First published by Sheridan Mahavera on 5 March 2016

un Dr Mahathir Mohamad led the press conference yesterday calling for Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s removal from power. Many at the event refused to answer whether the former prime minister should be responsible for the situation the country finds itself in now. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, March 5, 2016.

It is telling that Malaysia’s most prominent political enemies avoided many of the hard questions as they tried to convince a sceptical public that their alliance to remove Datuk Seri Najib Razak was real. Yet the answers to these hard questions will determine whether the alliance will work and whether in the end, Najib is removed only to make way for another dictator, albeit one acceptable to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the prime mover of this pact. Can they trust each other? Can the mistakes of the past, which allowed a dictatorship to emerge, be acknowledged and forgiven?

Can the man who ruined Malaysia’s institutions guarantee that he will repair them if and once Najib is removed? Will that same man release former opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim – a key demand of the allies who recently signed up to Dr Mahathir’s “Citizens’ Declaration?” These questions hurled at Dr Mahathir and the alliance of certain Umno, PAS, PKR, DAP and civil society figures were deflected at the movement’s first press conference yesterday. DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang, who was imprisoned under Dr Mahathir’s time in the late 1980s in a sweep of opposition politicians and activists, did not respond directly to the query whether he trusted the former prime minister over his promise to repair the institutional damage which occurred during his time. Electoral reformer Maria Chin Abdullah refused to say whether she could forgive Dr Mahathir for his past mistakes. “There were some mistakes in the past and we have to correct these mistakes. We have to set aside our differences for a larger purpose,” was her response. Neither did Dr Mahathir commit to releasing former deputy prime minister Anwar, whom he sacked and jailed in 1998. To this day, Dr Mahathir has refused to admit that the policies of his administration bred authoritarianism. But making sure Dr Mahathir does not renege on his pledges for institutional change was important to those willing to work with him, said political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute. Otherwise, Najib would only be replaced for the sake of removing him, said Wong, but there would be no guarantee that his replacement would be any better. One of the signatories to the declaration, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that there was no guarantee this would happen. It is perhaps because of this Pakatan Harapan has instituted a “safety mechanism” to ensure that the opposition does not get burned if and when Najib is removed. “All Pakatan leaders are beholden to the presidential council and if it finds that this arrangement is straying from its promises of reform, the council will pull everyone back,” said PKR secretary-general Rafizi Ramli. Pakatan politicians who signed on to the declaration did so in their personal capacity, said Rafizi, but they would still have to follow the council’s decision. “This safety valve will ensure we are not taken for a ride,” said Rafizi, who signed the declaration. But analysts and observers are unsure if Dr Mahathir’s movement has the best chance at succeeding where other similar ones had failed in the past. “This development signifies a major shift in Malaysian politics,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). “Those in power should seriously consider the demands and Najib, in particular, must not ignore the declaration,” said Wan Saiful. This is because although the majority of those who signed the declaration were opposition figures, prominent Umno members were also signatories, such as suspended party deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is still Pagoh Umno division chief, vice-president Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, former Kedah menteris besar Tan Sri Sanusi Junid and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, former Terengganu menteri besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Said, Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Coalition of Branch Chiefs Malaysia (GKCM) chief Kamarul Azman Habibur Rahman. Rafizi said successful past movements which ousted regimes in Indonesia and the Philippines worked because they included dissident members of regime and the opposition. Yet other observers also said if there was no trust from the beginning between those involved, then how could they work together and succeed? “Personally, I would not link up with Dr Mahathir,” said political scientist Dr James Chin. “For the simple reason is that the mess Malaysia is in now is caused by him. If we do not acknowledge the past, we will make the same mistakes.” – March 5, 2016.

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