Nothing Will Change Without Change in Leadership

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After having slumped to its worst by-election defeat ever, Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders should have no more illusions about what voters think about their performance thus far.

In soundly rejecting PH, the voters of Tanjung Piai spoke not just for themselves but for voters across the country as well. Indeed, many appear to have taken perverse satisfaction from the drubbing PH took; such is the magnitude of their fall from grace after some 18 months in office.

PH’s defeat, however, is not as apocalyptic as some suggest. By and large, the sympathy and support of most voters are still more with PH than Umno-PAS-BN. What happens next is now up to PH.

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad must share much of the blame for PH’s defeat. Despite alarming signs of voter disenchantment, Mahathir insisted that there was nothing to worry about.

When asked about voter support, he blithely pointed to the number of people wanting to take selfies with him as proof of the government’s popularity.

When his own party strategist warned of trouble ahead, he put him down with a snide remark. He even dismissed the chorus of criticism against him from both Malays and non-Malays as simply a sign that he was doing a good job.

It is also clear that his constant harping on racial matters, his failure to condemn racist remarks at the Kongres Maruah Melayu, his embrace of the controversial Indian fugitive preacher Zakir Naik, the khat issue, and his support for Lynas turned many non-Malay voters against him.

Instead of taking heed, Mahathir hunkered down, stubbornly refusing to yield or listen to the advice of his coalition partners. In Tanjung Piai, PH paid the price for his obduracy.

It appears that he failed to appreciate how seriously such issues play out and how quickly they can overshadow everything else. Malaysian voters have a better understanding now of their power through the ballot box and they are not afraid of exercising it.

It is also clear that Mahathir’s own party, PPBM (as well as Parti Amanah Negara) continues to fare poorly as a vote catcher. Despite being vested with considerable power and authority through their many cabinet positions, they have consistently failed to win Malay support.

Worse still, instead of working closely with their coalition partners to build a credible political force that could capture the middle ground and the hearts and minds of all Malaysians, PPBM frequently dabbled in race politics and picked fights with their own partners. Increasingly, they are a liability, a drag on PH.

Mahathir’s divide and rule approach to coalition politics has also proven to be hugely destructive. By using Azmin Ali to undermine Anwar Ibrahim, he has weakened PKR to the point that it is now barely functioning.

Things have gotten so bad that the party could soon implode; Mahathir might gain a few seats in the process and perhaps stall Anwar’s march to Putrajaya, but the PH coalition as we know it could end up fatally damaged.

The infighting in PKR has gone on long enough. Anwar must now reassert his leadership over the party even if it means expelling recalcitrant leaders. Better a leaner more united and more focused party than a broader party that is constantly at war with itself.

Mahathir’s brand of politics has proven a bane to the DAP as well. His failure to censure Perak MB Faizal Azumu for his shocking anti-DAP rant a few days before the by-election, for example, and his stalling on UEC recognition upset many of the very voters who helped propel him to Putrajaya last year.

The final straw was, of course, the dramatic arrest of two DAP state assemblymen on the astonishing charge of supporting a long-extinct terrorist organisation.

The DAP now finds itself in an untenable position: if it stays subservient to Mahathir, it will lose the bulk of its support; if it adopts a more assertive posture, it will be accused of trying to dominate the government.

With hardly anything to show after 18 months in office, the party is hard-pressed to justify the massive electoral mandate it received from the Chinese community in GE14.

The DAP’s own missteps have also been unhelpful. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng’s decision to punish the MCA by cutting off financial support for Tunku Abdul Rahman University College, for example, has not gone down well.

If there’s one thing no Chinese politician cannot afford to do, it is to be less than supportive of Chinese education. Whatever it is, many consider his actions petty, vindictive and counter-productive.

Despite this, however, the opposition should not take too much comfort from its victory. The voters of Tanjung Piai knew full well that Saturday’s vote was not about changing the government, simply an opportunity to signal their unhappiness with the ruling coalition.

Besides, while non-Malays are undoubtedly unhappy with PH, they are all too aware that the unholy Umno-PAS-BN troika can never be counted on to protect their interests.

The Umno-PAS “muafakat nasional”, for example, is nothing but a plan for the subjugation of non-Malays. PAS’s insistence that non-Malays be banned from holding high office and recent calls to even deny non-Malays the right to vote should make that clear enough.

Furthermore, no one has forgotten that Umno remains very much a party of unrepentant kleptocrats. A vote for the unholy troika in any general election would simply be a vote to reprieve Umno leaders now facing trial for corruption.

Besides, who in their right mind wants to see Zahid Hamidi the next prime minister of Malaysia? His call for fresh general elections in the wake of PH’s by-election defeat is a measure of just how desperate he is getting now that his day in court is here.

Pakatan Harapan’s by-election defeat must now serve as a wake-up call. Denial is not an option. And neither are the kind of excuses that PKR Wanita chief Zuraida Kamaruddin seems intent on hiding behind – that ministers are new, that it’s too early to judge them, teething problems, people need to understand and give them more time, etc.

Like it or not, the people have spoken. Enough is enough. If after 18 months in office, ministers are still not up to the task, they are clearly unfit for office and should be sacked. Cabinet must not be treated like some sort of vocational school for inept ministers to learn a trade.

As for Mahathir, he is increasingly seen as an anachronism, stuck in his ways and unable to adjust to new political realities, unconvinced of the need for drastic change, too wedded to a race-based world view and too unwilling to accept a more consensual type of leadership. As a number of senior PH MPs have privately confessed, “Nothing will change until Mahathir goes.”

Pakatan Harapan has about three years to prove that they can deliver on the PH manifesto, that they have the political acumen and the skills needed to successfully transform our nation into a truly modern, united, democratic and prosperous one.

It is not an impossible task but expect nothing to change without a change in leadership. – FMT

The views expressed are those of the author, Dennis Ignatius.