The legacy of political veterans

THE funeral of Tan Sri Napsiah Omar Tuesday last week brought together mourners from the royal family, politicians from across the divide and civil society.

Joining the Tunku Besar Seri Menanti Tunku Ali Redhauddin at Surau Tuanku Muhriz in Kampung Jawa were Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, Negeri Sembilan Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Utama Mohamad Hasan, and the local MP who is also Malaysia’s Ambassador to Cambodia Datuk Seri Hasan Malek.

The tribute to the late Wanita Umno permanent chairman from its present chief Tan Sri Shahrizat Jalil described an inspirational leader who never had ‘a hint of jealousy or selfishness or greed’.

Meanwhile, Rozana Isa of Sisters in Islam highlighted her leading role in pushing forward the Domestic Violence Act, her advocacy through the World Conference on Women, and her championing of sexual and reproductive health and the rights of women and girls.

A true daughter of Kuala Pilah, Napsiah’s political career saw her serve as Minister of Public Enterprises and subsequently of National Unity and Social Development under Tun Dr Mahathir, before she became a Negeri Sembilan state executive councillor.

In this position, she asserted her independence, including opposing then Menteri Besar Tan Sri Isa Abdul Samad on a policy concerning Port Dickson.

Indeed, it was suggested that she should have been Menteri Besar instead, but that proposal was thwarted by a senior member of the then federal government (who still has political ambitions today).

Looking at the warm and respectful reaction to her passing, I wonder how many politicians contemplate the aftermath of their own deaths; who will turn up at their funeral (and whether out of genuine affection, seeking political capital or just making sure they are really dead), what their obituaries will say, and what legacy they will leave for their children (versus how much wealth they will bequeath).

Perhaps, the words and actions of some political veterans today may be motivated by such considerations. Some of them are still fully active: out on campaign, expressing support for current officeholders and denouncing their enemies. But others who were thought to have mostly retired from politics, enjoying corporate and sinecure positions have been vocal too, such as Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz (who also had a varied relationship with Napsiah) and Tan Sri Rais Yatim.

Naturally, currently active politicians will capitalise on what veterans say that will boost their position. But whether these people really have changed their minds on people and policies is a question that can only really be assessed when their careers come to a definite and final end.

Recently one diplomat succinctly summarised the choice at the upcoming election as one between the architect of a house versus its current occupant.

For those who agree with this characterisation, the key question ahead of polling day is: has the architect changed his mind? Does he truly intend to repair the institutions that he destroyed, and undo the culture of corruption that he began?

For those who answer ‘yes’, the choice is easy. For those who answer ‘no’, a dilemma surfaces. Some will not vote for his coalition’s candidates under any circumstances. Others may rationalise that he is constrained by his partners, and is very old anyway, so they’ll risk it. Still others think that the opportunity to set a precedent of changing the federal government has a greater value in itself.

Of course, many other voters will be asking different questions altogether: those that emphasise continuity and stability; or prioritise racial and religious considerations. But even in answering those questions, assessments of candidates’ and parties’ sincerity and ability are central.

In 2002, I was working on a sociology dissertation on social and political power in Malaysia as part of my university degree, and I had secured an interview with then Datuk Napsiah.

Although I was an irrelevant undergraduate, she was generous with her time and provided many useful insights. For me, that meeting set the benchmark for future interactions with Malaysian politicians: most have not been as pleasant.

In that interview she spoke about infrastructure development in her constituency, and having expanded the winding Bukit Putus road between Seremban and Kuala Pilah, she still advocated a new straighter road.

That new straighter road was completed before the Installation of Tuanku Muhriz as Yang di-Pertuan Besar, and her final journey home would have been smoother than the ones of her youth.

The road to a healthier and united Malaysia, however, still looks as winding as the old Bukit Putus.

Hopefully it would not take a death to remind politicians to have a higher loyalty to the country, and to take heed of both traditional institutions and civil society.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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