Awkward moments as Mahathir attends PKR meet

Dr Mahathir Mohamad (No. 3) eventually signed a petition calling for the release of jailed PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim during the party's annual congress yesterday.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad (No. 3) eventually signed a petition calling for the release of jailed PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim during the party's annual congress yesterday. ST PHOTO: NADIRAH H. RODZI

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad yesterday attended the annual meeting of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), an opposition party that was formed by Anwar Ibrahim, now serving jail time, after he was sacked as deputy prime minister 19 years ago.

The huge political turnaround that brought the former foes to embrace each other was not without its awkward moments, as Tun Dr Mahathir pledged his support for the Free Anwar campaign but stopped short of backing his former protege as PKR's candidate to be the next prime minister.

Dr Mahathir refused to acknowledge his involvement in prosecuting Anwar for sodomy, instead putting the blame on current Prime Minister Najib Razak.

"It's not me who put him in jail. That's an old story. Najib is the one who put him (in jail)," he said, referring to Anwar's 2014 conviction for sodomy, for which he is currently serving a five-year jail sentence.

Anwar, who served as Dr Mahathir's deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998, was first jailed during the Mahathir administration after being convicted of sodomy and corruption. His PKR party was formed in April 1999, seven months after his sacking.

Dr Mahathir and Anwar met last September in a bid to put the past behind them, after Dr Mahathir left ruling party Umno and formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).

At yesterday's event, Dr Mahathir also refused to say whether he would support Anwar as the next prime minister should the opposition win the next general election.

"That's up to anyone," he replied.

In an awkward moment while he was on stage with fellow leaders of the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, Dr Mahathir chose to pick up his phone and photograph the cheering audience instead of joining everyone else in holding up placards that read "Anwar as the 7th Prime Minister".

However, as he was leaving the congress, he signed the petition for the Free Anwar campaign .

This is the first time the former Umno president attended a PKR congress. Last year, he made a surprise appearance at the national conference of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), his former political foes.

Present at yesterday's congress was the president of PPBM, Datuk Muhyiddin Yassin, who also did not hold up an Anwar placard, clapping his hands instead.

PPBM, which Dr Mahathir chairs, is a member of Pakatan Harapan, together with PKR, DAP and Parti Amanah Negara, the splinter group of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

On Saturday, PKR Youth chief Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad said that some of the wing's members were upset over the party's collaboration with Dr Mahathir.

According to English daily The Star, he said this would be an opportunity to teach the former prime minister a thing or two about how decisions are made in a democratic manner and that, unlike in Dr Mahathir's time, no leader today should hold absolute power.

"I know this a dilemma for many party members. But I am confident that the politics of change demands a lot of compromise," he said.

Nadirah H. Rodzi

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline Awkward moments as Mahathir attends PKR meet. Subscribe