Anwar, Mahathir and the test posed by 'political frogs'

Malaysians generally have short memories. There was a time when many were outraged at elected representatives from any one of the opposition parties for defecting to Barisan Nasional (BN).

All kinds of nasty names were hurled at them, with insinuations that these unprincipled and dishonourable politicians were paid to be "political frogs", all of whom contributed greatly to the collapse of two state governments.

In 1994, Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) - which pulled out from BN in 1990 - won the state elections with 25 seats against BN's 23. But the PBS government lasted only about two weeks before it was ousted following defections of some of its state assemblymen.

This was unprecedented in Malaysia, and it swung the doors wide open for Umno to set up shop in Sabah, taking with it its race-and religious-style politics.

Then, in 2009, when Pakatan Rakyat (PR) formed the state government, three of its state assemblymen defected to BN, causing the PR government to collapse. Naturally, there was plenty of resentment at what was viewed as classic treachery and immorality.

But the movement began with PR because BN lawmaker Nasarudin Hashim decided to cross the floor to join PR. Its leaders then jubilantly claimed more BN lawmakers would join in an exodus. Instead, Mr Nasarudin returned to BN, accompanied by Deputy Speaker Hee Yit Foong of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and senior state executive councillors. A year later, Malim Nawar assemblyman Keshwinder Singh quit DAP to become a BN-friendly independent assemblyman.

Many political leaders, who are now Pakatan Harapan (PH) figureheads, mouthed off angrily then, but now, have seemingly gone mum at the latest round of camp-switching involving BN politicians to PH. That probably explains how, although many Malaysians felt cheated and demanded an anti-hopping law be enacted, everything invariably died under a deluge of excuses.

Is it surprising that nothing happened?

Of course not, because politicians have always known that defections make for handy tools.

For them, it's all about power, and how the end justifies the means, so the people's mandate counts for little. It could seem a betrayal of voters' trust, but defections will likely be justified as freedom of association, and something perfectly natural.

In 1978, DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang attempted to move a motion in Parliament to introduce a private member's Bill, the Members of Parliament (Prevention of Defection) Act, which would require an MP to vacate his seat within 30 days and the election department to hold a by-election upon his resignation or expulsion from the party on whose ticket he was originally elected.

When Mr Lim was queried by readers of a newspaper about the effective measures that could be taken to prevent such opportunistic political betrayal of the people's confidence, he replied by saying the best way was for the enactment of such a law.

Following Datuk Mustapa Mohamed's recent defection to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), DAP chairman Tan Kok Wai voiced the party's discontent, saying it was "unhealthy" for PH component parties, including his own, to accept former Umno MPs.

Mr Tan's comment came two days after the Umno veteran and Jeli MP joined Bersatu.

Now, talk is rife of a massive switch-over of Umno MPs and members to Bersatu, with the party's supreme council member, Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, conceding to a possibility of up to 40 MPs being involved in the mass exodus.

He revealed that the 40 Umno MPs had met Bersatu chairman Mahathir Mohamad and president Muhyiddin Yassin.

What happens next could well see Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Bersatu competing for the entry of elected representatives to alter the equation in the PH ruling alliance.

With Mr Mustapa now in Bersatu, its numbers have gone up to 13 while PKR has 48, DAP 42, Amanah 11 and Warisan eight. If indeed 40 MPs were to join Bersatu, the total could swell to 53, making it the biggest component party in PH.

And assuming there are disgruntled PKR MPs who leave the party after its internal elections, it could put Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in an uncomfortable position, even if these turncoats don't join Bersatu and remain independents.

It doesn't help that the Setiawangsa Bersatu division is rooting for Tun Dr Mahathir to complete his five-year term as prime minister. The division, headed by Dr Mahathir's political secretary Zahid Md Arip, recently passed the proposal unanimously.

The remarks by Mr Kadir and the motion by Setiawangsa Bersatu have spooked many supporters of Mr Anwar and PKR, and they don't find this funny at all, especially during Halloween.

Certainly, Anwar supporters now expect him to make a similar move to get Umno MPs, or those from Gabungan Bersatu Sabah, to join PKR to "neutralise" Bersatu.

Dr Mahathir has repeatedly said he would pass the baton to Mr Anwar, with the latter insisting the PM should be given time and space to govern effectively to steer the country back on track. The PKR leader said this was the reason he refuses to specify a time frame for him to succeed Dr Mahathir as the next prime minister.

"Some people see this transition as fragile, but I don't. The fragility will come about only if there are major battles waged between me and Mahathir, but I have made it very clear. No. 1, he is the prime minister, and No. 2, I refuse to give a time frame," Mr Anwar said.

It's obvious Mr Anwar doesn't want to appear a man in a hurry, while repeating the same assurances. However, without a time frame and being the president of the biggest component party in PH (so far), the partnership in PH will be tested.

No one can deny that the three leaders - Dr Mahathir, Mr Anwar and Mr Lim, and to some extent, Datuk Mohamed Sabu, came together with a single aim - to topple Najib Razak and BN. However, none of them had any real love for Dr Mahathir, but they knew he was key to winning the general election.

Let's not forget that at one point, Dr Mahathir came close to walking out of the electoral pact, and Mr Anwar's daughter, Ms Nurul Izzah Anwar, flew to London to convince him to stay on amid tensions over PH's hierarchy.

Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar may have their interpretation of succession, but as with all parties, there will always be over-zealous leaders with their self-interests of ensuring their masters remain in power to allow them to continue enjoying the powers and privileges of being in government.

And on the flipside, others can't wait for their masters to be installed.

The two must now manage the push and pull because once the floodgates open, they won't be able to stop the one-upmanship for more members, especially elected representatives who could boost their standing.

It's beside the point whether Dr Mahathir or Mr Anwar genuinely trust each other; the reality is, only either of them can hold the coalition together.

But the new government shouldn't forget the people who put them there for a New Malaysia.

If PH leaders can't respect and uphold this democratic right of the people, then what's the point in holding elections when all we see is more of the Old Politics?


• Wong Chun Wai is The Star Media Group's managing director and chief executive officer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2018, with the headline 'Anwar, Mahathir and the test posed by 'political frogs''. Subscribe