Dennis Ignatius: Mahathir’s National Recovery Council

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It would be insane to abandon our democracy and entrust the future of our nation to an authoritarian, unelected council led by Mahathir.

Lim Huey Teng/Reuters

Dr Mahathir Mohamad may be 96 but his ambitions remain as red-hot as ever. His party may have been reduced to nothing more than a minor hiccup in Parliament but that has not stopped him from scheming to regain power. The recently launched National Recovery Council (NRC) is but his latest scheme to convince the nation that he ought to lead the country in these difficult times.

He says he’s only interested in helping the country by offering advice but make no mistake, he is positioning himself as an alternative to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s failed government. Don’t believe that Mahathir is content with an advisory role; it’s just not in the nature of the man.

He knows the country is in turmoil. He knows that people are getting so frustrated that they’ll be ready soon enough to embrace anyone who promises them salvation. He sees an opportunity to make a comeback and is seizing upon it. In the same way that he used the 1MDB scandal to topple Najib Tun Razak, he is now seeking to use the pandemic to topple Muhyiddin Yassin.

Mahathir has, of course, been pushing for an autocratic body (similar to the 1969 National Operations Council) to run the country ever since he lost power in 2020 following the infamous Sheraton Move. He has argued that the politicians are too divided and have made such a mess of things that they ought to be temporarily pushed aside and non-partisan professionals brought in to steer the country back to health. It sounds reasonable, but what he has in mind is an essentially authoritarian construct that would allow him to rule the country without a popular mandate and with few checks and balances.

He blames politicians for the mess the country is in but conveniently sidesteps his own role in Malaysia’s slide into dysfunction and disarray. It is typical of him that he now shifts the blame to others while claiming that he alone has the answers and the experience to save the country. He says he is acting apolitically but apolitical is certainly not a term that anyone can safely apply to Mahathir. He says he only wants to offer solutions instead of criticising the government, but that has not stopped him from agitating for Muhyiddin’s ouster. His arguments and his actions are too full of contradictions to be accepted at face value.

But such is the pull of the man that he has been able to quickly assemble a team of illustrious individuals to sit on his council. They are, however, mostly technocrats, and will almost certainly be at the mercy of arguably one of the most Machiavellian politicians the world has ever seen. There can be little doubt who’ll be calling the shots. Remember, this is the same man who outfoxed the Pakatan Harapan presidential council at every turn. As with the Council of Eminent Persons, he will use them to serve his purposes and discard them when he is done. They are all but bit actors in his great game.

Interestingly, he has also co-opted a few politicians from the opposition benches to join his council. His choice of relatively junior figures – Fahmi Fadzil (PKR), Hannah Yeoh (DAP) and Syed Saddiq (Muda) – is, however, telling. Perhaps, he thinks he can manipulate them more easily that their more seasoned bosses. Why both the PKR and DAP leadership would consent to this bizarre arrangement is puzzling. Don’t they understand that this is all about Mahathir’s unending quest to block Anwar and sideline the DAP?  Haven’t they had enough of Mahathir’s treachery? Are they so fearful of him that they feel obliged to go along with him even though they know he is out to do them in?

Quite apart from whether we should even be considering such an anti-democratic construct, Mahathir should be the last person to chair one. He had every opportunity to set things right after he was voted back to power in GE14. Instead, he played the race card all over again. He lit the fire that eventually burned down the Pakatan Harapan government. He instigated a rebellion against his own government in order to stymie Anwar, push out the DAP and consolidate his own grip on power. But treachery begets treachery and he ended up a victim of his own machinations. Mahathir will never change. If he comes back, we’ll see more of his trademark racism and cronyism. He may do a better job than Muhyiddin in managing the pandemic, but he’ll almost certainly leave us worse off in every other way.

Our democracy has suffered tremendous harm because we allowed leaders like Mahathir to become too powerful, to emasculate our Parliament, to ride roughshod over our institutions. The way back is not to further weaken our democracy by yet another authoritarian construct but by giving our democracy a chance to work. Parliament – divided as it is – must be allowed to function. Whoever wishes to be prime minister must prove himself on the floor of the house through a vote of confidence.

I am not a particular fan of Anwar Ibrahim, but he is the leader of the Opposition; going by parliamentary convention, he ought to be invited to form the government should the PN administration fall. If Anwar cannot survive a confidence vote in Parliament, then let’s have fresh elections. It’s risky, of course, given the pandemic but the risk to the nation and to our democracy of all this continued instability and infighting might be far worse. Whatever it is, it would be insane to abandon our democracy and entrust the future of our nation to an authoritarian, unelected council led by Mahathir.