Play for Malay votes on Dr M’s birthday

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was flooded with birthday greetings but the Malay parties probably gave him the best present by pushing for a Bill that will inject some 3.9 million new Malay voters into the voting pool. 

VIDEOS and pictures of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s birthday are still streaming on social media.

The “birthday boy” has been round the block 94 times but he is still able to bring on his own unique responses to the occasion that makes it a talking point each year.

However, Dr Mahathir’s recent birthday was probably the most scrutinised for hints of what lies ahead.

The Prime Minister’s brief words of thanks on Twitter for the flood of birthday greetings was immediately read as a signal that he will only go when he has finished what he set out to do.

His tweet was accompanied by a trio of carefully picked photos – one of him seated at his work desk, another of him by the French windows in his office gazing out to the horizon and a close-up shot of him smiling broadly and flashing the V-sign.

The subtext to that was that his work and the country are his priorities, but what was the V-sign about?

The V-sign is associated with victory after Winston Churchill used it at the end of World War II.

Political aide and film-maker Syed Azidi Syed Aziz read it as an encrypted signal that Mahathir will be up there for “two more years”.

Dr Mahathir had described his birthday wish as “very simple” and that is to set the country on the road to recovery.

“Sounds like a journey that’s going to take more than two years,” said Syed Azidi with a laugh.

There was also a certain poignant tone to many of the birthday wishes coming in for Dr Mahathir.

“For once, there was little nastiness or exchanges. People know that time is not on Dr Mahathir’s side, they want to celebrate the occasion while they can and if he is still around next year, then that’s good,” said former MP Jeff Ooi, who is also a widely-read columnist for several Chinese newspapers.

But the most interesting was the way those whose careers were built on running him down but are now fawning over him with sweet wishes.

Even opponents, including Datuk Seri Najib Razak, put aside their rivalry to wish him well.

Some even suspect a grudging admiration on the part of Najib for the elder man, who at 94, is still up there and fighting.

“It was a gentlemanly gesture because birthdays are always a good occasion for all of us,” said Lanchang assemblyman Datuk Seri Sharkar Shamsudin.

Bersatu supreme council member Akhramsyah Sanusi said people out there see Dr Mahathir as a reliable pair of hands at the steering wheel given the burden he is carrying from the previous government and his largely inexperienced team.

“No need to read too much into politicians wishing each other well, that is politics. What the common people think is more important. There is some disappointment in Pakatan Harapan but this has been cushioned by the level of trust in Dr Mahathir,” said Akhramsyah.

Dr Mahathir’s return to the top post was initially seen as revenge politics and he spent much of last year adapting to his new partners and the new way of running things.

“He has shown he is in charge, he’s asserting his powers as PM. Other parties (in Pakatan) may be bigger but they know he is the boss. No one will be able to tell him to go off before he is ready, that much is clear,” said Syed Azidi.

In short, there is no way he will agree to naming the transition date until he is ready to call it a day.

Surveys and polls have pointed to a decline in ratings for Dr Mahathir. Yet, politically speaking, he is much stronger and more secure than a year ago.

“Of course, he is stronger than before. The number of MPs in Bersatu shot up by 100%,” said Sharkar, referring to the Umno crossovers to Bersatu.

A great deal of Dr Mahathir’s clout in Pakatan also has to do with the way he has played the game.

For instance, a senior Umno figure claimed that Dr Mahathir’s Malay unity call was less about getting Malay parties to come together than a veiled warning to his coalition partners.

“How can two big Malay parties join a tiny party? His message was aimed at DAP and PKR, that if they push him to the wall, he can rope in PAS and Umno for support. He is also telling Anwar to go slow if he wants to make it.

“There is also a message for Umno and PAS – he is saying that if the Malays continue to break up, don’t blame him because he has tried his best,” said the senior Umno man.

The Umno figure said Dr Mahathir is a stubborn creature who dislikes getting advice or being told what to do.

He said that another thing to remember is that Dr Mahathir does not concede defeat in a fight. If you take him on, be prepared to go the distance.

Pakatan leaders know him well as a former arch enemy and are only now learning to work with him as their ally.

He is still springing surprises on them like what happened in Parliament a few days ago.

He chaired a discussion with Opposition party leaders on the Bill to lower the voting age and when they emerged, they had reached a stunning decision to amend the Bill to enable the automatic registration of voters at age 18.

According to Sharkar, a whopping 3.9 million new Malay voters would be added to the voter registration list under the automatic registration move.

The main beneficiaries would be Malay-Muslim parties like PAS, Umno and Bersatu.

The Malay parties had basically come together in a sophisticated play for Malay votes ahead of the next general election.

It will be like a huge blood transfusion for these Malay parties and pose a huge challenge to Chinese-dominated parties like DAP.

During the press conference to announce the decision, Dr Mahathir could be seen smiling indulgently at Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

It was a smile that said: Mission accomplished!

And suddenly, people could understand what was behind the cosy picture of Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman chatting with Najib on the sidelines of Parliament.

All this happened on Dr Mahathir’s birthday and the joke is that this might be his favourite birthday present.

Joceline Tan was an associate editor of The Star and continues to contribute political analyses. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.

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