Saving Malaysia – an Alternative to the Citizens’ Declaration

Published in Malaysiakini 26/3/2016
Dr Mahathir’s role as promoter of the Citizens’ Declaration (referred to hereafter as CD) and Save Malaysia Movement has drawn a mixed reception from civil society. Some view him as the devil incarnate, equating working with him to “supping with the devil” and pointing out that “not making good on promises has long been Mahathir’s hallmark.” Some question whether he is “seeking to exploit public discontent purely to further his own political agenda” and point out that “he is no democrat and he has never pretended to be one.”

On the other side, others urge that a “united front is needed to unseat PM Najib” and that we should “utilise Dr Mahathir’s considerable political skills, acumen and clout.” Still others urge that “forging alliances in a time of political impasse” is essential.

But this divergence of views represents the two sides of the same coin. It is possible to be suspicious of Dr Mahathir and yet work with him. If we decide that Mahathir can contribute to a better Malaysia, we have to work with him. But we must keep Mahathir and the Save Malaysia movement honest and democratic, and we must know when to say “No” to Mahathir.

This article questions how decisions are made at Save Malaysia Movement and expresses doubt that Dr Mahathir’s strategy behind the CD can succeed. The article argues that the most certain way to remove Najib as PM is through a Save Malaysia opposition (Pakatan Harapan + UMNO rebels) fighting Najib’s UMNO/BN one to one at GE14, together with a Citizen’s Manifesto containing detailed, concrete, and specific proposals for institutional reform. The role of civil society and Bersih is discussed in the article ‘Bersih Meeting needed for Civil Society to decide on Citizen’s Declaration’.

A. Is Mahathir up to his old tricks?

The objective of the CD is advertised as saving the nation but Mukhriz’s statement reveals the real purpose is to save UMNO/BN. It is worth repeating Mukhriz’s own words as reported on 5th March:

“The statement by several Umno leaders that the rakyat should wait until the 14th general election to change the prime minister is extremely damaging to Barisan’s interests. Do they mean that the new prime minister will come from the Opposition after Barisan is defeated in the general election? That is not Dr Mahathir’s goal at all.” He added “Najib had to be replaced before the general election to save Barisan’s position in government.”

Muhyiddin and Sanusi Junid also made similar statements. UMNO leaders, no matter whether pro or anti Najib, all appear to believe that UMNO/BN has a divine right to rule, so that they cannot differentiate between saving the nation and saving UMNO/BN.

The organisational details and decision making process of the Save Malaysia Movement are opaque. All involved in running the Movement are personal invitees of Tun Dr Mahathir and there is no mechanism for those not invited to input to the Movement.

By insisting that signatories participate in the Movement in their personal capacity, the public is misled into thinking the organisations associated with the signatories support the Save Malaysia Movement, whereas in fact their members have not had a chance to approve or disapprove. How can a Movement which is non democratic be trusted to bring back democracy to Malaysia?

Removing Najib as PM is a political act which requires the support of opposition political parties, and yet the relationship of the Movement to opposition political parties is not defined. What is to happen after the removal of Najib is again a mystery. Mahathir’s insistence, “remove Najib; reforms will come later”, and Kit Siang’s “one step at a time” approach, is a recipe for chaos, continuing disputes and manipulation by a master puppeteer.

B Mahathir’s strategy will fail

The CD clearly states its objectives as removing Najib and implementing institutional reform but the mechanism through which the objectives are to be achieved is left blank. It is now clear, Mahathir’s strategy is to demonstrate that Najib has so little support that UMNO warlords fear for their survival and replace Najib with somebody else from BN.

Using the CD in a mass signature campaign, urging UMNO branches to pass motions of no confidence on Najib, even (I suspect) instigating Ahmad Said to table a motion of no confidence against the Terengganu MB, are all components of this strategy.

But it is difficult to see how Dr Mahathir’s strategy can succeed. The CD reveals no new enemy to frighten UMNO. It seems unlikely they will be worried by a signature campaign. Considering the control Najib has over the party, as shown at the last UMNO General Assembly, it is unlikely that Branch no confidence motions can get past Division level. Even if UMNO warlords are worried about survival, they will overwhelmingly choose Ahmad Zahid Hamidi over Muhyiddin.

In order to replace Najib with Muhyiddin as PM, Muhyiddin must survive a vote of confidence in Parliament. There are 133 BN MPs and 89 Opposition, of which 14 belong to PAS. Of these 14, 13 are Hadi Awang loyalists and 1 Mahathir supporter, i.e. Mahfuz Omar. Hadi Awang has already indicated he does not support removing Najib through a vote of no confidence. There are therefore 146 Najib supporters and 76 against. To have a majority, Muhyiddin must bring over 36 BN MPs. There is no evidence he has this number of supporters. Even if he has, his government will be extremely unstable. It only needs 2 MPs to be bought over and Zahid becomes PM.

Recently Mukhriz said signed CDs will be collected and will be presented to the Council of Rulers. We have a constitutional monarchy but the initiators of the CD want to undermine this by encouraging Rulers to meddle in the political process of choosing a PM. If it succeeds, no elected PM will be safe. It is strange that Zaid Ibrahim, who has been so vitriolic over the use of SDs to oust sitting MBs, apparently is a part of this. All political parties and civil society must strongly oppose the involvement of the Rulers in this matter.

C Defeating Najib’s UMNO/BN at GE14

If the strategy of forcing Najib to resign before GE14 cannot succeed, then the only and most certain “non-violent and legally permissible” way to remove Najib as PM is through a Save Malaysia opposition (Pakatan Harapan + UMNO rebels) fighting Najib’s UMNO/BN one to one at GE14. Even if PAS is not with the unified opposition but fights as a third force, GE14 can still be won.

As UMNO has never tasted electoral defeat before, it will be a huge shock to the ordinary UMNO member whose hearts and minds we have to win for a unified opposition to win GE14. To win this battle, Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin and others must have the political courage to acknowledge UMNO needs institutional reform as much as the country and tell their supporters the truth, for instance:

1. UMNO/BN does not have a divine right to rule. That political party/coalition which has worked the hardest to gain the confidence, trust and support of the Malaysian people is the one which deserves to rule.

2. Defeat at GE14 would be good for UMNO. Experience in other democratic countries that a political party, after years in power, becomes tired, lazy, arrogant and runs out of ideas. Defeat forces the party to search out and correct its own weaknesses and think out new ways of solving the country’s problems. Defeat would reform, renew and re-invigorate the party.

3. Mahathir should retract his statement in his Open Letter to UMNO branches that once UMNO loses a General Election, “it can never again be re-built.” This is nonsense. In fact, it is impossible to destroy UMNO as it is an integral part of the history, culture and social life of the Malay community. Those who want a two party system also do not want to destroy UMNO.

To furthermore sweeten the pill, if Najib is defeated at GE14, Muhyiddin and others can return to UMNO as heroes, contest the Presidency and other high office in UMNO elections and represent UMNO in the unity government. Thus whatever the outcome of GE14, UMNO will still be represented in government.

D Citizen’s Manifesto and not Citizen’s Declaration

One thing more is needed to defeat Najib at GE14 – a manifesto.

The text in the CD relating to institutional reform is too imprecise to have much value. Dictators too have vowed to defend “fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution” and to restore the “integrity of the institutions”.

Dennis Ignatius is right to call for “a clear and uncompromising road map for the restoration of democracy” and Dr Kua Kia Soong to say “Malaysians demand concrete reforms, not sloppy slogans.” In other words, we need a Citizen’s Manifesto and not a Citizen’s Declaration.
Items in this Citizen’s manifesto should be detailed, concrete, and specific, such as:

1. The chairman of the Public Accounts committee must be a member of the opposition.
2. 20% of appointed judges must be from the ranks of practicing lawyers and not overwhelmingly from the ranks of government legal officers as at present.
3. A list of all Acts to be repealed should be compiled and proposed amendments to Acts drafted out in full.

Mahathir is right when he said “traditional political rivals, who have set aside their differences for the Citizens’ Declaration, can continue their feud after democracy is restored.” The critical task then is to think out, formulate and get agreement on the core program (Citizen’s Manifesto) necessary to restore democracy. This is the task the Save Malaysia Movement should focus on and not on getting signatures for the CD.

But setting aside differences for the sake of defeating Najib at GE14 means political parties of the Save Malaysia opposition must leave out of their GE14 manifesto views on the economy, education, position of Islam, etc. which conflict with each other. For instance, DAP will have views on the economy different from UMNO rebels. These differences will have to wait for GE15 to be settled.

It would be unnatural to expect political parties to put on hold their differences for 5 years till GE15 nor can the country wait that long before debating and deciding on key policies in the economy, education, etc. The Save Malaysia coalition must therefore announce before GE14 how much time it needs, say 1 or 2 years, to implement its core program to restore democracy before calling an early GE15. Such an arrangement would make it easier for strange bedfellows like DAP and UMNO rebels to work together.

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