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The nation waits with bated breath for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to name his cabinet. That we are still waiting almost a week after his appointment suggests that balancing the interests of all the component parties in his so-called “unity” government is proving to be a challenging one.

One of the most controversial issues he faces is whether to give in to Zahid Hamidi’s demand to be appointed deputy prime minister (DPM) in exchange for giving Anwar the majority he needs to hold on to the prime minister’s post. 

It is stunning that we are even having this discussion about a man who precipitated early elections to save himself and then went on to lead his party to a humiliating defeat. It is an amazing turnaround for a man who until very recently was seen as an archvillain. Indeed, the whole election campaign revolved around stopping Zahid. Now, however, he is being hailed  a saviour of sorts.

Like many others, I am deeply troubled by the prospect of Zahid becoming DPM. I find the thought of someone facing so many criminal charges being given the second highest political position in the land morally offensive. I would have thought that a government we had dreamed about  for so long would begin its tenure by taking the moral high ground and leaving out ALL those currently facing court cases. To do otherwise would be to put political expediency above principle. 

Before the election, PH leaders were adamant that they would not work with Zahid, often chiding him for clinging to power despite the charges against him. Now they are mulling the idea of making him DPM. It takes cynicism to a whole new level. 

It is ironic too that former prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri at least had the good sense to keep Zahid at arm’s length (at no small cost to their own political ambitions) while Pakatan Harapan is willing to consider it. 

And what happens next? If Zahid is truly so indispensable to Anwar’s government, then logically all the charges against him would have to be withdrawn as well. Is that the price that we must pay for political stability? 

And is this deal only for Zahid or will it be extended to all the other political leaders who are facing criminal charges? 

Will we see the triumph of political expediency over law and justice where politicians can bully and intimidate their way out of legal difficulties while ordinary citizens will have to suffer the consequences of their actions? Can we even talk about the rule of law and the evils of corruption if we go down that road?

Remember also that both Zahid and UMNO were essentially repudiated by the Malays themselves in GE15. Malay voters have often been accused of ignoring corruption; in GE15 they acted decisively to reject a corrupt political party. How will they react if the leader of the party they spurned at the ballot box is now appointed DPM by the very party that claimed to champion the fight against corruption?  

Certainly, Hadi Awang is casting a long shadow over the whole cabinet selection process. The fear of Hadi become DPM (or even PM ultimately) under a Perikatan Nasional government  is real enough. Zahid is without doubt the lesser of two evils but are we making the same mistake we made before when we thought that Mahathir was the lesser evil compared to Najib? 

If principles are worth having, they are worth standing up for no matter how inconvenient it may be. There has to be another way out of this impasse that does not require us to abandon our principles.

In this connection, I  hope both GPS and GRS – with their 35 seats – will weigh in and offer their full support to Anwar in the event Zahid threatens to pull BN out of the government if he does not get his way. A PAS-dominated Perikatan Nasional government is surely anathema to the good people of Sabah and Sarawak. Now is the time for the leaders of both states to take a stand in defence of all those values that they cherish.

Whatever it is, I don’t envy Anwar; the choices before him are difficult. I can only pray that he knows what he is doing, that he will find the right balance between principles and politics because as Thomas Fann of Bersih so succinctly put it, “Without principles we are already lost”.

Respect the rule of law, let Zahid have his day in court; if he is found not guilty, he can always be made DPM at some future point. It would be a great new beginning to that better Malaysia we all want to see.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 30th November 2022]