Dear Dato’ Seri
I don’t know how exactly a person behind bars celebrates his birthday; something that I have to think about too ha3 (more of that later). Whatever it is, I pray to Allah without miss that you will be as fit as you can possibly be (given the circumstances) so that you will eventually witness the change you had dedicated your life for. Happy birthday and if you are around I know you will be humming some songs. I can’t remember your age because it doesn’t matter much (though I know we are 30 years apart *wink wink*).
Every year, 10th of August has become significant in my life not just because it is your birthday but it was the date that finally intertwined my life to yours. I don’t think you remember but it was at a ceramah on 10th August 2009 in Kemaman that I bumped onto you and you discovered I had left PETRONAS and was no longer bonded to them. Within weeks we met again at Parliament and a few months later I put my corporate career on cold storage to join your office.
Much has happened since then and what an adventure it was. I did not regret a single moment of it and I learnt a lot about humility, sincerity, honesty, integrity and loyalty in the last seven years. I feel I am now at an end of one chapter and as I made preparation for the eventuality of a paid long vacation courtesy of His Majesty’s government, I want to tell you that you had made an impact so great to the society that the change you yearn so much is unstoppable. It will come in one way or another.
“Funny When You Are Dead People Will Start Listening”
Obviously my optimism is not shared by 99.9999% of the population given the unending political drama with twists and turns that can match even the most dramatic Latino soap opera. However underneath the frustration and deadlock, eventually the public will accept a few realities that previously they chose to ignore.
One of the most important outcome of the turmoil is the realization that you are central to any plan for reform. Without you any design for a change of government or system in this country is not realistic. When you were around you had to absorb all the blames because it was easy to blame you. When you were around people look for other leaders because they find fault with you. Since the day you were unjustly taken away, the people began to miss you (and your charisma that galvanized and glued the opposition forces for 18 years since 1998) because they know it is unlikely that anyone else can bring everyone to the negotiating table the way you had done.
As more and more Malaysians search their soul for what had gone wrong that we are unable to remove a Prime Minister that is as good as crippled politically, they will quietly agree that what is missing is no longer the reason and justification to remove Dato’ Seri Najib. What is missing is that one person who can unite everyone and command the respect of the people with moral authority to face up to the task of removing Dato’ Seri Najib.
And they will think of you and hopefully realize it was a folly to sit down idly when you were put behind bars again. I hope many of us look back and wonder how it would have been different if we had recognized that an assault on you then using the state institutions was an assault to the whole society because the system that had failed you would have failed everyone else too.
Every now and then I listen to a country song about dying young (not that I am so melodramatic about life). It ends with a very apt observation: funny when you are dead then people will start listening.
Free Anwar Ibrahim
If the above hypothesis is correct, then the immediate remedy to the current political stalemate is actually quite straight forward: if your removal (as part of a grand design to destabilize the opposition) had created the leadership vacuum that rendered Pakatan Harapan (previously Pakatan Rakyat) less effective to corner Najib, your presence will rectify that.
This is where I remain skeptical that we will see an end to the political impasse in the next few months. Unless and until the opposition forces and the public at large understand that securing your release is not your personal agenda but a necessity to give reform a chance; the anti-Najib forces will continue to be rudderless for a while.
Tonight’s gathering at Sungai Buloh Prison may provide a glimpse of clue whether or not the public understand the importance of your release. If they do, they will turn out more than usual and the momentum to pressure Najib to release you will pick up again. Given how weak Najib is, a strong momentum that translates into a public pressure on him will force him to consider a compromise.
Unfortunately I remain skeptical. However whatever the outcome is tonight, we should re-calibrate our strategy and tactics to re-position your release as a key national agenda in order to fill up the leadership vacuum in the opposition camp because that vacuum has become a life-support machine for Najib.
Bring Back National Discourse On Policy
Speaking of re-calibration, one of the most disturbing developments since the last one year was the pre-occupation with the removal of Najib as a single national objective to the point that it completely drowned any discourse on specifics of reforms. Since July 2015 when the public found out about the RM2.6 billion, it was as if we were a society in suspension – everything and anything that is not about removing Najib would have to be deferred or suspended until after he is removed.
I understood the necessity then on the basis that the outpouring of anger and shock; if galvanized properly would have translated into a momentum that could have pressured Najib to resign. But not everyone can inspire hundreds of thousands of people to go to the streets. In fact I think you may be the only politician since 1957 that had successfully done that on a number of occasions.
We clearly had missed the opportunity – then and now. While missing an opportunity is a common occurrence in politics as famously pointed out by Churchill’s “success is not final and mistake is not fatal”, the inability to realize that it was a missed opportunity hence the urgent need to switch tactics worries me. To make it worse, the online media that are more sympathetic to balanced reporting also generally choose to focus on the removal of Najib since July 2015.
This provides a key answer that to a key question that had been bewildering many observers: why is it that despite the abundance of evidence against Najib and the colossal amount of public money involved, the public (especially the Malays) do not seem to bother that much?
Since the terrible twin defeat of Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, I spent a considerable time sampling responses from the public through the social media to search for the answer to that key question.
Through my interaction and observation, I can conclude that while the public understand the magnitude of what Najib had done; we have not been successful in explaining to them how Najib’s removal can benefit them? We have strayed further and further away from the most basic political strategy i.e. to make sure the key stakeholders understand and appreciate what’s in it for them. When you add the constant squabbling of the opposition leaders and parties into that sentiment, you understand why an average voter is not too excited to do anything in spite of their disgust of Najib.
We can only answer the what’s in it for me question by drilling down our offerings that can make their life better. By proving that our solution to Umno’s bad policies will work. By demonstrating competencies and capabilities when all that Umno can showcase is ministers competing with each other to defend Najib.
Therefore, the good news is I think we know what we need to do next. We have to go back on policy discourse and mount an offensive challenge of all the policies and practices that had created the system that produced Najib. I am a bit jittery that if we don’t do this, the public will forget that Najib does not create the system, it was the system that nurtured him and his mastery of the system of patronage and money that had allowed him to do all this and seems to get away with it.
After all, the devil is always in the details. I am confident that once we go back to discussing policy details, many of the answers to the unanswered questions so far will come by itself.
Our Journey Is Not Putrajaya
The other good news that I want to share with you is that most of my generation in KEADILAN understand that our journey and destination has never been Putrajaya. We were sidetracked a bit for a short period, but now we understand that what we seek is an uplifting of the society.
We want to leave behind a society that is matured, guided by virtues, propelled by a desire to always be better than the day before. A society that holds on to integrity, honesty and fairness as its final protection from all the ills of the world. A society that shall never look away every time an injustice is committed amongst them and weep as hard for others’ suffering as if it is their own.
We can only create this society if we undo every piece of law, every practice, every feudalistic inclination and every injustice that exist in the system we use to govern us. This is a long journey – maybe beyond the time given to you and me. We can only do what we can with the space and time given to us.
Lately I find more peace and humility now that I remember why as a young 21 years old in 1998 I believed your words about reforms, honesty and kindness. I now remember that Putrajaya was never an objective.
As to whether we will ever have a chance to make a difference from the corridors of Putrajaya, I always remember what Samwise Gamgee said to Frodo Baggins on a boat as the latter poignantly whispered to himself that he would never see the rest ever again: “We may yet Mr Frodo, we may yet!”
Happy 69th birthday Saudara Anwar – may your days will always bring kindness and goodness to those around you. We are all but a tiny speck of dust in Allah’s greater scheme of things.
I will sing Happy Birthday to you from the outside wall tonight. Have some rest.
* Rafizi Ramli is writing a book “Letters to Sungai Buloh: The Malaysian Conundrum” that features this and other monologues in the form of letters to Anwar Ibrahim on various issues. He initially planned to complete the book 4 months ago but the deadline keeps moving. He blames his many court appearances for the delay.