That KL meeting: And the winner is… Dr M

Mahathir Mohamad poses for a photo during an interview with Reuters in March last year. (Reuters file photo)

If someone invited me to meet Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, my first instinct would be to say “yes’’. It doesn’t matter what hat I’m wearing (whether journalist or not), I am a curious enough human being to want to see what Dr M is like. Like him or hate him, he’s a personality.

But he’s no friend of Singapore, some people would say, and I would then go: So? Does being in the same room as him make me anti-Singaporean? Is this guilt by association? In fact, I would relish the opportunity to ask him some questions such as “Prime Minister Mahathir, may I ask why you seem to insist on bullying Singapore? It’s so last millennium!’’

Then, of course, questions will also be asked about the agenda of the meeting and who else will be there. It’s not a big step to conspiracy theories from here.

So there’s a lot of fuss about a meeting between five Singaporeans and Dr M in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. The Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the meeting between Dr M, Singapore exile Tan Wah Piow, historian PJ Thum and three others who “did not wish to be named”, according to news reports.  But the media reported anyway that the three were Mr Sonny Liew, Ms Kirsten Han and Mr Jolovan Wham. This wasn’t hard given that Mr Wham had posted a picture of them eating together and alerted his fans of the upcoming meeting with Dr M.

From news reports, it seems that the key objective was to get Dr M to speak at a conference next year organised by Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia. Malaysian filmmaker Hishammudin Rais, who initiated the meeting, and Mr Tan belong to this organisation. Dr M agreed in-principle, which is quite a coup for any forum organiser.

So what were the other four Singaporeans doing there? Very uncharitable comments have been made, including a missive by a People’s Action Party MP Seah Kian Peng practically denouncing them as traitors.

Even before this latest diatribe, illustrator Sonny Liew tried to make clear that he was present because he was curious.

He talked about the “optics’’. “It was clear from the outset that the group was made up of non-establishment folks, and there was always the possibility of the optics playing out in uncontrollable ways, heightened when we found out late on that a press alert had been released,’’ he said in a Facebook post lamenting the way ST had lumped all of them as “activists’’. Which seems like the latest bad word in Singapore.

Ms Han and Mr Wham wrote reports of the meeting, which seemed to have ranged over several issues including Malay traits and LGBT rights. They didn’t seem too enamoured of the man. I wish though that they had talked to Dr M about his attitude towards Singapore, his relationship with the current leaders, about water pricing and the cancellation or postponement of bilateral projects. That would be of greater concern to Singaporeans and also burnish their pro-Singapore credentials.

It was what Dr Thum said which got people scratching their heads. “I urged him to take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information.’’

It made me wonder whether history, according to Dr Thum, excluded recent history such as the period when Dr M was prime minister in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps, he believed Dr M to be a changed man. Even so, he can’t have failed to notice Dr M’s same ole’ railings and ranting about Singapore in this second round of his prime ministership. Or is this irrelevant?

But why did Dr M agree to meet them?

They are not journalists nor even members of a political party hoping for some of his shine to rub off on them.

Through my years of journalism, I can’t recall interviews and meetings with top politicians being “open-ended’’. A busy politician must have, at least in his head, some talking points to put forth. Then again, maybe Dr M thought he was merely shooting the breeze with civil society “activists’’, flattered that he would be sought out by anti-establishment types. Or he thought it would be good to see them and therefore, “shake things up’’ a bit in pesky little Singapore.

In fact, that seemed to be the impact Mr Tan Wah Piow was looking for when he answered a question on how he thought the Singapore government would view the meeting:

“I think they will be very concerned, not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy and to enhance the development of democracy in the region.

“And that Malaysia is now shining this beacon which is probably stealing the limelight from Singapore.

I think that’s what worries them. Singapore is becoming (an) outdated, archaic society with its dominant party controls.”

I think the activists (I use the term broadly, sorry Sonny) have got the optics all wrong. Or maybe they were just short-sighted. They should have planned a response in anticipation of news of the meeting filtering out. They should have known that as people who have had run-ins with the G, a darker shadow would be cast over their words and actions.

I don’t know how they would account for being in the company of Mr Tan though. Whether you believe Mr Tan was persecuted or guilty, it doesn’t make any political or pragmatic sense to be seen with someone whom Singaporeans have been told continually is a fugitive from the law. You have to factor in this nasty side to Singaporeans about associating with the “enemy’’ or people who have fallen out of favour. All you need to do to set tongues wagging (negatively) is be seen with such people.

It also doesn’t do much good to come out “gushing’’ from a meeting with the man who is intent on complicating our bilateral relations. Then again, if a senior journalist could be so bowled over by the nice manners of Malaysia’s finance minister, I suppose non-journalists should be forgiven.

But the activists don’t deserve this hauling over the coals by Mr Seah who seems to be reading far more into the meeting than most people. In fact, he goes further to accuse them of wanting to be part of Malaysia by linking the meeting as well as Dr Thum’s national day greetings to Malaysia on Aug 31, in which he said: “Selamat Hari Merdeka to the people of the former Federation of Malaya! (and happy unofficial independence day to the people of Singapore!)”

Mr Seah roped in Ms Teo Soh Lung , and the Singapore Democratic Party, into the picture as well because of one line she posted.

Mr Seah said: “I’m amazed that Dr Thum and his supporters should proclaim that Singapore is part of Malaysia (or Malaya). Perhaps that is why he thinks it is permissible to ask its current prime minister to interfere in our affairs.’’

I am more amazed that Mr Seah reached this conclusion. I would also like to know how he knew that Dr Thum had asked Dr M “to interfere in our affairs’’. Is this his interpretation of what Dr Thum said about urging Dr M to “take leadership in Southeast Asia for the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of information’’? Maybe Dr Thum should have used Myanmar’s Aung San Su Kyi instead?

If Mr Seah knows something more, he should give evidence – lest he be accused of peddling rumours.

Later in the day, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam tried to shed some light: “Dr Thum puts up a photo of him holding his book on politics in Singapore, shaking hands with Malaysian Prime Minister, then puts up a forum post saying that he invites Dr Mahathir to take a leading role in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of speech in South East Asia.

“I think it is quite clear what that means.”

Is it clear to you? It just seems like an assertion to me. Just louder.

Now, there is an interesting exercise going on about whether it is correct to describe August 31 as Singapore’s unofficial independence day. I think we can expect Dr Thum to start citing documents about severing colonial ties and being part of Malaya. Maybe what can come out of this saga is a good history lesson.

But has anyone realised what has happened? If Dr M is intent on stirring up matters in Singapore, he’s succeeded.