THE acrimonious relationship between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim – when they were Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister back in the day – is well-documented, and as a reporter covering the feud, I had a ring-side seat of the fight.
I remember joining Dr Mahathir and his entourage on a trade mission to South America in September 1997.
Malaysia was grappling with a financial crisis, the stock market had plunged, its currency was under attack and the skies were shrouded in haze.
It seemed like things couldn’t get any darker.
But worse it got when the relationship between its two leaders went terribly sour over how the country should tackle the financial crisis.
The South American visit was the longest official overseas engagement during Dr Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister.
And the knives which had been drawn by then made the assignment feel even longer.
During the trip, a few ministers obviously wanted to “apple polish” the PM by doing their best to run Anwar down – all within earshot of reporters, amazingly.
One Umno leader waved a copy of the now-defunct Asiaweek magazine – which pictured Anwar riding a jet ski on the cover – and loudly complained that Anwar was a man in a hurry, and even promised to gather supporters to turn up at the airport for Dr Mahathir’s arrival.
My good friend, Johan Jaafar, now Tan Sri, was most uncomfortable when the air on board the chartered flight became toxic.
He was editor of Utusan Malaysia, which at the time was probably the most influential newspaper in the country.
In his own words, “I was famously fired three months before Anwar got the axe. I was guilty by association.”
Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister on Sept 2, 1998 and as deputy Umno president the following day.
I was at the Putra World Trade Centre with other reporters from every media on Sept 3.
And that marked the beginning of the reformasi movement.
Along with my journalist brothers and sisters, I literally camped outside his home, soaked to the bone in the rain.
It’s funny now to recall how we predicted a short lifespan for the uprising.
How wrong we were.
Anwar is a born fighter and he’s probably the most charismatic Malaysian leader I’ve ever known.
He mobilised thousands onto the streets and had powerful international leaders on his side.
He has gone through the “black eye” episode, beatings, jail sentence, sex video scandal and sordid sodomy trials – not once, but twice – and survived it all. (Anwar was assaulted after his arrest on Sept 20, 1998, causing him to appear in court with a black eye. Former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor was eventually charged with the assault and received a two-month jail sentence. He later apologised to Anwar and his family.)
More incredibly, his wife – Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail – stood by him, defended him and filled in for him as party president.
That’s another astonishing story by itself.
Fast forward to 2018. Dr Mahathir is surely the glue that binds for the ruling coalition.
Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible for Pakatan Harapan to win the general election and, without PKR and DAP, Dr Mahathir wouldn’t have had the structure and machinery to do likewise.
He held the key to reach many rural areas, including the Felda seats, which tipped the balance.
It was the massive historic win which led to Anwar being released from prison and subsequently pardoned.
Basically, the unimaginable happened and now, another stranger-than-fiction scenario is about to play out.
And again, there is plenty of cynicism and disbelief.
So, what Dr Mahathir said last week is important.
On record, for the first time, he said he would honour an agreement by the four parties of the Pakatan Harapan for him to step down after two years, and hand the country’s leadership to Anwar.
I am told there is a written agreement, but what’s more significant is that he has said so very clearly and in no uncertain terms, that it is going to be passed on to Anwar.
“I am confident that he is now more mature and much more experienced,” Dr Mahathir said at a gathering in a hotel with Malaysians living in Brunei.
He was responding to a question from a guest who voiced concern about history repeating itself on the choice of successor.
This should put an end to the conspiracy theories that PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali was his preferred choice as successor, or that Dr Mahathir intended to stay longer than two years and wouldn’t honour the agreement.
Even after Dr Mahathir’s open endorsement of Anwar as his replacement, there were still lingering doubts for some.
Former Umno MP Datuk Tawfik Tun Ismail said he was experiencing a déjà vu moment with the current political landscape, and with the banter between government and party leaders.
Referring to statements made by both Dr Mahathir and Anwar, Tawfik said the current back and forth was reminiscent of the time leading up to when Anwar was ousted from the government.
“Listening to what is said and what is denied, it’s almost like listening to what Anwar and Dr Mahathir said many, many years ago.
“I support you, you support me, and next day, you know one is killed,” he said, referring to Anwar’s sacking by Dr Mahathir in 1998.
In politics, a week can be a long time, what more two years.
However, age is not on Dr Mahathir’s side.
After all, he is already 93, so the punishing demands of the top job will take its toll on him.
He is truly doing a tremendous national service for Malaysia and we must be indebted to this incredible man for his tenacity. But he is also only human.
He needn’t take on this back-breaking job of cleaning up the government and economy when it will be easier for Anwar to do so when he takes over the reins instead.
Anwar has certainly grown much wiser and has mellowed, demonstrating patience and constraint, particularly with his constant urging for Dr Mahathir to be given room to decide.
But Anwar is not getting any younger either. He has waited long enough. He must get himself elected as a Member of Parliament soon.
To be known as a PM-in-waiting means nothing really, so he needs to be an MP before he can be appointed prime minister by the ruling coalition.
Let’s not picture this, but should something unfortunate happen to Dr Mahathir, Anwar cannot assume any role or position unless he is an MP.
There is nothing unusual because there is a process of succession planning, even at company level, and as the president of the party with the largest number of seats within the PH alliance, it’s only rightful Anwar succeed Dr Mahathir.
In just three months, the year will come to an end. The motion of succession will begin soon, and while fate decides everything, as early as next month, Anwar will take his earliest steps to fulfilling his destiny.