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He can be the great leader few expect him to be or he can be the duplicitous politician many think he is. Which man will he choose to be?

Since being sworn in as Malaysia’s 8th prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin has retreated to his office in Putrajaya saying little and doing even less. He knows people are angry with him, that they feel betrayed and let down by his treachery.

And he knows that he has to plan his next moves very carefully. He is vulnerable. His government could be unstable. Being so heavily dependent on UMNO, PAS and GPS, he will have to make many concessions. In Malaysia’s murky politics the price of support can be exceedingly high and very costly.

Managing the expectations of both his capricious political bedfellows as well as the public’s demand for good government is going to test his political acumen and skills to the hilt. He has long been overshadowed (if not dismissed) by the likes of Mahathir, Anwar, Najib, Zahid and Hadi; let’s see if he’s up to the challenge, that he has what it takes to run with the big boys.

Despite the despicable way he came to power, he can still redeem himself if he acts with wisdom and courage. What the people want more than anything else is a government that prioritizes the needs of the people, that acts fairly and justly to all ethnic groups, that ends endemic corruption and nurtures strong institutions.

If he can quickly show his commitment to such a vision, people might just be willing to forgive (but not forget) his treachery and suspend their verdict on him for now.

After all, it was not like everyone was wildly enthusiastic about Mahathir; people were already tiring of him especially after he started abandoning the reformasi manifesto, playing his own political games and engaging in racial rhetoric. Truth be told, not many will weep for Mahathir; they wanted him gone, just not this way.

The choice before Muhyiddin is clear: he can either fall back on the old UMNO political culture of race-baiting, abuse of power, corruption and failed approaches to nation building or demonstrate that he is his own man with his own (and better ideas) for the future.

He can unite the nation or divide it yet further. He can serve the people or enrich the cronies. He can be inclusive and fair or extremist and bigoted. He can prove himself a good leader or just another unscrupulous politician in an already overflowing pantheon of vile and venal leaders.

The possibilities to leave behind a great legacy and outshine his predecessors are endless. He could unite east and west by appointing someone from Sarawak as deputy prime minister. He can signal his commitment to clean government by excluding all the rogues and rascals from the old regime. He can bring the people together by making it clear that he will not allow extremists and bigots to target Malaysia’s minorities or undermine the secular foundations of our nation. He can show his determination to helping the B40 group by adopting a needs-based approach to economic development.

After sixty-something years of independence, it’s a crime that not all Malaysians have access to things like running water, decent housing, adequate healthcare and jobs that pay a living wage. There’s been so much talk about serving the people but so few have actually given it the attention it deserves.

Can Muhyiddin be that man that will finally provide the leadership to steer our nation out of the morass of economic stagnation, corruption, race politics and religious extremism? He has his baggage, of course, and his Brutus-like behaviour will long shadow him, but a man’s past doesn’t necessarily have to determine his future.

He can be the great leader few expect him to be or he can be the duplicitous politician many think he is. Which man will he choose to be?

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur | 9th March 2020]