On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Paving the way ahead

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said many times, and in different ways, too, so the message is clear and consistent – Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will be his successor and there should be no doubt of this.

But for whatever reasons, the Prime Minister is constantly grilled about this by the media. Will the PKR president succeed him as Prime Minister, and when will the world’s oldest prime minister step down? This is the regular line of questioning.

It’s incredible that he has never lost his cool answering these two questions, and neither has he directed his press officers to tell the media not to bring the subject up.

So the press keeps bringing it up, and, for even stranger reasons, these repeated news reports still grab an audience.

Perhaps, many aren’t prepared to whole-heartedly embrace politicians’ sales pitches, because they often lack value in truth. There is also the little detail of the two men’s past record of bitter acrimony that still haunts their most loyal supporters.

The only thing that brought them together was their determination to end Barisan Nasional’s 60-year stranglehold, to topple Datuk Seri Najib Razak and haul him and Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor to court to face multiple charges of corruption and money laundering.

It’s no secret that the component parties made a written pact that Dr Mahathir would be PM following the May 2018 general election victory, and that Anwar would eventually take over. The only thing that wasn’t put in black and white was the time frame leading to the hand-over.

Anwar, the PKR leader with no Cabinet post, has been patient, and has kept repeating the near-obligatory line, “Dr Mahathir must be given the latitude and space”. The truth is, he has little choice but to remain the PM-in-waiting.

The speculation – resulting in perceived uncertainties – is also due to the open differences between Anwar and Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, his deputy in PKR.

But last week, Dr Mahathir Mohamad said in clear terms that he would step down as premier after two years to make way for Anwar, although in a subsequent interview, he added that it could be three years.

Dr Mahathir said that anyone who takes over from him isn’t required to adhere to his instructions or follow his example.

“He is free to do what he thinks is best as prime minister. I have no say on what happens after. My job is to prepare the country as much as possible,” he said in a special interview in conjunction with the first anniversary of the Pakatan administration on Wednesday.

Of course, those aligned to Anwar – who was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 by Dr Mahathir and then jailed – are insistent he take over the reins in a year.

However, there is no time frame, and curiously, this is all turning into Anwar’s advantage that Dr Mahathir be allowed to fix the many economic headaches battering the country.

Besides the eye-watering amount of money looted from the coffers, the country is facing a multi-prong attack of falling commodity prices, a shrinking ringgit, poor consumer sentiment, the outflow of funds and a weak stock market.

Adding to his plate, Dr Mahathir is forced to grapple with the inexperience, and perhaps, incompetence of some of his ministers, a mutinous civil service and a security force that has kept supporting the opposition in a series of by-elections.

If that isn’t enough, Umno and PAS have successfully played up the purported loss of Malay supremacy to the DAP – a euphemism for the Chinese – when ironically, it was the Malay leaders who stole from government bodies.

Billions of ringgit have gone missing from the Federal Land Development Authority and Lem-baga Tabung Haji in what can only be described as “jaw dropping losses”.

Those entrusted with safeguarding these assets, unfortunately, squandered them despite professing to protect the Malay race and Islam.

With a line-up of greenhorn Cabinet members, Dr Mahathir is the most likely person to fix these problems. There is the consensus that he is the only one who can reign royalty in and openly oppose them. The rest of us ordinary Malaysians may face sedition charges for posting disparaging remarks on social media.

A few days ago, Dr Mahathir reiterated that he would not see out a full term and will step aside after fixing problems his PH coalition claims it inherited after forming the federal government.

PM Mahathir, who turns 94 in two months, told a conference with the foreign media: “We will make most of the corrections within a period of two years, and after that, I think the others will have less problems to face.”

When pressed on whether he meant two years in power or from now, he replied: “I don’t know whether it is three years or two years, but I am an interim prime minister.”

As much as many Malaysians want Dr Mahathir to continue as PM, given his spike in popularity compared to his previous run as PM, we need to be realistic. Even he is realistic.

He turns 95 next year, and he’s only human. So he is subject to the same biological and ageing processes as any one of us, although at 94 now, he can put many 49-year-olds to shame.

If he completes the full five-year term, he will be 98 years old, and I don’t think anyone in his right mind expects him to serve the full five years, or even four years.

Next year is Malaysia’s turn to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, where the world’s most powerful leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese premier Xi Jinping, will attend the historic meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Dr Mahathir will play host, and certainly, we expect him to want to take centre stage at this global event with these giant figures and revel in the moment. It will be decades before KL has another chance to welcome this economic showpiece, which takes place in November this time around.

Many events are lined up for the run-up to the Apec summit, and 2020 is certainly a year to galvanise the country as it’s also Visit Malaysia Year.

The only nagging question is how much has been done to prepare ourselves for the Big Show. It’s also one befitting Dr Mahathir, as he prepares himself to pass the baton to Anwar.

Dr Mahathir has said that he will not reshuffle the Cabinet. He should have though, as he would be able to better use the expertise, talents and skills of his ministers. Some are not cut out for certain portfolios, because of their personalities, lack of social and linguistic skills, and even interest.

The Cabinet was hastily cobbled together, and surely a year later, it has become obvious to Malaysians who the performers and non-performers are. We may be wrong in our evaluations, but politics is all about perception.

The surveys so far conducted are based on public sentiment, even if many members of society lack the full details of the back stories.

In any company, the probation period for a new employee is anywhere between three and six months, but politicians seem to have special rules. After all, this is the only profession where no experience or proof of education is required. The public gets arrested and jailed for using fake qualifications, but that conveniently doesn’t apply to ministers.

Every company has a succession plan where potential candidates are named to take over a position, and if that doesn’t pan out, the company then looks for one, even if that means turning to head-hunters.

The risk management team reports the implications of not having clear lines of leadership.

But in Malaysia, we have a 94-year-old leader, with a mixed line up ministers, some would say, motley and mismatched, right down to a 26-year-old serving his first term as MP.

And the designated successor has no Cabinet post or key role in the federal government. In Malaysia, the strangest things can be made to make sense.