With the focus on dynamics between living political giants, the mainstream and alternative media overlooked a profound introductory minute of a lecture given last week:
“Tunku Abdul Rahman percaya bahawa negara kita ini diduduki oleh orang yang pelbagai kaum, pelbagai bahasa, pelbagai budaya. Adalah lebih baik kalau kita kongsi negara kita ini, daripada kita mengambil semua untuk kita dan lepas itu negara melalui keadaan huruhara, tidak dapat dibangunkan dan kita terus miskin. Pada masa tu saya tak beberapa nampaklah Tunku punya, apa nama, pendapat. Saya budak masa tu. Saya pun menentang Tunku, tapi sekarang ni baru saya faham: dia ni lebih bijak daripada saya.”
[Tunku Abdul Rahman understood that our nation comprises many groups, many languages, many cultures. Therefore it would be better to share our nation, rather than take what we want for ourselves, causing chaos, preventing development and prolonging poverty. At that time I didn’t grasp Tunku’s, how do you say, beliefs. I was a child then. I opposed Tunku, but now I understand: he was more intelligent than me.]
(http://youtu.be/UqDgQS7ZT1k, from 5:00)
The speaker is of course Tun Mahathir, whose actions are credited to have accelerated the departure of both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdullah Badawi from Prime Ministerial office, and whose present interventions are targeting the current Prime Minister and the people around him. As I write this, the week-old lecture (posted in five parts including questions and answers) has received over 100,000 views. It is the latest of his increasingly aggressive salvos against the administration, and apparently the first of a national roadshow, complementing a blog that has of late become occasionally inaccessible due to heavy demand (or, allegedly, censorship).
This particular preamble is a new and curious feature. The former Prime Minister is not known for admitting past mistakes, and there is little obvious political gain in admitting that a dead man – one who was vociferous in his own criticisms against Mahathir – was right. But what the brief tribute to Tunku Abdul Rahman does is to ground the rest of the argument within a certain context, one that appeals to the normative values of the Merdeka era.
If you strip away the names of targeted individuals and organisations, the issues covered throughout the speech and dialogue are those that any aspirational democracy would want to address: institutionalised corruption, weaknesses in voting systems within political parties, the ostentatious lifestyles of those who hold office, misappropriation of public funds, lack of transparency in tender processes, government-linked companies buying businesses and land above market price, the transfer of public money to offshore accounts, criminal acts by elected leaders, the efficacy of a tax regime poorly misunderstood by its implementing officers, the government’s role in business more widely, and the future of national leadership.
Any patriot aligned to the founding principles of the nation would ask these questions, and because in a climate of diminishing democratic space few individuals are able to do so without consequence, Tun Mahathir’s latest campaign enjoys support both from disaffected components within his party (who have either been squeezed out of opportunities for patronage or believe that the party will suffer electorally unless there is a change) as well as many parts of civil society who would usually attack precisely those components. An unlikely alliance has been formed, encouraging more people out of the woodwork. Even individuals who might have been thought to be unremittingly loyal in the past are hedging their bets.
Naturally this prospect is looked upon with some trepidation by those who wish to keep things as they are. However much the news is diverted by the alleged threat of terrorism or a feel-good regional summit, the attacks will continue, to the extent that pundits ask “when” rather than “if”.
Indeed the commentariat has moved to asking “what” and “who”, for there is no clear consensus on what the immediate future should look like. For some, treating the symptoms sufficient to attain electoral victory is all that matters – and then, the same politics of negativity and cynicism can continue with them as the beneficiaries.
But we should aim higher than that. Perhaps I am wrong to think that Tun Mahathir’s invocation of the Tunku was anything beyond banter with the audience. But if indeed there was an implication that the problems of today should be addressed starting with the frameworks of Merdeka, it raises the question as to what scenario would enable such leadership to emerge.
Who knows how long it will take for the heavyweights to coalesce towards a mutually tolerable settlement, but to expand on a recent quote of a prominent backbencher, in evaluating the choice between leader and party, think also of the nation.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS