Speaking in a packed hall of this morning, Mahathir claimed the Terengganu palace did not agree to the initial RM5bn bond borrowing under the newly set up Terengganu Investment Authority with the collateral being the oil wells in the state.
Although TIA was owned by Terengganu, the state government did not have any say in its finances and management. “All their managers were appointed by Najib,” claimed Mahathir.
Terengganu then distanced itself from the plan (and presumably it was then that the decision was made to set up 1MDB).
Jho Low was already in the picture back then, said Mahathir. It was at this point that the cops moved in to stop Mahathir from speaking as a larger-than-life portrait of a smiling Najib looked down from the stage backdrop.
Najib had been due to address the 2000-strong gathering at 10.00am in a “nothing-to-hide” talk about 1MDB. But Mahathir had other ideas and turned up at 9.00am.
Minutes earlier, at 8.53am, the IGP tweeted to say the event had been cancelled due to security concerns; Najib failed to show up, his office citing the IGP’s directive.
Only yesterday, Najib had said in Sarawak, “… the blood (flowing) in me is no ordinary blood. Sometimes, I may be seen as diplomatic, but the warrior spirit is there in me.”
We learned two things from this episode.
First, 1MDB continues to be a (scorching) hot potato for the PM and will haunt him at every turn in the near future. One observer joked, “From Nothing to Hide, it is now Nowhere to Hide!” The PM, however, seems confident of support for the BN in Sarawak. Some believe he may now try to forge a grand alliance or informal understanding of Umno-Pas (newly purged of the ‘progressives’ after their wipeout in just concluded party elections)-Sabah/Sarawak BN parties. But it could run into hurdles as Pas’ hudud agenda won’t go down well with the Sarawak and Sabah BN parties.
Second, Mahathir received a valuable lesson on the importance of freedom of expression from what happened this morning. He may recall how the cops curtailed dissent (Operasi Lalang 1987) and freedom of expression during his 22-year tenure. In the late 1990s (if I remember correctly), NGOs were warned against holding a public inquiry into the police. Also, who can forget how Umno Youth hot-heads broke up the Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (Apcet), which had not yet achieved independence back then. Activists were bundled away and had to spend a couple of days in police lock-ups while foreign delegates were swiftly deported. In pre-2008 Penang, critical NGOs found it impossible to get permission to hold talks at public places like the Caring Society Complex.
The irony is not lost on many. Quipped one activist after this morning’s episode: “Imagine if Mahathir had been arrested. We would have had to sign a petition calling for his release on change.org … And don’t forget the candlelight vigil!”
If someone of the stature of Mahathir can be blocked from speaking, where does it leave us? But that ignores the fact that we live in a digital age and such attempts to curb freedom of expression are ultimately an exercise in futility. For instance, there is little anyone in the Najib camp can do to stop Mahathir from reaching out to the public via his blog; today’s episode will only heighten public curiosity and win Chedet (Mahathir) some new readers.
All said, Mahathir may have achieved his objective just by turning up for the event. His move was probably calculated at making the PM and his supporters feel awkward. Even though Mahathir was blocked from speaking, it was Najib who bore the brunt of all manner of jokes and images on social media poking fun at his “warrior spirit”. Mahathir has succeeded in turning Najib into a laughing stock for not showing up, even if it was the IGP who cancelled the event.
Najib should quickly sack his useless public relations consultants, whether foreign or local. They are not doing a great job. But then again, no amount of public relations can dig the premier out of the hole he is in already.