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Dr M disagreeing with the prime minister against the backdrop of political instability in Sabah and GE13

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Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak plans to announce the details of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the issue of illegal immigration in Sabah when he visits today. While this is inevitably viewed through the lens of election politics, this is a long-expected follow-through on a promise Najib made some time ago.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, however, has spoken out against the RCI. “The RCI will not deliver any result that will solve the problems. When there is a RCI it will bring about other matters,” he said, a stance that is mirrored on his personal blog as well.

This has caused quite the furore — Dr M disagreeing with the prime minister against the backdrop of political instability in Sabah and GE13 still around the corner — but it is nothing more than two men with very different motivations.

It is important to remember that in his time since retiring, among Tun Mahathir’s concerns has been his institutional legacies. His resignation from Umno in 2006 was not a fit of pique, but rather a calculated move designed to protest Tun Abdullah Badawi’s handling of the Government and of Umno. When the controversies of the past rise up Mahathir has been quick to respond.

It would be unfair to characterise this as mere pettiness on Dr M’s part. In many ways, modern Malaysia — with its booming economy, defused racial tensions, and religious balance — is the former Prime Minister’s institutional legacy. He helped to make us as a nation. And he saved us from dangers. Tun Mahathir can rightly claim credit for defusing the Asian Financial Crisis’s damage to Malaysia and pre-emptively stopping another.

In the case of the RCI and Sabah, Tun Mahathir appears sensitive to criticism of his handling of the illegal immigration problem in Sabah. His ‘nationalisation’ of illegal immigrants there is in many ways the largest unresolved problem for Sabah, and he has been particularly prickly about it. At the time, Tun Mahathir was faced with the problem of a huge influx of illegal aliens, and chose to bring them into the social fold rather than expend untold sums identifying and deporting them.

The move, then as now, was derided as mere politics, and it is a charge that clearly still stings.

Najib, by contrast, cannot and must not care only about Tun Mahathir’s institutional legacy. His first duty as Prime Minister is to see the laws enforced and justice done. Najib took GE12 as a signal from the rakyat that profound change, and profound reform, would be needed in Malaysia, and he has set his entire term to that goal.

In the process, he has deliberately cast aside outdated laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Sedition Act, and the worst clauses of the Printing Presses and Publications Act in favour of a more modern, liberalised regime. Each of those laws, of course, were bulwarks of Dr M’s time in office, and while Tun Mahathir has generally recognised that Najib is responding to modern conditions, the implicit although gentle rebuke cannot have gone unnoticed.

Similarly, Najib has worked to bring government aid to the poorest regardless of race, rather than focussing exclusively on Bumiputra subsidies. It is to Dr M’s latter’s credit that he always explicitly said — speaking in the language of medicine — that those subsidies should be seen as a crutch, used as long as necessary and then discarded so that they did not harm their users, but he never identified a time when they were not necessary.

Najib has argued that if that time has not yet come, it is certainly time to provide crutches to those of other races who need them, and by way of a needs-based system.

Illegal immigration is arguably the most pressing issue in Sabah today. Najib, as Prime Minister, owes the people of Sabah the tools to identify the extent and nature of the problem, as well as the means to correct it.

He also has a duty to Barisan Nasional not to allow a sentimental attachment to the past to jeopardise the coalition’s chances at GE13, and while Pakatan’s gains in the area have not been as dramatic as promised, it is incumbent on Najib to limit the damage and demonstrate BN’s commitment to Sabah.

If that means he must bring up embarrassments from the past, then that is what he must do. – The Choice