Muhyiddin chose to be Gus Dur when he could have been Habibie

THROWN into unprecedented turmoil, the country needed a saviour. The rakyat have had enough; their voices won’t be silenced anymore. When the crisis threatened to spiral even deeper, a soft-spoken yet enigmatic figure emerged to fix the destruction caused by the past regime; a regime that he himself was a part of. But he was of a different mould. For this was the man of the rakyat and the will of the people was what he delivered.

No, this is not the story of Muhyiddin Yassin saving Malaysia from unprecedented political turmoil. As the leaked Bersatu recordings suggested, how could he be our saviour when the hullabaloo was all of his own planning? 

On the contrary, this is the story of the late B.J. Habibie, beloved third president of the Republic of Indonesia who held the unwanted record of being the shortest-serving president in the country’s history. However, as things unfolded, his presidency of a year and 150 days proved to be the most important turning point in the history of the republic.

Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and B.J. Habibie

How Pak Habibie became president shares an almost similar narrative with how Muhyiddin became prime minister. Just like Muhyiddin, he was the second in command of a kleptocratic, corrupt and oppressive regime that has systematically robbed the rakyat for decades. Handpicked to be vice-president by Suharto in his “New Order” in March 1998 amid the Asian financial crisis and growing unrest in the republic, Habibie was thrusted into the presidency just a few months afterwards. Violent street protests erupting across Indonesia had forced Suharto to step down and leave the gargantuan task of uniting the nation into Habibie’s hands.

Seen as a Suharto loyalist and just another Javanese elite of the kleptocratic New Order, Pak Habibie defied expectations and did the unthinkable. During his short tenure, he laid down reforms and the very foundation of democracy that has since prospered. Traces of nepotism and cronyism were swiftly eradicated with his new cabinet that saw Suharto’s eldest daughter and even his longtime friend getting the axe. Moreover, 100 political prisoners were granted amnesty and press freedom was reinstated after decades of censorship. 

Well, Habibie is Indonesia’s “Bapak Demokrasi” for a reason. It’s fair to say that his presidency singlehandedly corrected the authoritarian path the republic had taken under Sukarno and Suharto, and created a free parliament and free presidential elections. Most importantly, he sanctioned independent committees to draft less-restrictive political laws and put a limit of two terms of five years for future presidents. 

Speaking of which, a two-term limit for the highest executive body’s position was part of Pakatan Harapan’s reform plans for Malaysia too. However, just like other “Save Malaysia” reforms brought forth by PH (and Muhyiddin too, mind you), it was derailed by a parliamentary coup. 

Under Habibie’s guidance, Indonesia held its first general election in over 44 years, an election in which he did not contest as he withdrew his nomination after his accountability speech was rejected by the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat Republik Indonesia (MPR), the republic’s version of parliament. This turned out to be the end of Habibie’s political career as he chose to retire after successfully paving the way for democracy when he so easily could have continued the ruthless dictatorship ways of his predecessors. 

Fast forward 22 years, we can easily draw a parallel between BJ Habibie and Muhyiddin. Both became leaders of their respective nations due to unforeseen circumstances rather than through a democratic electoral process. Both of them had the same opportunities to change a nation but went about it in completely opposite directions. 

Unlike Muhyiddin who used the Covid-19 pandemic as a smokescreen to lock down parliament, Habibie let democracy flourish and refused to continue his presidency without properly getting the nod from MPR.

Muhyiddin Yassin

While Habibie used his presidency for necessary democratic reforms, Muhyiddin used his premiership to derail the reforms that was underway which he himself promoted before. In fact, if the Bersatu leaked recordings were to be believed, nepotism and cronyism are firmly ingrained onto Malaysia’s ‘new normal’ with support being blatantly bought over with positions in the cabinet and GLCs. Furthermore, the recent acquittal of Malaysian controversial figures in their high profile corruption cases also hints at a compromised justice system and would not look out place in Suharto’s New Order era. 

It seems that the more we compare Habibie with Muhyiddin, the more apparent Muhyiddin’s likeness to Habibie’s direct successor, Abdurrahman Wahid, fondly known as Gus Dur.

A leader who is the textbook definition of style over substance, Gus Dur’s presidency started with joy and hope from the Indonesian masses. Even his nickname “Gus” is a common honorific for a son of kyai, the Javanese term for an Islamic expert. The long-time president of Nahdlatul Uama, this was a man with a religious background who could seamlessly incorporate verses from the Quran and Islamic prayers into his speeches and conversations. Sounds similar? 

Gus Dur’s use of humour to diffuse tensions and command control over the room is comparable to the eloquence of Muhyiddin’s speeches. Ultimately, however, both are nothing more than noises from an empty can. 

Gus Dur’s presidency ultimately collapsed amid corruption scandals that plagued his presidency. He even attempted to forcefully silence his critics and declare a state of emergency just to avoid facing parliament. Sounds familiar? 

We do not know what will come at the end of Muhyiddin’s premiership but if he were to continue following Abdurrahman’s footsteps, Muhyiddin had better beware. After endless allegations of corruption and incompetence, the great speaker Gus Dur was impeached by parliament and stripped of his presidency.

Back in March, Muhyiddin asserted this in his inaugural speech to seemingly universal acclaim: 

“My conscious is clear and I am here to save the nation from further turmoil.” 

He could very well have stayed true to his words and saved Malaysia, like how the late Habibie saved Indonesia. Instead, through his actions and leaked info of what goes on behind the scenes, it’s clear for all to see that he has chosen to become another Gus Dur.


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