News analysis

90-year-old ex-premier Mahathir and his strange bedfellows

Questions remain over whether motley crew of activists and foes ultimately share the same dream

A major realignment in the Malaysian political landscape was officially sealed yesterday as former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad led top opposition leaders, senior Umno leaders and political activists in signing a declaration to work together.

This "rainbow alliance" that aims to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak and implement reforms for public institutions was lauded by jailed opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim, even though it is led by his former mentor who sacked him in 1998 and accused him of sodomy.

A huge poster put up at the signing ceremony of the so-called Citizens' Declaration yesterday proclaimed Selamatkan Malaysia, or Save Malaysia.

Said former Bar Council chief Ambiga Sreenevasan, who was one of the 58 signatories: "It is not just about removing one man but also reforms."

 

Questions remain over whether the group can actually steer Tun Dr Mahathir into areas other than his one chief aim of removing Datuk Seri Najib. While the signatories may share the same bed, do they have the same dream?

"I term it political opportunism," political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy, told The Straits Times. "He (Mahathir) pretty much lays down the rules. Clearly, if the opposition is not faltering as it is today, it doesn't need to ride this opportunism."

For Dr Mahathir, the motley crew gives him another shot at trying to oust Mr Najib after he failed to do so as a respected Umno veteran last year.

In the comments section of pro-opposition news site Malaysiakini, many readers warned against working with Dr Mahathir. They worry that once he achieves his aim of ousting Mr Najib, the other parts of the declaration would be forgotten.

Anwar's message from prison, analysts say, was a bid to reassure those who were hesitant to back the 90-year-old.

Many remember that Dr Mahathir, during his 22-year tenure as prime minister until 2003, jailed and harassed opposition leaders and activists.

The statement by Anwar said: "I support the position of friends in civil society, political parties and individuals including Tun Dr Mahathir, (former deputy PM) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and others to build up strength and understanding together."

As they say in politics, there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

"Politics makes for strange bedfellows," said political analyst Amir Fareed Rahim at KRA Group. "It is interesting to see that it was Anwar who issued the statement of support and not Dr M openly soliciting Anwar's support."

As Dr Mahathir himself pointed out at the meeting held at the alumni club of Universiti Malaya: "As you can all see, this is a very strange group of people. There is only one thing in common - we are citizens of this country."

Analysts say both sides hope to gain by latching onto each other.

For Dr Mahathir, the motley crew gives him another shot at trying to oust Mr Najib after he failed to do so as a respected Umno veteran last year. He quit the ruling party on Monday.

The opposition, meanwhile, is torn by internal bickering even as Mr Najib is engulfed by a huge financial scandal that rattled Malaysia's international standing.

 

The opposition now hopes to ride on the names of Dr Mahathir and Mr Muhyiddin to attract Malay voters, especially in rural areas where the bulk of Umno's strength lies, say analysts and politicians.

The opposition in the past one year lost two key Malay leaders - Anwar was jailed and revered Islamic leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat died. Datuk Nik Aziz was the spiritual leader of Parti Islam SeMalaysia, which has since bolted from the opposition.

Still, it will not be easy for Malay voters in Peninsular Malaysia to look beyond the usual racial lens to accept the new alignment.

"Umno members may be very uncomfortable with the idea of him (Dr Mahathir) working together with their sworn enemy Anwar, while the general Malay community may not be too keen on him working with the Lims of DAP," said Mr Amir, referring to Mr Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, two key leaders at the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party.

Asked whether Anwar's release would be part of the new movement's agenda, Dr Mahathir replied: "We are concerned about removing Najib."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'A 90-year-old ex-premier and his strange bedfellows'. Print Edition | Subscribe