“We love lovable gadflies and mavericks. These however do not translate into political substance sufficient in turn to give power to Zaid.”
[For the record, I was at Zaid Ibrahim’s press conference as a private citizen and not representing any news organisation when he announced he had joined the DAP.]
People who dismiss former law minister Zaid Ibrahim as a political opportunist and political has-been are just parroting the stereotype that Zaid unfortunately has done little to dispel.
While I think, there is validity in questioning how much he can help pull in the ‘Malay’ vote, this meme that Zaid desperately wants to be part of the political establishment does not stand up to scrutiny. Here is a man who has done everything to alienate the political establishment by espousing views that are anathema to mainstream Malaysian politics.
Zaid, when responding to my question (in a 2012 interview) on the trust issue some Pakatan partisan had (and still have) with him, he seemed genuinely taken aback that this was even an issue, “I have had no scandals, no impropriety of any kind. I have been consistent in my speeches and in my writings about what I believe in. I believe in a secular democracy, in equality and freedom of all Malaysians. I never fudge on these issues. So on what score was I untrustworthy?”
The real problem is that Zaid does not need to be part of the political circus. I have no idea what he wants but it is certainly not what most ‘Malay’ politicians want out of mainstream Malaysians politics. While de facto opposition leader former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has made it clear that his main goal is removing Najib Razak from power, Zaid, although sharing that same game, has other preoccupations that has put him at odds with his political foes but more interestingly, his political allies.
Zaid’s political opponents (who include members of Pakatan Harapan or whatever it is called now) have painted Zaid as a liberal elite Malay more concerned with appealing to the urban non-Malay – specifically Chinese – polity, with his political incorrect (for some Malays) views on Islam and Malay political hegemony. Zaid joining the DAP gives more ammunition to those pushing this narrative. It remains to be seen how exactly Zaid and the DAP manage to overcome the hurdles placed by his critics, but more importantly by Zaid himself.
At his press conference, the former law minster said that the reason why he joined the DAP was because “they shared the same principles of responsibility and honesty”. While there are many ways to interpret this, the reality is that the opposition has made the 1MDB scandal their main talking point even though I have argued that this has not gained traction with the demographic they need to win over. With the presence of the former prime minister at the event, I think we can assume that dethroning the Umno grand poohbah is the glue that binds them together.
I have argued in many pieces that dethroning Najib and “saving Malaysia” are mutually exclusive. Getting rid of Najib but keeping the system in place that created him will not save Malaysia. The encouraging news is that more than any politician in the opposition, Zaid is someone who knows where the fault lines are and is unafraid to point them out even if it means ruffling feathers in the opposition.
When I interviewed the former law minister, I asked him whether Pakatan’s moderate Muslim stance, should be overt despite the possible blowback from the state. His answer was clear and unambiguous – “Whether Pakatan is a moderate voice, we have to wait and see. The test is not whether they allow non-Muslims sufficient freedom; that's easy, but whether they will be ‘moderate’ to Muslims.
“I always believe it's better to state the right positions clearly and unambiguously on core delicate issues even if it means we have to ‘lose’ some support in the beginning. Politics is not just winning; but about doing the right thing. Long-term goals are equally important.”
The question Zaid raises on whether Pakatan will be moderate towards Muslims is one of the more important questions that needs to be answered. In numerous pieces, I have argued that the Arabisation process that has crippled the Malay community needs to be reversed and not by policies that are simply aping the Umno hegemon, but with clear policies that jettison Malay and Islamic supremacy.
It is no point talking about how backwards the ‘Malays’ are when as a state government and as party principle you are funding the very organisations that make them distrustful of any secular and egalitarian values. This, of course, is done with the intention of securing their vote.
In other words, will Zaid continue with his (in the Malaysian context) radical ideas about Islam and the Malay community, or will he moderate his views now that he has joined the DAP and is part of a movement which primarily goal is to oust the current Umno president?
Team player or prima donna
When DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang says in jest that Zaid should be a team player and not a prima donna, I think of it in terms of nervous laughter instead of a political joke to break the tension. The DAP has a history of losing prominent ‘Malay’ voices and a history of vilifying those who leave the flock. Will history repeat itself especially considering that Zaid has a history of feuding with his allies and has no problem exposing the flaws of internal party politics?
Zaid joins the DAP at a time when the Umno state is waging an extremely vicious war on the opposition party and DAP in turn is waging a vicious war of its own against another Chinese-based establishment party, MCA. The DAP strategy of using Malay voices to promote secular values has contributed to the narrative that Malays in the DAP are serving the mandarins who want to supplant Malay power.
Zaid will no doubt gain much attention if he continues talking about his principles with nary a care for party solidarity. While I think this is a good thing, his political career is evidence that this is not considered being a team player. Zaid believes that a ‘Malay’ tsunami will be the downfall of Najib. The question is, can Zaid and all the other oppositional Malay leaders create the variables for a perfect storm that would bench the Umno hegemon?
When asked about the racial politics and strategy of the then Pakatan Rakyat, Zaid said “Pakatan strategy is clear - do not talk too much about difficult issues; let's get to power first. So that's how it will be. Whilst that is not the approach I would take, I recognise that politics require many different approaches to succeed.
“I just hope that when they get to power; they will not forget that many hard decisions have to be made. If they then said we will wait to win the second term before we do them; then I say let's remove them.
“So yes, they have not come up with substantive plans to change the political paradigm of the country.”
Zaid is on record as saying that talking about the “real stuff” is difficult in this highly partisan era but the question has always been, is the opposition front in the business of addressing the “real stuff”? More importantly, will Zaid continue talking about the real stuff or will he temper his enthusiasm to demonstrate that he can play well with others?
Only time will tell if Zaid (as other Malay politicians have) joining the DAP is the first step, in the awakening of different Malay ‘weltanschauung’ or whether it is the final step of a politician who never found it to his benefit to play well with others.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini