Dennis Ignatius: Ignore Mahathir, worry about Anwar

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The best way to silence Mahathir and ensure that the government stands strong is for Anwar to quickly deliver on his promises.

Claiming that the Malays have “lost everything” after he resigned as PM in February 2020, Dr Mahathir recently issued a clarion call to the Malays to unite to restore their political power. In Mahathir speak, it was invitation to Malay political parties to unite under his leadership to topple the Anwar government and replace it with a third Mahathir administration.

As on previous occasions, he is seeking another shot at the helm by appealing to ethnic sentiment. His charge that the Malays have lost power implies that the non-Malays have grown too strong under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. His insistence that “Malays became so poor” after he stepped down is another way of saying that Anwar has neglected the Malays vis-à-vis the non-Malays.

Some warn that Mahathir should be taken seriously given his “iconic” status. Others argue that any strategy based on the Malay struggle could well be effective.

But the Malays today are no longer the same people who grew up in the era of the ‘Malay Dilemma’. They have seen all the corruption and the abuse of power, the self-enrichment and hypocrisy of all the leaders who claimed to be fighting for them. They have been disappointed one too many times to be as gullible as before.

They abandoned UMNO in droves because they were fed up with all the corruption. They decisively rejected Mahathir too in the last election because they saw through all his hypocrisy.

It is significant, as well, that Malay voters didn’t swing completely to PAS-led Perikatan Nasional. It could be an indication that they don’t entirely trust PAS-PN either. The very fact that Hadi Awang swallowed his pride and signed Mahathir’s pathetic proclamation suggests that PAS is not as confident of the Malay vote as it pretends to be.

While issues of religion and Malay rights are still important, what is critical to Malay voters now – especially those in the B40 group – is economic growth, political stability and an end to corruption. Just shouting “bangsa, agama dan negara” alone will no longer cut it. The people know it’s all just empty sloganeering.

All the Ketuanan Melayu parties – UMNO, PAS and Bersatu – for example shout, scream and hurl accusations against the DAP to win Malay support but when push comes to shove, they’ll embrace the DAP if it helps them gain power. Don’t think that Malay voters don’t see the hypocrisy in all that.

But these developments also mean that Anwar is now well-placed to position himself as a viable alternative as Malay voters search for a new political vehicle to represent their hopes and aspirations for the future.

If he can come up with effective policies and programmes that will make a real difference in the lives of Malay voters, there’s every reason to believe that Malay voters will flock to his banner. He must move quickly though to convince Malay voters that he can and will bring real and meaningful change, that he will not just honour the constitutional provisions relating to Islam and Malay rights but that he will bring economic prosperity, stability and growth back to Malaysia again.

And this is where Anwar is now failing. Like it or not, he has allowed the perception to grow that he is a talker not a doer. Since he took office nearly six months ago, we have heard nothing about real economic reform. Instead, his economic pronouncements consist of ill-conceived populist potshots that are causing people to question his leadership and credibility.

His idea of using Employees Provident Fund (EPF) savings as collateral for loans, for example, has been described as “silly”. His proposal to increase employers’ contribution to the EPF at a time when the country is still recovering from the pandemic has resulted in howls of protest from the business community.

Lashing out at Malay tycoons and taunting them to give up half of their profits to help the Malays at large (as he did recently) will not help him either. Going after politicians who talk about helping the Malays while only enriching themselves is one thing; stoking class war against Malay capitalists is quite another. Doesn’t he have enough enemies already?

Mindless and incendiary populism is no substitute for meaningful economic policies. Indeed, it just lends credence to Mahathir’s argument that Anwar is not the right man for the job.

The best way to silence Mahathir and ensure that the government stands strong is for Anwar to quickly deliver on his promises. Enough of speech-making; it’s time to get down to the serious business of governing and meeting the expectations of the people who put him in office. – Dennis Ignatius