Last week, ex-PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad called his successor Muhyiddin Yassin a dictator over the latter’s decision to impose emergency rule in the country.
But as fate would have it, former lord president Salleh Abas passed away over the weekend. Salleh was a towering figure in the legal world. His death has only served as a reminder of Mahathir’s chequered past in issues relating to human rights, specifically judiciary independence.
In other words, the accusation that Mahathir levelled at Muhyiddin is best directed at himself.
Back to the developments leading to the events that would come to define Salleh’s career. Then, fresh from Umno being declared illegal by the courts following his 1987 tussle with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in Umno, Salleh was unceremoniously sacked.
Human rights groups, including the Bar Council then, had lamented about the subjugation of the judiciary – one of the three branches of government – following Salleh’s removal. In one fell swoop, they felt that the judiciary had become submissive, at least as far as public perception was concerned.
And Mahathir is now lecturing the world about Muhyiddin purportedly being a dictator? The irony cannot be more stark.
Has Mahathir also forgotten how he used the Internal Security Act then to cement his hold on power? Under Ops Lalang, over a hundred leaders and activists were detained without trial. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. But don’t talk about a fair trial, when there’s no trial to begin with for those detained. Isn’t that a hallmark of a dictator?
And wasn’t the government apparatus used to the hilt during his first tenure as PM? Weren’t there widespread concerns over how the then Anti-Corruption Agency and police force were perceived to be used for political means? Who could forget how a balaclava-clad special operations force stormed into the house of sacked DPM Anwar Ibrahim on Sept 20, 1998 to arrest him? If that could happen to a former DPM, what kind of safeguards do lesser mortals have?
Lest one assumes that Mahathir’s dictatorial streak ended when he left office in 2003, one should be reminded that a leopard does not change its spots easily. Who could forget that during his second tenure as PM, he had wanted to form a unity government at the tail-end of his office in early 2020?
True to his proclivity to thrive during crises, the Machievellian two-time PM proposed a “unity government” as Pakatan Harapan (PH) was showing signs of breaking up. If the proposal had materialised, he would have been back as a dictator, politically free from Parliament oversight with Barisan Nasional and PH backing him. That is dictatorship in all but name, doc.
Perhaps Mahathir does not realise that the emergency imposed now differs from the ones declared in the past. The emergency we have now is to control the outbreak of Covid-19. No draconian laws will be introduced, unlike those with which Mahathir is familiar.
The courts are still running, the rule of law is still in place. In fact, Muhyiddin has set up a bipartisan committee to handle the implementation of the emergency. In other words, the PM has reached out to his political foes, not locked them up like Mahathir used to.
I guess the only reason Mahathir sees Muhyiddin as a dictator is because that is the only lens the former sees the world through: as a dictator.
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