Open letter to Anwar Ibrahim — M. Santhananaban

I would like to extend to you my warmest greetings and good wishes as you embark on a new, difficult and fraught phase in your long and tortuous political career. With this laudable decision of yours to go it alone with an inclusive PKR by your side the country moves into a vastly changed political, social and media environment.

It is noteworthy that a leading mainstream news portal is giving unprecedented coverage to cautionary statements by your detractors (although they remain your best allies) who are advising you to exercise even more patience and stand aside temporarily. That news portal’s slant fully recognises the full potential of its own fortunes.

Speaking of fortunes one cannot ignore the ongoing feud between two of our more controversial former prime ministers over the means of fortifying their respective family fortunes. It is propitious that you are not caught up in these polemics. But all this points to the interesting times we are in.

An upright unblemished Speaker’s position seems to be on the line for the wrong reasons. It is regrettable that since the dawn of the new century our country has sunk lower and lower on account of known and ostensibly unknown acts of kleptocracy and lack of accountability.

I believe congratulations are at last in order for you. Such felicitations are in order as you have in the last five months or so shaken off most of those negative elements who provided you endorsements and kisses of death as far as your political career was concerned.

Their endorsements which were given to you served their narrow narcissistic agenda rather than your long-standing rhetoric about justice, fairness and good governance in our country. They were not unlike Trojan horses from the beginning. I could have told you this in 1994 or 1996 but decorum and pragmatism dictated otherwise..

Clearly you are now freed of most of the baggage of the past. Being free of such excess baggage will give you more freedom and flexibility of action to reach out to the people of our country. Let us hope the second half of 2020 is more auspicious for Malaysia.

While your standing has improved with the decision to make an all-out bid for the prime ministership there are still some obstacles to be overcome. One of your laudable ideas that all Malaysians are equal has been pirated and pushed in a sensational and irresponsible way. A most decent and distinguished Sabahan, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has been pitted, albeit at the most inappropriate time, to succeed the current prime minister.

Deep in our hearts most of us would welcome this kind of thinking. Shafie is an eminent candidate to be a future prime minister. It will be the ultimate signal that our politics has matured and a person, including from Sabah or Sarawak is fully entitled to be supported for that highest office.

Honour GE 14 campaign promise

At this time however it will be difficult to forgive you if you or other elected parliamentarian endorse Shafie. The simple reason is that in the run up to GE 14 your collaborators had given a clear and unequivocal commitment that you will replace Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as the prime minister.

That promise was one of those promises that won the Pakatan Harapan the last general election. It has to be honoured.

You have a duty to secure that position at all costs and lead your coalition into GE 15 in 2023. This is the honourable act of fulfilling an election promise.

Currently the mischievous proposal to nominate Dato Shafie has elicited nothing but richly deserved disbelief, ridicule and sarcasm. More circumspection is needed in these matters.

Your succession to the prime ministership will enable you to reach new heights of influence and power.

Much of the political architecture which spawned the culture of corruption, the arbitrary preeminence of certain elitist cabals and their collaborators from the 1980s did not seem to have the interest of our common citizenry as a paramount concern.

Our peoples’ mandate provided through successive general elections was hijacked and misused with catchy but empty, meaningless slogans like “Bersih, Cekap dan Amanah, Look East and Malaysia Boleh, South- South Cooperation, Vision 2020, Islam Hadhari and the most scandalous 1Malaysia,” to name a few.

What is the residual benefit of these slogans. This long era of idle fantasising and myth making has to end. We have to plan and rebuild on the basis of simple and straightforward statistics based on data that is readily available.

Consensus on corruption and national unity

Corruption is the country’s most serious problem that has been bequeathed from three decades of sloganeering.

Corruption has to be clamped. The other most threatening problem is disunity and perceived inequality caused by political discourse where others, including Sabahans and Sarawakians feel alienated and disadvantaged.

It is about time we moved from the phase of sloganeering, vengeful one-man showmanship and know-it- all facades to sustained efforts to gather under one super coalition government umbrella all those marginalised and maligned political leaders who can contribute positively and in a meaningful manner to rebuilding our beloved country.

The country needs collective leadership and a consensus has to be painstakingly built to overcome the divisiveness of the past. This divisiveness was sown largely in the postcolonial period.

We cannot afford to allow denigration of particular groups and leaders to become the main narrative. The main narrative should be a positive one acceptable to 99 percent of the population. We do not need leaders who harangue us on the weaknesses of our own people and even question the citizenship of loyal citizens.

We need leaders who speak the truth, work hard and take great personal risks and pride to improve the quality of the lives of our people. We need nation builders like Park Chung Hee, Ho Chih Minh and Deng Xiaoping to move our country forward. Our leaders don’t need to travel the circumference of the Earth to put Malaysia on the world map.

Malaysia, an impressive nation

We were already a great country on a upward trajectory in the 1970s with good universities, an efficient civil service, basic infrastructure and low levels of corruption. Our legal and judiciary system was highly respected and was the best in the region. Our health system served our people well in spite of the constraints of limited funds and personnel.

Malaysia became a reality in 1963 because we were already a success story in South-east Asia. The famous writer and journalist, Stanley Karnow together with the editors of the Life magazine described Malaya in the following terms in 1963 :

“Alone in the region, Malaya seems to have struck a sensible progressive balance between private industrial investment and public development of its agricultural areas.”

Admittedly due to our Merdeka negotiations the colonial power had extracted an unfair concession from us to be in the forefront of the international struggle against communism and to keep the wages of our workers in the estates low so as assure that British investments continued to generate good dividends for their shareholders.

After acquiring these plantations years later our own corporate titans failed to address the low wage issue, recklessly moving to recruit foreign labour to maintain profits for our local conglomerates. The country is today hamstrung by low wages and the lowly paid can barely make ends meet. We also have six million foreigners in our midst. They stretch to breaking point some of our social amenities.

This is a crucial issue that affects all Malaysians and especially those on the bottom rung of our employment pyramid.

Yet we have prided ourselves that the CEOs and MDs of state owned enterprises were compensated as if they were based in New York or London. For the past 40 years only former prime minister Najib Razak made some serious effort to ameliorate the poor wages paid to our workers.

I believe PSM has done much work on this issue and they should be consulted in any future review of this issue.

I sincerely believe that that the pathway for your passage to the highest political office in the land is within reach.

There is much prejudice and distrust of you caused by the prolonged and relentless actions of an aspersing government and a state controlled press and media. This had gone on for at least 22 years initially and a further 22 months. This can only be overcome if you hire able aides who are courteous , correct, outstanding and have impeccable integrity.

Your private office staff can be easily sourced from the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service. It was the same establishment which provided the chief of staff for previous prime ministers.
I recall with much fondness Datuk Wan Ahmad Omar and Datuk (as he was then) Azizan Zainul Abidin. These gentlemen facilitated access to the prime minister, they did not attempt to frustrate bona fide visitors to that high office.

They were always polite and accommodated the most difficult visitors with a quiet charm. Unfortunately I did not see this outside the deputy prime minister’s office when you were the incumbent in that office.

We lost all these values in the last four decades. In the name of Malaysia Inc it was easier and faster for some obnoxious private sector individuals to obtain permanent passes to the Prime Minister’s Complex than for senior civil servants.

A quarter century later where are those decorated corporate titans of the 1990s. They failed to deliver and the country was spoon-fed on illusions of Vision 2020, a seemingly unreachable goal.

Need to Rebuild Malaysia

Today we are in a climate of such distrust and backstabbing that it has become impossible to anoint a prime minister. The prime ministership has been diminished to become a position to not serve the nation’s population as a whole but to distribute sinecures, split the population and opposition and sustain the government’s viability by chicanery and horse trading.

Good, perhaps even excellent governance and forward planning is essential to enable the country to move out from the trough of high unemployment, poor export earnings and a burgeoning fiscal deficit.

The current leadership does not inspire much confidence but there are within the ranks of our parliamentarians suave and seasoned leaders who can provide pointers on what needs to be done. It is a question of tapping the right talent and coopting some talent from the outside world, including the academia and think tanks.

Covid-19's scars have to be erased and expedient extraordinary measures are needed. Government must also look at injecting new young blood into the system so that the country does not end up like a gerontocracy. The more progressive and inclusive political parties especially PKR, Amanah and Warisan need to attract younger talent, nurture them and build a second and third tier of leadership.

The dearth of talent today is a consequence of restricting entry level political office to particular constituencies.

Most significantly, the country needs to revamp its education system and seek expert advice from within the country on how best we can move forward.

Sabah, Sarawak significant

I trust with some invaluable help and understanding of especially our brothers and sisters from Sabah and Sarawak you can become prime minister. These two states have to enjoy parity and prestige with the peninsula in every sense of the word. This is the prior commitment you have to give .

We must also restore to the Rulers and the Rulers Conference their rightful role as guardians and custodians of our beloved country. The sanctity of the original provisions of our carefully crafted Constitution have also to be upheld.

The judiciary must be restored to its pre-1988 status, an adequate compensation package must be worked out and the retirement age of the federal court judges must be revised upward perhaps to 72.
Retiring Court of Appeal and Federal Court judges should only be allowed to take up paid positions at least two years after their retirement. This would ensure the prestige of the judiciary.

In closing I will not say that I fully endorse you. That itself may become a liability for you. Rather I would say that you have to work very very hard to address and dispel the misgivings about you that have been so firmly planted by not one but three prime ministers continually.

Instead of being apolitical the administrative machinery, especially the security and media establishment were also complicit in this sustained denigration exercise.

In everyday parlance you have also to move from the phase of rhetoric to real action and focus on doable things. You are largely acceptable to most Malaysians. You are now able, available and have demonstrated clear willingness to accept the prime minister’s post.

It is essential when dealing with foreign visitors, listen, please listen to what they have to say. There is no need to impress those visitors with your knowledge or familiarity of their countries. If they have come to call on you they will have a message. Always try to ascertain their thoughts and reply to their concerns point by point.

I hope you will accept my forthrightness with an open mind.

* Datuk M. Santhananaban was a University of Malaya contemporary of Anwar Ibrahim and served in the public service for 45 years.
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