The crowd shouted “Reformasi!” last night as they gathered on the edge of Dataran Merdeka to demand the release of Maria Chin.

About 20 years ago, the term was so full of anti-Mahathir context. “Not today however,” History said, smirking as she played a joke on all of us.

Having the crowd crying out reformasi on Monday evening made the atmosphere surreal. Surreal because sitting at the front facing the crowd was the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!” the crowd roared.

He managed a smile and raised his hand together with the rest. I had to assess my own sanity and senses whether I actually saw or heard him shout reformasi along the protesters, possibly numbering between 500 and 1,000 people.

Hishamuddin Rais with his hat and ill-fitted clothing — released from police lock-up just a few hours earlier — joked he could hardly believe Mahathir had attended Bersih and on this night, Mahathir was sitting close to him. Hishamuddin made a mocking impression of Mahathir. Yet, he, one of Mahathir’s harshest critics from the streets from the very beginning, is convinced of the need to work with Mahathir and put the past behind. Mahathir understands the compromise Hishammuddin has made, and took the jab with a open, humbled heart.

On Saturday, when Mahathir gave a speech to a much bigger crowd under the Petronas Towers, it was evident many were still distrustful of the old man. I could see it in their faces. They looked on and listened incredulously to Mahathir as he spoke of free speech, free press and freedom of assembly. “Malaysians have short memory,” remarked a friend to me as the clouds threatened to unleash a tropical rainstorm on us.

What was a clear blue sky had turned gloomy by four or five o’clock, when Mahathir arrived to give the speech. The rain god understood the popular sentiment on Jalan Ampang.

It is hard for anybody, me included, to stomach having Mahathir pontificating about free speech, free press and freedom of assembly. This is the man along with Lee Kuan Yew who believed in the so-called Asian values, the belief that the well-being of the whole trumps individual rights. I wonder how Lee would think of his former sparring partner.

To many liberals, I can see, Mahathir simply does not have the moral authority to say things he said on that Saturday afternoon and on that Monday night. Many liberals and others who opposed Mahathir during the 1980s and the 1990s yearn for pure heroes.

I hate to break it to you but those pure heroes do not exist in these desperate hours of ours. Anwar Ibrahim is in jail and Anwar himself is imperfect. Yet, we follow him, believing the injustice brought down upon him reformed him for the better for us all.

What we have now, ironically, is Mahathir.

At this stage, those who believe Najib Razak needs to resign and be brought to justice need to invest in coalition building. That is the only way realistically available to correct the wrong the corrupt have done. It is the only way to get Malaysia to move on. Without a coalition, Najib will continue to be in power plundering public wealth and undermining public institutions that we need to get to the next level of development.

Muhyiddin Yassin on Saturday is right. We need to forget our differences for a moment, just for this moment, and work together towards a common goal for the greater good. The urban and the liberal folks need their heartland cousins to push Malaysia forward and this is where Mahathir comes in.

Muhyiddin Yassin at Bersih 5

We have done it before. We saw that in 2008 and 2013. We just need to do it again. Yes, things crumbled afterwards but you know, if at first you do not succeed, try and try again. Nobody said it would be easy.

A defeatist would not even try. He would want to read a 100-year plan before starting anything.

I would say we should cross the bridge when and if we get there. It is premature to think about all permutations and worry about the downside as if the bad outcomes are guaranteed. There is no guarantee. None. And that is why attempts at building a coalition matter. We need to try instead of resigning ourselves to certain damnation.

And to the cynics who still distrust Mahathir, I think we can safely bet that Mahathir cannot be the dictator he used to be. As I stood at the back staring at him judgmentally, somehow I felt pity for him. There was a statesman, the former strongman of Southeast Asia, sitting upfront, shrunken, old, tired, small and humbled.

Yet, he was there on Monday night.

The question should not be why he was there, or whether he should to be there?

The question instead should be, where were you?

Mahathir ate his ego for something greater. Yet, here are the liberals, worried about some kind of ideological purity, trying to parade your moral superiority while more injustice is being committed by others.

Mahathir is not the authoritarian leader we have now. The monster is in Putrajaya.

Get on the program, fucking please.

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