THE CORRIDORS OF POWER
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is an expert at this game. That is why he is called the Grand Old Man of Malaysian politics. Politics is a game of perception. It does not matter what you really are. It is what people perceive you to be that matters. And no one can play this game better than the Tun. Does this sound like I am singing his praises? You can bet your sweet ninny I am. And I make no apologies for that. After all, credit should be given where credit is due.
In the early days of his premiership, Mahathir engaged the services of Saatchi & Saatchi. Those who had to pass Wisma Damansara every day to go to work probably noticed their office at that building on the hill. Their biggest client in Malaysia was Umno and the fees that Umno had to pay meant the firm could afford such affluence and opulence in a prime location in Kuala Lumpur. After all, it was not really Umno that was paying. The money came from the government coffer, which means the taxpayers were footing the bill. (Go here to read more about the company http://www.saatchi.com/worldwide/index.asp).
When it eventually leaked that Umno had engaged the services of Saatchi & Saatchi, and word had it that this was a Jewish-owned company, Umno had to disengage itself from this company and the new assignments were entrusted to Lim Kok Wing, the Malaysian genius of advertising and PR who, amongst others, conjured the Rakan Muda and many other programmes aimed at creating an impression the government was on the ball.
When Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as Prime Minister, he set up his own unit, infamously known as the Tingkat Empat or Fourth Floor team. They are supposed to have been the brains behind Pak Lah’s administration that would help guide him on what to do. But the problem was, the Fourth Floor bit off more than it could chew and it forgot the golden rule of Malaysian politics -- which is one just does not cross swords with the Grand Old Man of Malaysian politics and hopes to get away with it.
Soon, Tingkat Empat became a four-letter word and Pak Lah was forced to downplay its role when members of his own Cabinet began to hit out at them. Pak Lah tried to defend them as best as he could but it was futile. Mahathir had already decided that they should be buried and buried they would be. Eventually, Pak Lah had to distance himself from his own advisers from the Fourth Floor and that meant he had to fly blind without the advantage of guidance from his team of advisors.
Najib realises the value of a good team of public relations wizards. So he too has his own ‘Fourth Floor’. But he is not using a bunch of young wet-behind-the-ears Oxbridge graduates the way Pak Lah did. Najib knows that Mahathir would never accept this, as his suspicion for such young punks has not diminished. Najib, just like Mahathir before that, has outsourced the services of a team of experts. And they have come up with a great plan on how to ensure that Umno not only wins the next general election, but wins back all the states it has lost plus its two-thirds majority in parliament as well.
Najib’s plan is multi-prong. First he has to give the impression that he is bringing reforms to Malaysia. The New Economic Policy will be reviewed. Some liberalisation and relaxation of the rules will be introduced. Even the FIC may be closed down to give more confidence to investors and the Chinese business population that the government is really serious about abolishing the many rules and regulations that favour the Bumiputeras.
There will be a lot of window-dressing and some will be made to appear as more than just window-dressing. But what is going to be the thrust of the strategy will be the battle on the political front.
Pakatan Rakyat is seen to have made great inroads in the recent general election on 8 March 2008. Since then it has displayed impressive wins in four out of five by-elections, outdoing even how they performed on 8 March 2008. Najib cannot afford to allow Pakatan Rakyat to be seen as still on a winning streak. And Anwar Ibrahim, in particular, must be made to appear like he has lost the wind in his sails.
To steal Anwar’s thunder, Najib decided to refrain from contesting the Penanti by-election. It appears like Najib made this decision against the wishes of Mahathir. It would be good if people are thinking that because then it would also appear like Najib is in total control and no one is dictating what he should do, in particular Mahathir.
If they were to contest Penanti they would lose anyway, and lose worse than on 8 March 2008. But now, since Umno is not contesting that by-election, Umno will not have to lose. And if Umno did not lose then Anwar’s party did not win as well. This would be the first step -- deny Anwar the pleasure of victory. Who, after all, is going to be impressed with a walkover or menang tanpa tanding. Call Umno chicken or whatever. The bottom line is it did not lose Penanti and therefore Anwar’s party did not win as well.
The next issue would be Perak. They know Perak is a no-go. Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional are equally matched. Then we have the three so-called independents who vote with Barisan Nasional. But two of the three have corruption charges hanging over their heads. And if they are convicted, then there would be two by-elections, which Pakatan Rakyat will easily win -- and this would mean the opposition would now have a one-seat majority over Barisan Nasional in the Perak state government.
The alternative would be to drop the corruption charges against these two ‘independent’ state assemblymen. But that has already been predicted and would come as no surprise. Umno would be expected to do just that. So how would they explain that it was all done above board and that there is no manipulation?
Say what you like, if the charges are dropped, public perception would still be that they are guilty as hell and the only reason the charges were dropped is because Umno wants to avoid two by-elections, which they are going to lose badly. Anyway, even Mahathir is against Umno taking these two. So they will have to remain as independents without being allowed into Umno until the day they lose their case and get sent to jail.
The only viable option open to Najib is to dissolve the Perak state assembly and hold new state elections. But that must not be on the opposition’s terms. That must be on Umno’s terms. Zambry has to be declared the legitimate Menteri Besar of Perak and then he shall seek permission from the Sultan for the dissolution of the state assembly. They can’t afford for Nizar to be the one who requests the dissolution of the state assembly. That would hurt Najib’s and Umno’s image real bad.
At 3.00pm today, the Appeal Court will be delivering its decision as to who is the legitimate Menteri Besar of Perak. The Chief Justice, Tan Sri Dato' Seri Zaki Azmi, has been told to make sure the verdict is in favour of Umno.
Zaki, in turn, has instructed the President of the Court of Appeal, Tan Sri Dato' Seri Alauddin Dato' Mohd. Sheriff, to tell the three judges -- Justices Abdul Raus Sharif, Datuk Zainun Ali and Ahmad Maarop -- to deliver the ‘right’ verdict. If they can’t get a three-zero verdict, then it must at least be a two-one verdict with Zainun ruling in favour of the opposition. Then the government would be seen as doing the ‘right’ and ‘fair’ thing and the opposition would no longer have any grounds to complain.
After that, Zambry can go meet the Sultan and request the dissolution of the Perak State Assembly. But it will be Umno that does this, not Nizar or the opposition. And Umno does it although it can continue ruling Perak without dissolving the state assembly and calling for fresh state elections. How can you now say that Najib is not fair or is power crazy?
And this will prove that Najib is a rakyat’s Prime Minister and someone who knows how to do the right thing when required. Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat will lose the right to claim that it called for new state elections. The court, in fact, ruled that Barisan Nasional is the legitimate government. Barisan Nasional could have continued running the state until the next general elections. But instead it chose to dissolve the state assembly as the people wanted them to.
Sure, it will be very difficult for Barisan Nasional to win if new state elections are held. But what difference does it make anyway? They are still in a deadlock as it is. This way it would be seen like Barisan Nasional is not illegally holding on to power but is ‘gentleman’ enough to listen to the people even though the court has delivered its verdict that they are the legitimate government of Perak.
That, according to Najib’s team of PR consultants, is how they will take the wind out of Anwar’s sails and steal the thunder from him. As it is, Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat are losing momentum. And the only way to make them lose even more momentum would be to deny them those little battles that they could win easily enough. And if battles are unavoidable, then make sure it is on your terms and not on Anwar’s terms.
Perception is a very powerful tool. Mahathir knew this. Najib knows this as well. And he is fast learning how to become an expert at this game of perception just like his mentor before this was.