The debate between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz next week is expected to be fiery but not as explosive as the former PM’s confrontation with the Otai Reformasi gathering.
PADANG Rengas in Perak is hardly the sort of place where one would expect a political debate to take place, much less, a debate between a former Prime Minister and the Tourism Minister.
The debate, if it goes ahead, could be the most happening event Padang Rengas has ever witnessed.
Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz is the outspoken and rather capricious MP for Padang Rengas which sits somewhere between Kuala Kangsar and Taiping.
As for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, there are few words that can adequately describe him these days so let’s just say he is even more vocal and mercurial than his would-be debater.
These two big personalities will face off in a grudge fight on March 25. All eyes will be on them even though no one has a clue as to what they intend to talk about because this debate is going to be about the personalities rather than the subject matter.
This debate idea was not sparked off by any issue. Instead it was something that evolved following news that Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would be there on March 23, followed by Dr Mahathir on March 25.
Now, Nazri is a jantan type of politician, with a sort of machismo that is quite unrivalled among his fellow politicians.
The Parti Pribumi folk were entering the lion’s den and he responded in typical macho fashion. He said the two big-wigs were gunning for him because they considered him a great threat.
“I welcome them, selamat datang. But don’t just come for a visit, why not contest in Padang Rengas? It would be better if Mahathir were to contest but if he cannot, then Muhyiddin can do it.”
The old lion in Dr Mahathir bared his fangs and challenged Nazri to take him on in Langkawi. There were gasps because it sounded like Dr Mahathir was throwing down the gauntlet in Langkawi.
A day later, he clarified that he would not be contesting the general election. But Dr Mahathir has made so many U-turns that it is best to keep an open mind on whatever he says.
Nazri offered to roll out the red carpet but Dr Mahathir said he did not mind walking in the mud.
It was a rather childish exchange between two grown men or what a Penang politician described as “two Mickey Mouse characters”.
But Nazri was merely taking from the Mahathir playbook. During his time as Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir was famous for challenging his critics to contest in elections instead of just talking.
This is not the first war of words between them. A few years ago, they had clashed over the Biro Tata Negara, which Nazri claimed promoted racial sentiments but Dr Mahathir defended as an organisation that promoted good values.
Nazri called the former Premier a “racist” and was summoned to the Prime Minister’s office. Things then were still hunky-dory between Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Dr Mahathir, and Nazri was told to back off the elder man.
Nazri, who had been likened to a Samurai committing hara-kiri for taking on Dr Mahathir, emerged from Najib’s office with the quip, “My Shogun has spoken”.
Suffice to say that this time around, the Shogun will not be telling his Samurai to pull back.
“Nazri is loyal to the boss of the day,” said Pahang tourism exco member Datuk Sharkar Shamsudin who was with the Tourism Minister in Berlin last week.
Sharkar said Nazri had also stood by Dr Mahathir during the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Nazri came to the defence of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he was under attack by Dr Mahathir. Likewise, he is standing by Najib now.
Nazri’s nickname in Umno is “Chief”. He is younger than Najib by a year, they were contemporaries in Umno but Nazri was too independent to be part of any camp.
Shortly after Najib became Prime Minister there was pressure from those around Dr Mahathir for Najib to drop Nazri from the Cabinet. The political animal in Najib knew that people like Nazri could be problematic but they have their uses and his instincts have been spot on.
No one has had the audacity to tackle Dr Mahathir the way Nazri does. He does not give a hoot about conventions, he can be quite irreverent about rules and stature and he is the only Umno politician who has publicly referred to Dr Mahathir as “senile”.
He occasionally comes across as too much and even rude, but he is never boring.
Dr Mahathir has been drawing good crowds in Malay areas. He is still a novelty, and the rural Malays want to hear what he has to say.
On the other hand, the debate could turn out to be another political fiasco. Dr Mahathir had a rough time at the Otai Reformis convention in Shah Alam recently. The Otai Reformis comprises hardcore veteran supporters of Anwar. Their loyalty to him has not wavered from the day he was sacked by Dr Mahathir.
The group, led by Hulu Klang assemblyman Saari Sungip, had endured tear gas and rough treatment by the FRU when they took to the streets to protest Anwar’s imprisonment
They are still critical of Dr Mahathir and were upset that Anwar has reconciled with his oppressor.
Dr Mahathir turned up at the convention thinking that he could slow-talk them to come along with him on the grounds that the real enemy is Najib.
Unfortunately, many of those in the audience also regard Dr Mahathir as the enemy.
Dr Mahathir was greeted by cries of “reformasi” and “bebas Anwar” (free Anwar) as he made his way to the rostrum.
He could sense that this was far from an adoring crowd and he attempted some reverse psychology, saying that a politician has to accept that he cannot be loved by all. He said he knew that some called him “mahafiraun” (great pharoah) and “mahazalim” (tyrant).
He appealed to them to put aside other issues and focus on toppling Najib because without power, their struggle would fail.
“After that, if you want to act against me, you can do so,” he said.
He was flanked by Saari and Anwar’s younger brother Rusli Ibrahim whose presence on stage was to signal that Dr Mahathir was there with the blessings of Anwar.
But the Otai Reformis is a seasoned group of people who have seen it all. They were cynical about Dr Mahathir and his simplistic reasoning failed to wash on them. Besides, they did not trust him and the respect was not there.
There have been too many life-changing experiences between then and now and the emotional scars are still there.
Moreover, said an Otai Reformis politician from Terengganu, the audience was expecting no less than an apology from the former Premier and they had called out for him to “minta maaf” (ask for forgiveness).
When it became clear that he had not come to apologise, they broke out into jeers and heckled him.
Dr Mahathir tried to smile his way through it but there were moments when the mask dropped and he looked shaken.
“It was quite humiliating. I think he cut short his speech, it was over real fast,” said the Terengganu politician.
On top of all that, Dr Mahathir had to sit through a video detailing the Reformasi movement – Anwar addressing a sea of people from the balcony of the national mosque, the infamous black eye, the angry street protests and the controversial trial. It was a political chapter that he would rather forget.
When everyone in the audience raised their fists to cries of “reformasi”, Dr Mahathir made a half-hearted attempt to do the same but his hand barely reached his chest. The event was quite a farce and some of those present said the organisers had deceived them by allowing Dr Mahathir to take to the stage when he had no intention of asking for forgiveness.
“There is still a lot of anger. They want him to apologise to Anwar’s family who suffered so much,” said the same Terengganu politician.
It is obvious that even the chief personalities like Saari and Rusli were not bowled over by Dr Mahathir because they could be seen trying to control their amusement at the height of the jeering.
The gathering then passed several resolutions, one of which stated that “this convention is not a forum to seek Dr Mahathir’s views on the reform agenda”. It was as good as a disavowal of Dr Mahathir.
Dr Mahathir ought to have an easier time in Padang Rengas. Hordes of his supporters will probably make a beeline to the debate to lend moral backing.
This is traditional Umno territory and the audience will not be anything like what happened at the Otai Reformis event.
But this is also Nazri’s home ground. He is the most senior minister after Najib and has served under three Prime Ministers.
People often forget Nazri’s political seniority because of his contemporary image, from the way he dresses to the way he addresses issues. For instance, he sometimes turns up for official events in a sports shirt worn rapper-style, with the collar turned up.
He understands the local sentiments and is more than familiar with Dr Mahathir and his lines of attack.
Two big personalities known for their wit and laser tongues, their fighting spirit and dislike for each other – it should be pure entertainment even if it yields little of consequence.