Their quiet movements are telling.
COMMENT | In the next general election, we could expect the return of three former prime ministers as candidates in their respective constituencies: Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Langkawi, Muhyiddin Yassin in Pagoh, and Najib Abdul Razak in Pekan.
Among the three, Mahathir is a constant, Muhyiddin the most expected, and Najib the most impossible.
We know this by the intentions and actions of the three. Mahathir has openly stated that his party, Pejuang, will be contesting up to 120 seats in the next general election – and this would undoubtedly include his candidacy.
Muhyiddin has told his party Bersatu that they are destined to make a comeback to take what was theirs. Najib, being plagued by his court cases, has never discounted the fact of a return and has always hinted that those who came out short would always have a chance to reinvent themselves – for him, it was “Bossku”.
Their quiet movements are also telling. It is an accepted rule in politics that you stand a higher chance of being re-elected and elevated if you had held a high position in the incumbent government. It makes sense, therefore, that Muhyiddin was appointed the National Recovery Council chairperson.
There have also been rumours that Najib was being considered as the special economic adviser to the prime minister with ministerial status. Mahathir, unsurprisingly, has been pitching for the National Operations Council position for months, eventually forming his own national recovery council.
A promise of a return is a good sign for democracy. Harbouring hope that they could be powerful again normalises democratic necessities like resignation, concessions, and peaceful transfer of power. These are what the three former prime ministers have done, albeit unwillingly.
However, I would argue that there are general risks, specific risks, and underlying risks in allowing the return of the three former prime ministers into mainstream politics.
General risk: Collective amnesia
First, the general risk of collective amnesia. When bad prime ministers are no longer in power, we tend to forget the horrible things they have done during their tenure.
As the months and years pass, we start to grow a tolerance and acceptance for what they did. Worse, we start to carry an affinity for them with the tempting thought of “it was not as bad as what we thought”.
This is most apparent with Najib. The first few months after he lost power, the public was unforgiving, urging in a thumping chorus for him to be jailed for abuse of power.
Though disgusted by the sensation of ‘Bossku’ at the beginning, shrewd PR and consistent campaigning for a brand refresh have softened the former prime minister’s image, making him more a human and less a villain.
At the start of the year, when Muhyiddin’s failings became more apparent, Najib started speaking our minds in his sharp criticisms. That is where many started sharing his social media posts and public statements. The dark humour carried through.
The same premonition could be seen in our acceptance of Mahathir three years ago. Campaigns by the opposition to overthrow Najib were laced in a near-sainthood of Mahathir, with little to no mention of his misgivings during his 22-year tenure.
When Mahathir finally assumed power, his previous traits of being mischievous, scheming, and cunning were contributory to the downfall of Pakatan Harapan.
You could expect something similar to take shape with Muhyiddin, who plays the crowd well. The image of Abah is soft but stern, with a subtle message of being faultless in serving your best interest, although the reality is the opposite.
His failures in handling the triple crises of health, economy, and politics would be reframed as a reasonable attempt, from a kind heart, and a classic lesser-devil narrative of “at least he was not as corrupt as the others”. When Covid-19 turns for the better, the gloomy days of Muhyiddin’s failed government would also be forgotten.
Collective amnesia is oftentimes inevitable, but they carry specific risks for these three former prime ministers. This leads to my second point: the specific risks of moral hazard.
Specific risk: Moral hazard
The sins committed by the three former prime ministers are not run-of-the-mill unsatisfactory performances – they were actions with severe consequences.
Mahathir’s offensive attack against our institutions like the judiciary, Parliament, police, government agencies, political parties, and others meant that abuse of power and corruption is no longer surprising for the regular Malaysian to see. Abhorrent practices of nepotism, race rhetoric and power-at-all-cost politics still reverberate today.
For Najib, his financial scandals were the largest white-collar scandals in the world. The billions of ringgit owed will be paid by our children for generations to come. The principle of Cash is King has polluted the political landscape to a point of no return.
Muhyiddin’s failings are similarly massive. Our Covid-19 management consistently ranked among the worst in the world. A systemic collapse of the health system turned avoidable deaths into unavoidable; unemployment skyrocketed and companies closed at an alarming rate; mental health and suicides are at a record high.
None of this ought to be easily forgotten and forgiven by Malaysians. Accepting these leaders for their actions would damage our collective moral fibre because we turn their sins into part of who we are.
Underlying risk: Change-inertia
Lastly, the underlying risk of change-inertia is also concerning. If the former prime ministers return to the fore, our system will never truly change.
Former prime ministers who lurk around waiting for an opening also bring legacy ideas and influence that inhibit our system from moving forward. You simply could not expect any of them to return as true reformists who would uproot the system they have built.
Perhaps we could never come to understand the pain of losing power. Sometimes, having the ray of hope to return to power one day is a way of nursing the pain. But maybe this could be done by serving as a one-term parliamentarian before fading into the sunset with their grandchildren – as an MP, and not PM.