The Mahathir-Najib battle of perception

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Never mind if it is still just an investigation and nothing yet has been proven. The fact that other countries are conducting an investigation is good enough. The perception would be if the other countries see fit to launch an investigation then there must be something wrong. After all, there cannot be any smoke unless there is a fire.

Call it what you want, basically politics is a battle of perception. And if you do not understand this then you do not deserve to be in politics. And the best politicians are those who are Machiavellian. The Barisan National-Pakatan Rakyat battle is a battle of perception, as is the Mahathir-Najib battle as well.

That is why both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat need to boast about how many supporters turned out at their events. When it is a crowd of 50,000 they will say it is 500,000, while the other side will say it was just 30,000. Crowds are perceived as proof of support so you need to impress people with the large crowd and inflate the figures.

I once won a government contract to supply outboard motors against very stiff competition from a very established brand based mainly on perception. The final test of the pudding was in the sea trials. I allowed my competitor to go first for the morning test and they took the speedboat out to sea to conduct the speed test.

Then we broke for lunch and I took the afternoon session. But in the afternoon the sea was very choppy. So I suggested, for safety reasons, that maybe we should instead go upriver to conduct the speed test.

The sea is so vast and open that you do not really feel like you are going fast, especially in the morning when the sea is calm. Upriver, with the mangrove trees a bit too close for comfort and the river so narrow, you feel like you are going too fast. The perception was: our engines were faster than the competitor’s. So we won the contract.

No one thought to check the speedometer or else the speedometer would have told you that Evinrude outboard motors could not possibly be faster than Mercury, which is a racing engine. And any speedboat enthusiast can tell you this. But the perception was enough and there was no need for proof or facts.

It is like driving at 80 on a six-lane deserted highway compared to driving at 60 on a narrow and winding one-lane country road. In that type of situation for sure 60 would feel so much faster than 80 any time.

So do not underestimate the power of perception. And Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the old fox of Malaysian politics who has been in the game since Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was still in school, is a master at this game. He can create any perception he wants against his adversaries and get people to believe it.

Back in the 1960s, he created the perception that Malaysia was falling into the hands of the Chinese. He even wrote a book about it, The Malay Dilemma. And the perception included the ‘fact’ that the reason Malaysia was falling into the hands of the Chinese was because the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, is a Chinese lover who had sold out the Malays.

Then we had the race riots in May 1969 and Dr Mahathir, again, created the perception that the reason for this race riot was because the Malays were angry with the Prime Minister for selling out the Malays. The fact that the race riot was engineered to oust the Prime Minister was not known until much, much later when the Tunku revealed what was going on behind the corridors of power.

When Dr Mahathir faced a challenge from Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, his boys, yet again, played the perception game. And the perception game they played was that Ku Li was a Chinese stooge who helped make many Chinese tycoons very rich and if he became the Prime Minister then the country would be handed to the Chinese.

Invariably, Ku Li lost, and when he disputed the results and screamed fraud and took the case to court, which resulted in Umno getting deregistered, Dr Mahathir said, “Taking a party matter to the courts was also, in my view, not right as the matter should have been resolved internally. Tengku Razaleigh’s outside recourse made me lose respect for him. Following this episode a new party rule was introduced so that anyone who took Umno to court would lose his or her membership.”

The perception here is that Ku Li was a traitor who was not loyal to Umno and because of him Umno got deregistered — whereas it was Dr Mahathir who wanted Umno deregistered so that he could form a new party and kick all his enemies out.

If you follow Dr Mahathir’s political career over the last 60 years or so since the 1960s, you can see how skilful he is as this perception game. He can even convince the country that Anwar Ibrahim is guilty of sodomy when the Federal Court declared that the prosecution had failed to prove his guilt.

Malaysian courts are independent. Malaysian courts do not jail anyone unless that person is guilty. The opposition’s allegation that Malaysian courts can be manipulated and takes orders from the Prime Minister are lies, said Dr Mahathir. And in that same breath he said that Anwar is guilty even if the courts may say otherwise.

In short, Anwar is guilty because the perception is he is guilty and not based on point of law, which says Anwar’s guilt was never proven.

Only Dr Mahathir could get away with something like this and that is probably why that makes him such a unique politician.

When Dr Mahathir decided to bring Najib down, he at first used the Crooked Bridge and selling out to the Chinese as the reason why the Prime Minister should be ousted. But he soon realised that those were not strong enough reasons. He needed to use another reason so he latched on to the 1MDB issue and played up the perception that RM42 billion had disappeared into thin air.

At first that campaign gained traction but when 1MDB was able to rebut that allegation and came out with data that proved it was not true, Dr Mahathir modified the allegation and included the RM2.6 billion as another issue.

But Dr Mahathir needed to create the perception that the allegation is true and what better way to do that then to get other countries involved. But he could not travel to all the other countries and lodge all the complaints and reports himself because he himself has issues with the west.

In fact, the west had alleged the same thing about him, as what he is alleging against Najib. So he got his hired hands to do the dirty work so that it will insulate him from the possibility of a backlash.

Anyway, the rest I have already written about over the last couple of months so no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say Dr Mahathir managed to find a willing servant in the form of Khairuddin Abu Hassan who needed the money because he had just married his second wife and was going bankrupt. And unless he solved his financial predicament he was going to lose that wife, who was in danger of losing her house.

The one thing that Dr Mahathir did not figure out is that Najib would fight back, and fight back fiercely. And when Najib did his dawn raid and wiped out all the instruments that Dr Mahathir had mobilised and who were supposed to strike at the end of July, for the first time the wily old fox of Malaysian politics was stumped.

What was supposed to be in June, and then in July, has now been postponed to October. That is it, the last date to kill Najib off if they want to see him dead. And to make sure that he manages to get at least 120 Members of Parliament from both sides of the political divide to strike the blow against Najib, Dr Mahathir needs to make sure that the perception that Najib is guilty is very strong.

And that is why they are moving all over the world to lodge reports in various countries. They need these countries to announce that they are investigating Najib for corruption involving 1MDB and the RM2.6 billion.

Never mind if it is still just an investigation and nothing yet has been proven. The fact that other countries are conducting an investigation is good enough. The perception would be if the other countries see fit to launch an investigation then there must be something wrong. After all, there cannot be any smoke unless there is a fire.

Yes, as they say, Dr Mahathir is an old dog. But does he still have his bite or is it all bark? He has only one month to go. And in this one month he has to make sure that he wins the perception battle. As the British said, this is the battle to win the hearts and minds of the people. And if he fails to do that then the vote of no confidence next month is going to fail. And that means Najib is going to remain Prime Minister all the way till the next general election.