Malaysia's opposition dreams of a leader who can be PM

It was still a few more days to Valentine's Day when Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) had a gathering outside Sungai Buloh prison where Anwar Ibrahim is being held. It was doubtful if Anwar was aware of the big crowd and the noisy ceramah (rally) speeches but you could say that love was in the air for the man known as "KU" or ketua umum (chairman) in his party.

The evening was supposed to remind Malaysians of the party's "political prisoner" - instead everyone is still talking about the microphone incident. Amanah president Mohamed Sabu - who leads the party that is a splinter from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) - more or less stole the show when he ended his speech in great theatrical style by flinging down the cordless microphone. It hit the back of the stage before dropping to the floor with a thud. Some have called it a cheap gimmick but that was an expensive microphone.

Mat Sabu, as he is better known, has since explained he was frustrated that Malaysians were afraid to change the government and he wanted to jolt them out of their complacency. Anwar's detractors used to call him a drama king but it looks like there is a new drama king in town.

Opposition leaders have lamented that Anwar was the glue that held them together but now he is stuck in jail. They said if Anwar was around, there would not be two opposition coalitions that are opposed to each other. That is not quite true. The fissures started forming after the Kajang Move which PAS leaders were critical of. The cracks deepened over the Selangor Menteri Besar issue and there was nothing that Anwar could do since he was the puppeteer behind both issues. By then, Anwar and PAS president Hadi Awang were barely on talking terms.

Everyone noticed there was not a single PAS leader at the Sungai Buloh gathering. Even the PAS Paya Jaras assemblyman for the area, Mr Khairuddin Ohman, dubbed the "Chinese emperor" after getting into trouble with his party for donning an emperor outfit, was nowhere to be seen. What is painfully true is that the opposition front does not have a prime ministerial candidate and Anwar's first anniversary in Sungai Buloh was a stark reminder of their dilemma.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at a rally in Kelana Jaya, Selangor, after the general election in 2013. He is serving a five-year jail sentence but could be out in 3 1/2  years on
good behaviour. However, he will be barred from contesting an election for five years after his release, so he can jump into the ring again only at the age of 76. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Anwar was far from perfect but he had the X-factor. He called the shots in his party where few dared to go against him and, more importantly, he had the ability to engage Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PAS leaders. No one else in the opposition has that cross-sectional appeal at this point in time.

Anwar is serving a five-year sentence but he could be out in 31/2 years on good behaviour. That means he could be out by 2018. However, he will be barred from contesting an election for the next five years. He can jump into the ring again only at the ripe old age of 76, just two years short of the age Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad stepped out of the ring.

His daughter and Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah has played down the age factor. She argued that in the United States, Mr Bernie Sanders is 74 and vying to be the Democratic Party's nominee for the presidential election. She need not go so far. Dr Mahathir is 90 and still going at it, so why not Anwar?

DAP has also declared that Anwar is still its choice for prime minister. There are several stories about why DAP, which is normally quite pragmatic, is taking such an irrational line. The first is that DAP wants to keep its options open. It is more convenient to commit to a man who is unlikely to make it than to a sitting MP.

The second reason is that DAP thinks Putrajaya will not be attainable in the next general election. The last general election in 2013 has shown that Barisan can still win and form the government without the Chinese vote. But the opposition cannot do the same without the Malay vote. Given that, there is nothing to lose in selling Anwar as prime minister-to-be. After all, there is no law against false advertising in politics.

Anwar was far from perfect but he had the X-factor. He called the shots in his party where few dared to go against him and, more importantly, he had the ability to engage DAP and PAS leaders. No one else in the opposition has that cross-sectional appeal at this point in time.

The third scenario is the best and it goes like this: If voters elect Pakatan Harapan/Rakyat into power, the new government will petition the King to pardon Anwar who will then contest a by-election and become prime minister. It is a complicated script worthy of a Hollywood movie but there are people who buy it.

"This kind of twists and turns are only for the diehards. The numbers game is against them even reaching the stage to petition the King," said former think-tank chief Khaw Veon Szu. Anwar, as some joke, will probably go down in history as the best prime minister that Malaysia never had.

Those who believe that it is time to move beyond Anwar have their eye on personalities like Ms Nurul Izzah, Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli and, of course, Selangor Menteri Besar Azmin Ali.

The DAP has been grooming its own Malay leaders who they think can rise to the occasion when the time comes. Among the names that come to mind are Professor Aziz Bari who jumped from PKR to DAP last year and Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari.

Mr Azmin stands out among the three PKR possibilities. He is the only one who has administrative experience - first, as the right-hand man of Anwar when the latter was deputy prime minister and, now, as the Menteri Besar. Unlike his Penang counterpart, he is not a polarising figure and is accepted by all races. He is not seen as a quarrelsome character and his maturity shone through in his handling of the delicate political situation in Selangor.

The Menteri Besar crisis in Kedah and, before that, in Selangor, have shown how important it is for a political leader to be accepted by the palace.

Mr Azmin has had quite a seamless transition in Selangor and it is obvious he gets along well with the Sultan of Selangor. When his eldest daughter got married in December, both the sultans of Selangor and Perak were his royal guests. Other VIP guests included Dr Mahathir, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein who lives in the same neighbourhood as Mr Azmin. His guest list was quite a coup. For one thing, it suggested that the Malay rulers, or at least two of them, have no problems with him. The presence of Umno personalities would also send out signals that he is someone who is acceptable to Malays from different sides of the political divide.

Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was apparently unwell and did not attend the wedding reception. Mr Azmin later took the newly married couple together with his wife and children to call on Dr Wan Azizah in her Bukit Segambut house. Mr Azmin has learnt well from his old master, Anwar. He could not attend his party's gathering outside the Sungai Buloh prison because he and his wife were in Mecca performing the umrah. However, he made a video call which was projected on the screen. The man has a sense of drama - he was dressed in a white jubah and kopiah and as he spoke into a tiny microphone, one could see the pilgrims circling the Kaabah behind him.

Mr Azmin is without a doubt a prime ministerial contender. His problem is that he does not have the support of the DAP leaders. He is regarded as too independent by DAP leaders who prefer Malays they can control and who will sing and dance to their Chinese tune.

But all this talk about who among them should be the prime ministerial candidate is like counting chickens before they hatch. "They need to get past the Sarawak election, that will be the decider," said Mr Khaw.

The Sarawak election will determine whether the two Pakatans are inching towards Putrajaya or slipping further away from their dream and whether it is even necessary to name their prime ministerial candidate.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Malaysia's opposition dreams of a leader who can be PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe