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“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.” ~ William Shakespeare 

Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is reportedly in the midst of forming a new political party to take on UMNO and challenge Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. It comes after months of frustrating failure to cajole and shame the party he once led into changing its ways. And it follows on the heels of his “Save Malaysia” campaign which, thus far, has failed to catch fire.

Having effectively taken control of all the levers of state power, Najib remains as entrenched as ever. And, notwithstanding the long list of scandals, he still commands sufficient support within his party as well as amongst key segments of the population to stay afloat.

There is now speculation that Najib might call early elections to consolidate his hold on power following UMNO-BN’s recent by-election victories in Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar. If Najib gains another five years, and there’s a good chance he will given the gross distortions in the voting system, there will be no end in sight for Malaysia’s long nightmare.

Mahathir’s strategy may simply be to divide the Malay-Muslim vote with a new party in order to give a reconstituted opposition coalition under his general stewardship a chance to wrest power away from UMNO-BN or force it to compromise.

The whole country will, no doubt, be watching keenly to see how all this plays out and whether Mahathir will even be able to accomplish the formidable feat of cobbling together an opposition coalition against UMNO-BN.

Is Dr Mahathir the man?

For many, the real issue, however, is not whether UMNO-BN needs to go; that’s already axiomatic. The gnawing question is whether Mahathir is the right person to lead the charge for change.

Many rightly argue that much of the country’s present predicament is due to policies he initiated during his long tenure in office, the crony-capitalist culture he nourished, the people he appointed to high office, the manipulation of race and religion for political purposes.

His disrespect for democratic and other national institutions, particularly when they got in his way, also undermined the nation to such an extent that one man can now defy all the mores of democracy with absolute impunity.

In a perfect world, Mahathir’s past record would, of course, disqualify him as a potential saviour.

Time is not on our side

Unfortunately, we don’t inhabit a perfect world.

Our nation is deteriorating rapidly. Our democracy is dying. A slew of oppressive laws have effectively curtailed many fundamental rights and freedoms. More are being planned as part of a determined effort to quash all dissent, all criticism, all opposition.

As well, the continuing manipulation of race and religion is slowly but surely edging us towards the abyss. People are jittery. Rumours spread quickly. At this rate, it won’t take much to reach breaking point.

At the same time, our once stable, secular and moderate nation is gradually morphing into a hotbed for extremism and intolerance. Who would have thought that a senior mufti would declare his fellow citizens “kafir harabi” and be defended by senior establishment figures? Who would have thought that dozens of young Malaysians would be sucked into radical jihadi movements?

We have also experienced the first ISIS attack on our homeland and, as the Inspector-General of Police has warned, more attacks are now a possibility.

In short, time is not on our side. How long can we continue to spiral downwards and not reach the point of no return?

Mahathir or Najib? 

The urgency of the moment compels us all to now consider what was perhaps unthinkable before – looking to Mahathir, as bitter a pill to swallow as that may be for some.

Mahathir may not be the ideal candidate to lead the charge for change but, like it or not, he is now the only one with the experience, the standing and the gravitas to seriously challenge UMNO-BN.

Of course, it’s a sad commentary of where we are as a nation but the stark choice before us is Mahathir, warts and all, or the prospect of sliding further into a failed state overwhelmed by corruption, racial division and religious extremism.

These are desperate times; we simply do not have the luxury of better options, more democratic leaders or more perfect men. It’s Mahathir or Najib; take your pick.

Even Anwar Ibrahim, who has arguably suffered more at the hands of Mahathir than anyone else, considers Mahathir’s latest move a “positive step.” If Anwar is willing to put aside his own grievances against Mahathir for the sake of the greater national interest, can we do any less?

Furthermore, the fact that the UMNO-BN propaganda machine is now working overtime to discredit Mahathir’s new party, even before it is launched, is a sure sign that they are worried and afraid, and that says something about its potential.

After all, UMNO’s nightmare has always been a strong Malay-Muslim leader at the head of a united multiracial opposition; that’s why Anwar was seen as such a threat and that’s why Mahathir might be able to do what others can’t.

And finally, although he is loathe to admit it, one wonders if now, in the winter of his life, Mahathir finally sees the folly of his policies, and wants to make it right. At 91, this may well be his last chance to redeem himself, his legacy and the country along with it. As he has made clear, he is not seeking to regain power for himself but to ensure that our system of governance is brought back on track.

He should given that chance.

We don’t need to overlook the past but we do need to empower him with our qualified support so that he can hopefully change the future.

Getting it right this time 

If there’s anything that can be learned from the now stalled “Save Malaysia” campaign, it is that simply focusing on ousting Najib from office – which has been Mahathir’s main goal – is insufficient in itself to generate the kind of mass support that is needed to decisively win an election.

The very process of negotiating a coalition with PKR, DAP and Amanah to face the next elections will in itself force Mahathir to compromise in order to reach agreement on a broader and more acceptable agenda for national renewal.

A clear and unequivocal commitment to our democratic and secular constitution, to institutional reform, to justice and equality, and to fighting the cancer of corruption that is destroying our nation will undoubtedly be part of the mix.

And what better opportunity to revive Mahathir’s own, now forgotten, vision of “Bangsa Malaysia” where all of Malaysia’s diverse peoples, cultures and faiths are treated with respect and dignity.

Whatever it is, unless Mahathir lays before the people a clear alternative to the tired and discredited policies of UMNO-BN, overcoming the traditional caution and inertia of the electorate might prove difficult. An honest and realistic vision, something to hope for, something to rally around, on the other hand, might just unleash the kind of groundswell that will propel the opposition to power.

Last chance for change

All those who want to see change must now consider putting aside whatever reservations they might have about Mahathir and support him at this critical hour in our nation’s history. There are, of course, no guarantees that everything will work out the way we want but under the present circumstances, he represents the only hope there is for change.

Sometimes, a glimmer of hope, a sliver of a chance, is all one gets.

[Dennis Ignatius is a former Malaysian ambassador.]