Dennis Ignatius on the Anwar-Najib debate: Just another Wayang Kulit show

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The word fake was writ large over the whole affair.

Frankly, I was puzzled why Anwar Ibrahim, the PKR president and Pakatan Harapan chief, would even consider a debate with former prime minister Najib Tun Razak. Why debate a convicted felon? Remember we are talking about a man who has been found guilty of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, a man who has been sentenced to 72 years in prison and fined RM210 million. He betrayed the trust of the people and dishonoured his office.

Surely, an unrepentant, delusional felon like that shouldn’t be allowed to pontificate on national television about anything leave alone how to solve pressing national issues. He forfeited that right the moment he was convicted. He ought to be in jail right now, not prancing about shamelessly on the set of a nationally televised event.

It reflects badly on us too. Whichever way you look at it, allowing a convicted felon to take centre stage like he did last night makes a mockery of our commitment to the rule of law, to good governance, to integrity and honour. It is a mark of just how low we have fallen as a nation in terms of our moral values.

Which leads me again to the question of why Anwar would even want to debate him in the first place. Perhaps the answer lies in the way the whole event was staged – a contrived, carefully scripted and choregraphed affair, designed not to advance the cause of honest debate but to garner cheap publicity. In other words, a Wayang Kulit show for the benefit of the masses.

The rules of the debate, for example, were carefully structured to avoid the elephant in the room – Najib’s corruption and his shameless behaviour. The Sapura Energy debacle was just a sideshow, a pretext for pulling off a publicity stunt.

For two supposedly political foes locked in a do-or-die political battle, they were surprisingly collegial. They did nothing more than respond to carefully prepared questions with well-rehearsed answers. Except for a few terse one-liners, they generally held their punches; neither went for the jugular, perhaps by mutual agreement. It was like two old friends colluding behind the scenes to put on a spectacle for the benefit of the public. To call it a debate would be to abuse the word.

To be sure, Anwar made some good points about the need for accountability, transparency and responsibility when dealing with GLCs and other Bumiputera companies. It is, of course, both scandalous and outrageous the way we keep pouring public funds into companies which are so poorly managed, so full of abuse, mismanagement and corruption – all in the name of protecting Bumiputera shareholders, employees and vendors. It is nothing more than a vast crony-enrichment pyramid scheme that allows certain elites to get away with daylight robbery on a regular basis.

Occasionally, there were glimpses of the old Anwar – the orator who once inspired the nation with his passion and conviction, but it was too brief to set the audience on fire. The Anwar that was on stage last night came across as a man of compromise, the calculating politician willing to debate a felon in order to advance his own career. If he had ruthlessly demolished the felon (as he should have), there might have been at least some purpose to the event. As it is, all he did was give a discredited politician a platform and the publicity that came with it.

As for Najib, he had nothing to offer save for his usual bromides – empty promises, meaningless statements, yet more handouts. And his pathetic attempt to rework the tag that Mahathir adroitly tarred him with – ‘cash is king’ – to mean that the people are king is laughable. It was also a bit thick for Najib to talk about a bigger cake when we all know that he took the biggest bite of it when he was in office. Honestly, I am sick of hearing about all that bigger cake nonsense because we all know that the bigger the cake, the bigger the bite our corrupt leaders will take.

In the end, the word fake was writ large over the whole affair. Even the questions from the floor turned out to be nothing more than a sham; two rather insipid questions that carefully sought to avoid embarrassing the speakers. What made it even more contemptible was that one of the questions came from Fahmi Fadzil, the MP for Lembah Pantai and PKR Communications Director. If either Anwar or Najib had any real courage, they would have opened the floor to the public to ask real questions about real issues. It was another indication of just how shallow and contrived the whole exercise was.

As they walked off the stage, I couldn’t help thinking about how poorly our nation has been served by both these men. Perhaps having them both on the same stage might serve some small purpose if it helps convince Malaysians that we deserve better than these two men. Indeed, the sooner the whole crop of the corrupt, cynical and conniving charlatans that sit at the top of the political pyramid leave, the better it will be for this long-suffering and much-abused nation of ours. – Dennis Ignatius