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Many were hoping against hope that UMNO president Zahid Hamidi would not be included in Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s cabinet line-up. It’s a done deal now and we all have to live with a deputy prime minister who faces what Rafidah Aziz called an “unbelievably long list” of corruption charges.

Surprisingly, not a few political commentators seem okay with Zahid’s appointment. The same people who used to regularly condemn politicians for their perfidy are now bending over backwards to justify Zahid’s appointment. Are our politicians just a mirror image of us?

Some have even gone so far as to insist that no one question Anwar’s decision, that we just trust him to do the right thing. It is exactly this kind of unthinking response that has got us into the mess we are in. If there’s one lesson to learn from our recent past is that we must always demand accountability from our leaders no matter how nice they are. Never ever give them a blank check if you truly care about the future of our nation.

In the face of strong criticism, Pakatan Harapan leaders are trying hard to rationalize the appointment. They say that Anwar’s hands were tied, that as leader of a unity government he had to accept whoever was proposed by the respective parties. Others say it is the price we must pay to keep Hadi Awang, the emperor of bigotry, out of Putrajaya. And then, there’s that “Innocent until proven guilty” mantra so beloved of politicians when it suits them.

I understand the need to work with UMNO. Anwar was dealt a weak hand by voters; compromise is necessary. But appointing Zahid deputy prime minister is something else. It crosses a line that no leader committed to integrity and good government ought to cross. 

Principles, like laws, are important. They provide the guard rails for good government and accountability. We put ourselves on a slippery slope when we compromise them for the sake of convenience. 

The optics too are terrible. Unless the charges against him are withdrawn or made to go away – not as inconceivable as it might seem – our newly minted DPM is going to spend the next several months going in and out of a courtroom, defending himself on a slew of serious criminal charges. And he’ll arrive at court in an official motorcade replete with police outriders. Remember how we used to howl when Najib went to court in a similar manner?

Plenty of unsavoury details of his alleged involvement in criminal activity will probably come out at the trial and will be splashed across local and international media. Every time that happens, it will remind the world that our government is morally compromised. Is that the image of Malaysia that Anwar wants to project to the whole world?

In other democracies, a politician charged with a crime quickly steps aside in order not to bring the government into disrepute. It says a lot about the character of our new DPM that he is willing to embarrass both his cabinet colleagues and the whole nation by insisting on being in the government despite all those pending criminal charges.

What’s more, how will Zahid lead in a government that is supposed to be committed to fighting corruption and the abuse of power when he himself has not been cleared of a long list of corruption charges? He may be innocent until proven guilty but until he is proven not guilty he lacks the credibility and the moral authority to lead.

And what if he is found not guilty, acquitted or the charges against him are dropped? Given his position in government and his apparently inestimable political value to Anwar, there’ll be no escaping the perception that somehow justice was not done, that Zahid’s long fight to destabilise successive governments just to escape justice finally paid off. The damage it will do to the credibility of our justice system will be enormous.

Anwar has waited long for this opportunity to lead the nation; it is sad that he now begins his term as prime minister by holding hands with a man charged with dozens of criminal offences. Sometimes the price of power can be too high.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 4th December 2022]