view. For him, if nothing changed in PH, Bersatu would lose badly in the next general election. I gave him a counterview that Bersatu would be eaten alive by Umno and PAS in any form of coalition based on Malay unity, hence, the best partner for Bersatu would be DAP, as there would be little competition in seats.
That day, I went away with a feeling that something strange had happened, that something had changed in him. But I believed he was still weighing his options.
I thought that the honourable Muhyiddin, who always saw the bigger picture and was prepared to concede to Dr Mahathir in 2017, would probably still be there. I hoped that the Muhyiddin who repeatedly thought of quitting would not be tempted by worldly positions but would think about his legacy.
But he is only human. Perhaps, the temptation was so great that he couldn’t resist anymore. Perhaps, his frustration with Dr Mahathir, the prompting of the Malay troika of Azmin, Hishammuddin and Hamzah, and his own ultimate ambition of becoming PM finally tilted him towards the Sheraton Move on February 23.
I am sad that my elderly friend Muhyiddin has chosen this path. His good deeds in the epic fight against Najib Razak’s kleptocracy are now giving way to an image of power-grabbing without a legitimate cause. Perhaps, Dr Jekyll has been transformed into Mr Hyde.
Some leaders and supporters of the Muhyiddin-led Perikatan Nasional are back with their old nasty tactic of vilifying DAP in their attempt to inflame racial hatred.
Let me just say this to my elderly friend Muhyiddin. I am a DAP member. In the four years between 2016 and 2020, each time you asked DAP for help, we never failed you, we did everything possible to assist you. Playing the anti-DAP card to justify the existence of the PN coalition only makes you appear hypocritical. – TMI
The views expressed here are strictly those of the writer, DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.
Earlier report: May 14, Chin Tong: The Strange Case of Muhyiddin Yassin, Part 1