IN April/May 2018 during the run-up to the 14th General Election, a vast majority of the activist politicians in Malaysia were desperate to rid the country of the then prime minister. Partly borne of this desire, the seasoned Pakatan Harapan leadership arrived at a consensus that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the best person to lead the then opposition.
They knew Dr Mahathir well with the ringside seat they had in the political arena. They also knew of his strengths and weaknesses, including his penchant to occasionally shoot from the hip.
But in the circumstances prevailing then, he seemed to be the best choice.
At Dr Mahathir’s first major appearance after Pakatan’s May 9, 2018, victory, he had acknowledged the need to explore the possibility of whittling down the powers of the prime minister. He has repeated this at least twice since then.
In the meantime, he has had to provide leadership and the country has functioned and progressed
relatively well. We have travelled a long way from the dark, dismal days when we were computing the debt service obligations of a future generation.
While the ship of state is somewhat steadier, a lot more remains to be done.
It would seem that parts of the Malaysian Constitution would have to be amended to reduce the
powers of the prime minister. Such amendments would need time and the cooperation of a substantial number of opposition members. Perhaps Pakatan MPs should work a lot harder to persuade their opposite numbers to support these amendments.
While waiting for the amendments to be tabled, the current prime minister should have a relatively free hand to decide the many issues of national significance.
When Dr Mahathir goes off course, he has to be advised appropriately through the proper channels. Ideally, the media should be used to explain and clarify major policies and initiatives by government leaders and parliamentary backbenchers, who should not earn brownie points by attacking their own leaders.
In any system of governance, it is easy to destroy the reputation of a leader. Building one’s reputation and standing takes time.
Since we are agreed that we can no longer have an off-limits prime minister, we should work on limiting the powers of the position.
At the same time, given the pressing needs of the country, we cannot suddenly render the incumbent a lame-duck prime minister.
The prime minister’s authority is currently being exercised somewhat more cautiously and carefully in the post GE14 era. Symbols of the authoritarian prime minister-centric system that Datuk Seri Najib Razak adopted with highly controversial actions are being discarded.
Ultimately, the prime minister must be able to deliver what the country commits itself to.
This need to ensure respect for the prime minister’s stature is especially important when he meets foreign leaders because we are a country highly interdependent on the rest of the region and the world.