OVER breakfast at his home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s then finance minister Anwar Ibrahim once told me: “In politics, timing is everything.”
He was about to launch an audacious bid for the deputy leadership of the nation’s dominant political party and thus become the official heir apparent to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir was sorely vexed about this and urged Anwar to think again and be more patient.
But Anwar knew the timing was right, so he went ahead and won.
Five years later, he figured the time was then right to oust Mahathir and become leader of the party.
But on that occasion he got the timing badly wrong, and boy, has he suffered for it ever since.
This critical issue of timing has recently bedevilled two of the region’s other leading figures, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Lee, who could have waited until later this year or even early next year, instead chose to call a general election 10 days ago, on May 7.
It is a moot point whether he has his timing right.
Yes, Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party won 81 of the 87 seats in parliament – a massive majority by anyone’s standards.
But the opposition did better than ever before, and in garnering 40 percent of the votes, it ought to have secured about 35 seats.
In fact, it has a measly six, due largely to Singapore’s first-past-the-post system and the government’s gerrymandering of the multiparty seats to subsume pockets of anti-PAP sentiment.
Still, given that the opposition tripled its number of MPs and might have done even better with more time to work the ground, it may be argued that Lee’s timing was correct and saved his party from further damage.
Whether that scenario will be replicated in Thailand looks doubtful at the moment.
To give him credit, PM Abhisit has kept his word about the timing of the general election. It will be held on July 3, a good six months before he needs to hold it.
In theory, the portents look good.
While in power, his Democrat Party-led government has overseen solid growth for the region’s second-largest economy and principal manufacturing hub.
With US$179 billion in the central bank, Thailand has the 12th-largest foreign exchange reserves and one of the strongest convertible currencies in the world.
And since the Red Shirt protests were quashed a year ago, relative peace has prevailed.
So bet on Abhisit, right?
Wrong. Current surveys show his Democrats running behind the opposition Pheu Thai Party, which represents the Red Shirts and their de facto leader, the fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Democrats’ problem is that their road to power began with a military coup in 2006 that deposed Thaksin, and culminated in a court decision to disqualify a subsequent duly elected pro-Thaksin government in 2008.
The whole genesis of the Red Shirt movement was that, given this background, the Democrats should have quickly called an election to establish their government’s legitimacy.
They did not do so. Instead, Abhisit stayed on for 30 long months, and now, believing the timing is right, he is gambling that tranquility and the economic feel-good factor will return him to office.
At his final cabinet meeting, his government doled out more funds and giveaways than any Thai government has ever done before.
The Thai military, which helped Abhisit attain and remain in office, has been rewarded with massive budget increases.
Yet it may all have been in vain.
Early soundings indicate many Thais, especially in rural areas, still hold a jaundiced view of their British-born, Oxford-educated premier, with his pretty boy looks and ice-cream accent.
So it may be payback time on July 3, and Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, may become Thailand’s first female leader.
That may not be such a bad thing. Women are usually better with their timing than men.