As Anwar Ibrahim settles into his role as prime minister-in-waiting, the question of what’s a PM-in-waiting supposed to do while waiting comes increasingly to mind.
Does the PM-in-waiting keep quiet and wait patiently until he takes the oath of office or does he start positioning himself for the big day by talking about what he intends to do when he takes over?
Wait until I become PM?
It is a tricky one to be sure because anything he says that doesn’t line up with the present prime minister’s policies will invariably be seen as a sign of disagreement. Though Anwar doesn’t hold any government position, he is, after all, a senior member of the ruling coalition.
In Singapore last month, for example, the prime minister-in-waiting appeared to leave the distinct impression that any improvement in relations with the city-state would have to wait until he assumes office. And, as if to underline how different he is from Dr Mahathir, he promised that his first official visit abroad as prime minister would be to Singapore. Given that Mahathir has yet to visit Singapore, many considered it an attempt to play to the gallery in Singapore at the prime minister’s expense.
Such posturing is, of course, unhelpful; it can be interpreted as a signal to Singapore to just sit tight and wait till he becomes prime minister to resolve outstanding bilateral issues. That may not have been his intention but it was certainly open to interpretation.
More recently, talking about his upcoming visit to China at the invitation of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, the prime minister-in-waiting was reported to have said that the leadership in Beijing “want to know from [him] what the future is like” in terms of Malaysia-China relations.
Questions concerning his future administration’s policies vis-à-vis China are best left to the day when he formally takes over. Any discussion about what he may or may not do when he takes over will simply muddy the waters as both nations grapple with serious issues left over from the previous administration.
What China (or any other country, for that matter) should be concerned about at this point of time is not what a future prime minister will do but what the present prime minister is trying to do to rescue the nation from the recklessness of the previous government.
It is axiomatic that we can only have one prime minister at a time and right now, like it or not, it is Mahathir. He, together with his cabinet, sets policies and makes decisions. If a foreign government has concerns about Malaysia’s policies, it should talk to Mahathir rather than seek to engage the prime minister-in-waiting. After all, who knows how long they might have to wait.
It may be that China simply wants to get a measure of the man who might be the next prime minister; no doubt other countries will be doing the same thing. What is important, however, is that everybody understands that it is the thinking of the sitting prime minister that matters most, at least for now.
One prime minister at a time, please
Whichever way you look at it, having a prime minister-in-waiting, especially one that will have to wait two or more years before taking over, is somewhat awkward. It is perhaps the reason why the post of prime minister-in-waiting is not one you often see. In fact, we must be the only country in the world with such a position.
It might have been a necessary compromise as part of the coalition-building process before the elections but it has the potential to create confusion and uncertainty going forward.
It is, of course, challenging for a prime minister-in-waiting, especially one who has had to wait so long, to stay low-key. Politics being what it is, people will obviously want to get his thinking on issues if only to better prepare for the day when he takes over. And he himself has to find ways to stay relevant and in the groove in an uncertain and rapidly evolving political situation.
There is a danger, however, that the more he seeks to define himself and his future administration and the more he encourages other nations to engage him in the capacity of prime minister-in-waiting, the more it will undermine the current prime minister.
Needless to say, anything that makes the current administration look like a lame duck cannot be good for our nation.
[Dennis Ignatius | 22nd October 2018 | Kuala Lumpur]