Harapan got trounced in Tanjung Piai. This was a strong rebuke by the rakyat who wanted to send Harapan a clear message to get its act together and to start fulfilling its promises. It's also, as Syed Husin Ali articulated, a referendum on Dr M's leadership.
It's always hard to figure out what's going on in Dr M's mind. He likes to keep people guessing on what's he got in mind when he does things like meeting up with opposition lawmakers to discuss things that are not ultimately revealed. Or when he sends out signals that he favours Azmin over Anwar. Or when he supports the inclusion of khat in the BM syllabus etc, etc, etc. Why he does such things, nobody knows
But there are a few things we do know about Dr M, because he is remarkably transparent about them:
a) He doesn't believe the old system, for which he was a principal architect, was flawed. He believes that Najib corrupted the system, which is why all the bad things happened. To Dr M, it wasn't the system that was at fault. It was Najib. What Dr M doesn't realize (or more like, refuses to accept) is that Najib was able to do what he did precisely because the system set up by Dr was remarkably susceptible to manipulation. Because he doesn't recognize and accept this fact, he doesn't really want to fix it. And that's why reforms are so slow in coming.
b) He thinks that UMNO hegemony was the right formula for governing this country. He doesn't like UMNO now because it had supported Najib. But he liked how UMNO was the BIG brother in BN and how the other component parties basically kowtowed to it. He laments the fact that his current party Bersatu is not in that position within Harapan. It's not as big as PKR. Heck, it's not even as big as DAP (and that's with defections from UMNO). That's why he called or Malay opposition lawmakers to all defect to his party. If the majority of them had actually done that, Bersatu would then indeed become the new UMNO within Harapan.
The slow pace of reforms and the old "ketuanan Melayu" approach to politics has turned off many moderate and progressive Malaysians. However, as long as Dr M is in power, this situation will not change because he doesn't want it to change.
There is no guarantee that Anwar would be a successful leader but at least we know he would do more to hasten reforms than Dr M. Would Anwar do enough to satisfy civil society and those who voted for change via Harapan? Maybe, maybe not. But we can be sure he would do more (or at least try to do more) than Dr M in that regard.
We also know that Anwar does not believe that the "ketuanan Melayu" concept is the right approach going forward. His party, unlike Bersatu, is a multi-racial party. He has also on more than one occasion called for the introduction of needs-based affirmative action policies.
Most people would agree that upon Harapan's surprise victory in GE14, Dr M was the right person to lead the country. He was the steady hand needed to steer the country after the shock results of the election. Many people also believed he would make sure that the perpetrators of the 1MDB scandal would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Those two reasons alone led many people to support the idea of Dr M leading the country again. But they wanted it for only two years. Dr M's acolytes like to assert that the actual date of the transition was never made explicitly clear prior to the election. While that may be the case, it also cannot be denied that the notion of "two years" was widely agreed upon and this was clear to everyone who voted for Harapan. So it's highly disingenuous for Dr M's supporters to suggest that there is no agreed time-frame for Dr M to step down.
Any goodwill that Dr M earned for helping to oust Najib has been all spent by now and Dr M should not overstay his welcome. He was promised two years and he agreed to two year, so he should stick to two years. He should make the specific date of the handover public.
That would go a long way towards mitigating public disappointment with Harapan and give its supporters renewed hope. Otherwise, people will expect more of the same. And the folks at Tanjung Piai made clear that more of the same is not what they want.
Yet, nobody among the Harapan leadership is nudging him towards setting a firm date for the handover because they are afraid of upsetting him. The Harapan component party leaders' strategy is pretty straightforward and simple: Don't piss off Dr M.
They believe that if they do not rock the boat and let him have his way for two years, he will honor his pledge and let Anwar take over. Of course they know he might not stick to his promise but they are more willing to take that chance than to risk upsetting him.
Why? Because Dr M is unpredictable. Who knows what he might do if he is upset (like perhaps break up Harapan?). The mere potential of that has paralyzed the rest of Harapan with fear.
So, everybody walks on eggshells. And what has that achieved so far?
a) Unfulfilled promises
b) A whole bunch of own goals
c) Component parties that look timid
d) No clear timeline for the transition
In short, the "Don't piss off Dr M" approach has been a disastrous strategy. The folks at PKR, DAP and Amanah have got to start insisting on policies and measures that are more in line with what Harapan stood for before the election. Otherwise things are just going to get from bad to worse for Harapan.