If politics is ‘the art of the possible’, Malaysia’s 14th General Election has reignited a call for a politics of hope, what Václav Havel – dissident playwright turned President of the Czech Republic – beautifully termed ‘the art of the impossible’.
In the two weeks since GE14, the impossible has become reality. Malaysians have witnessed changes we never imagined we would see in our lifetime – the fall of the ‘invincible’ Barisan Nasional, Mahathir Mohamad’s return as prime minister, the release and royal pardon of Anwar Ibrahim, former political prisoners sworn in as top cabinet ministers.
Like the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, Malaysia’s historic yet peaceful transition of power unseated a regime that ruled for decades and saw a people’s movement swept into government. Yet our ‘revolution’ was won quietly through the ballot box as much as through people power campaign rallies throughout the country. What impelled most Malaysians to bring down the old regime was the need to restore the rule of law and reform systems of governance plagued by corruption. In essence: a yearning to return to a Malaysia that could have been.
For many of us, ‘the Malaysia that could have been’ (and things in Malaysia that should never have happened) came to be embodied in the figures of Mahathir and Anwar. While celebrating the arrival of a ‘new dawn’, many of us were simultaneously thrown back in time, for the inextricably entangled destinies of these two men – allies, adversaries, allies once more – has shaped the collective and personal memory of Malaysians for the past 20 years.
For me, the return of Mahathir, the release of Anwar, and the reconciliation between them evoked memories of my late father, the firebrand opposition leader and two-term DAP parliamentarian, Fan Yew Teng. During the political developments of the past few months and particularly the past few weeks, I often wondered what ‘Papa’ would have made of it all. Would ‘Papa’ have embraced the transformed Mahathir – the man he spent much of his life criticising – as the leader of Pakatan Harapan, and now, again, as the prime minister of Malaysia?
In 1999, my father wrote Anwar Saga: Malaysia on Trial, a book that chronicled the unfolding of the Mahathir-Anwar grand political drama and the beginnings of the Reformasi movement. Like his previous books – If We Love This Country (1988), Oppressors and Apologists (1988), The UMNO Drama: Power Struggles in Malaysia (1989), and The Rape of Law (1990) – Anwar Saga sought to expose the grave injustices of Malaysia’s political system under Mahathir. It was difficult to publish such ‘anti-government’ books then, so ‘Papa’ set up a small press called Egret Publications, which was mostly funded by my mother.
After my father passed away in 2010, Anwar Ibrahim recalled in a tribute to him: “There had been two converging moments in our lives. The first was when he was convicted of sedition in 1975 and I, though not charged, was condemned to incarceration in Kamunting under the ISA. When I was thrown back into jail in 1998, he published Anwar Saga: Malaysia on Trial soon after. Here was someone who had been a victim of oppression and injustice too, not just some armchair commentator. I had to get hold of that book … So, with a little help from my friends, I had it secreted to my cell and devoured it from cover to cover.”
Anwar was right. ‘Papa’ spent his life fighting political repression because he himself had been subjected to it. In 1971, under Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, ‘Papa’ had been charged with sedition for publishing a speech as editor of DAP’s The Rocket. After a long drawn-out and infamous trial, he was eventually convicted of sedition in 1975 and disqualified from his second term in Parliament in 1977. After his years in formal politics, ‘Papa’ persisted as a vocal critic of Barisan Nasional’s excesses, scandals, and abuses of power. In particular, he was an acute observer of the power struggles within UMNO.
In a 2008 article for Harakah entitled ‘Can UMNO ever change?’, he wrote: “After more than 62 years of existence and more than half a century in power, UMNO has become a party of political pretenders and fakes, not of political protectors who were originally so much admired and needed by the Malays. UMNO’s idealism died when the spoils of office killed convictions and eroded the spirit of sacrifice. Soon enough, the unsaid and unwritten motivation was: ask not what I can do for the party; ask what the party can do for me.”
The article reveals my father’s long-standing conviction that UMNO had cast off its principles for selfish interests and sunk too deep in its own mire to ever redeem itself. I think he would initially have opposed Mahathir’s alliance with the very oppositionists he once put behind bars. Over time, however, I believe he would have seen Mahathir’s necessary role in dealing the deathblow to UMNO and Barisan Nasional.
As Malaysia’s new cabinet was sworn in a few days ago, I could not help but think of ‘Papa’ and his comrades. I felt the absent presence of the pioneers who are no longer with us – Karpal Singh, P. Patto, Tok Guru Nik Aziz and others, those who dared to fight for decades against the dark so that today we may forge a path of hope.
My father once wrote: “History has shown us repeatedly that no long night can last forever. Before long, morning must break.” On 10 May, as the long sleepless night of waiting for GE14 results turned into a day of euphoria for millions of Malaysians, I whispered: “Papa, your morning has arrived.”
Pauline Fan is a writer, literary translator and Creative Director of the cultural organisation PUSAKA