Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14

March 17, 2017

Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14

by Saleena Saleem

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Anwar Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in the Good Old Days when the former was heir apparent and Deputy Prime Minister. Today Anwar is languishing in Jail

Speculation is rife that Malaysia’s 14th general election, which must be held by August 2018, may be called this year. The general election comes after a protracted political scandal over state wealth fund 1MDB, with damaging financial mismanagement and corruption allegations leveled at Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Several former leaders from the ruling political party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), have left and regrouped into a new Malay nationalist opposition, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad as Chairman, and former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin as President, Bersatu will need to sell itself to a jaded public if it is to pass as a credible contender for UMNO’s Malay voter base.

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Strange brew of Malaysian politicians chasing the rainbow

These public perception challenges stem from the former UMNO leaders’ decisions and actions. At the height of the 1MDB scandal in mid-2015, the expectation that UMNO leaders, particularly Mahathir and Muhyiddin, would lead a massive break-away faction of dissatisfied party members when Najib was at his political weakest, did not materialise.

Instead, they fought for control of UMNO from within for nearly a year. It wasn’t until February 2016 that Mahathir left his old party — for the second time. It was a missed opportunity that gave Najib ample time to build support for his leadership within the various UMNO groups and to present a united front. As a high-profile frontman for Bersatu, Mahathir’s actions during this period may prove problematic for four key reasons as the new party targets the Malay vote.

First, while still in UMNO, Mahathir associated with pro-opposition civil society groups such as Bersih. Mahathir’s participation in the Bersih 4 rally, which was widely seen as a Chinese-dominated anti-Najib demonstration, leaves him vulnerable to Najib’s race-based argument that should Malays fail to support him, the government would fall to a Chinese-led political machine. Given Bersatu’s alliance with the opposition coalition, of which the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) is a key player, such fears can be magnified to its detriment during an election campaign.

Second, Mahathir initially stated he had no intention of establishing a political party upon quitting UMNO, but he did precisely that in late 2016. The timing of his departure from UMNO, which came only after his son, Mukhriz, was forced to resign as the Kedah chief minister by pro-Najib UMNO members, provides ample ammunition to those who claim Mahathir is primarily motivated by his son’s political ambitions rather than a genuine concern for Malaysia’s future.

Third, Mahathir’s past ideological differences, and the harsh treatment of civil society activists and political foes while he was in government, many of whom he associates with today, leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. For example, during the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s, Mahathir clashed over economic policies with his then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. This set the stage for Anwar’s imprisonment on charges of sodomy, and his rise as an opposition leader of the Reformasi movement, which advocated an open society and economy.

Mahathir has curtailed fundamental liberties that the opposition stands for — he used the Internal Security Act to imprison DAP’s leader Lim Kit Siang during Operation Lalang in 1987, after government appointments in Chinese vernacular schools spurred an outcry.

Fourth, Mahathir’s criticism of Najib’s alleged misdeeds over 1MDB leaves him exposed to scrutiny over his own actions while he was prime minister. He already faces criticism over the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance Limited scandal in the 1980s, and the central bank’s forex losses of US$10 billion in the 1990s, although Mahathir’s camp claims the two are not comparable.

Bersatu enters into an opposition political landscape that is already divided, and where the various parties now jostle to re-negotiate the terms of a political arrangement for the upcoming elections. A January survey by INVOKE, an opposition-linked NGO, found that a three-cornered fight between the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (which includes Bersatu), the Islamist party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the ruling party, Barisan Nasional benefits the incumbent government. This makes electoral pacts essential, even as the different ideological bents and histories of the parties in the opposition complicate matters.

The previous opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, saw public bickering among its constituent parties over various issues leading eventually to its collapse. Two examples are the political impasse that ensued over disagreements on the Selangor chief minister post in 2014 and PAS’ renewed focus on implementing hudud (criminal punishment).

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Good Luck to all Chief Sitting Bulls led by Chief Maha Bull of Kubang Pasu

The lack of agreement on seat allocations between remaining coalition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP, during the 2016 Sarawak state elections, and the recent DAP resignations of its elected representatives over simmering grievances from the past coalition pact with PAS, reinforce the perception that the opposition face intractable difficulties in maintaining a cohesive front.

The opposition’s current narrative of ‘Save Malaysia from Najib’, which was built on Mahathir’s short-lived ‘Save Malaysia’ movement may not be as compelling for voters compared to calls for change based on democratic ideals of equality, justice and fairness for all races, and which were emphasised during the previous two general elections.

When Mahathir recently criticised Chinese investment projects in Johor, he utilised the race-oriented tactics of the past, which can be off-putting to some voters who had been drawn to the opposition in the first place.

Nevertheless, although Bersatu carries the baggage of its founding members, it is a new political party with the potential to grow in strength if it can sustain itself beyond its immediate challenges. No doubt Bersatu is a potential spoiler for UMNO.

Addressing public perception issues and becoming a serious contender to UMNO may increasingly require the introduction of a younger generation of politicians. With the senior generation playing the role of mentors, this new generation could do much to project the future direction of Bersatu as a viable political party — one that looks beyond the objective of unseating Najib.

Saleena Saleem is an Associate Research Fellow at Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This commentary was originally jointly published in Policy Forum and New Mandala.


19 thoughts on “Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14

  1. Orang Malaya,

    How do you rate the chances of Maha Chief Sitting Bull of Kubang Pasu and his party in the next GE? Not good I think. Bungkus after it. –Din Merican

  2. Opposition is in disaaray. Najib bn is all malaysia has got. Its a mubage in a strange bottle. There are people making headaway in life in all of this. So many dont want a dysfunctional group.

  3. Dont count on Pakatan or whatever they call themselves to capture Putrajaya and unseat Jibby. They may instead lose more Parliamentary seats and perhaps lose Selangor.
    They have to rise above their party objectives and purpose and instead agree on a common platform. They have to move away from race and religion and instead adopt the stand that we are all Malaysian first.
    60 years of BN rule first under Alliance have set the stage and future of politics in Malaysia and the docile Malays are not one to rock the boat or ready for change eapecially when it comes to Ketuanan Melayu and Islam. They will follow the Pied Piper of Pekan much tonthe detriment of the nation. Simple example is the Malaysian Chinese have been made the bogeyman by UMNOb while UMNOb are courting the mainland chinese state owned companies.

    • Yes, Orang Malaya and CLF,

      There is no harapan for us and Maha Chief Sitting Bull of Kubang Pasu. Our chief bull will fade in bitter disappointment because he is unable to right his wrongs.

      The Malays will hand Najib the premiership until Malaysia degenerates from a failed state to a bankrupt nation while Rosmah Mansor runs berserk with her lavish ways and spends state funds on Permata hoping to Malay genuises. –Din Merican

    • The platform of common “objective and purpose” for Pakatan and, very importantly and Inclusively, the PEOPLE across ALL political, racial and religious sectors,is BERSIH= Fair,Free and Clean Election, (extend to Government or Oppositions or Institutions).

      Sadly, BERSIH 4 was Hijacked by Mahathir for advancing control of the country after he failed to control Umno Baru. Anybody, including Umnob members were welcome to join the march. They are free to say what they want.

      But what is most Unforgivable, is when Ambiga and its leaders repeatedly announced the ouster of Najib.This is Not what BERSIH had stand for. Almost overnight the hard-earned Trust and Respect of millions of people on BERSIH had descipated.

      We are back to square one, unless BERSIH or similar Institution is Resurrected for the Empowerment of the people, Swiftly and Effectively with Shared Benefits and Responsibilities.

    • To win the elections Pakatan must have candidates with the qualities of either Lee Lam Thye or the late Tan Chee Khoon. Both Lee Lam Thye and the late Tan Chee Khoon were true wakil rakyat who looked after the interests of their constituencies without regard to their party affiliations. The late Tan Chee Khoon was returned at every election even though he changed parties from time to time.
      These independent politicians are a rare breed. They are completely selfless and thoroughly dedicated to serve the constituency without expectation of financial reward or public office. Does Pakatan have such candidates?

  4. There is no disagreement that the chances of opposition is not good but its simplistic to blame it simply oppositions issues. Truth of the matter is the opposition problem lies DEEP – deep there are basic problems of our society itself, but secondly also rarely talked about is that fact that UMNO/BN has had success creating problems for our society that entrenched or EVEN MADE the problem in the first place. Its true Mahathir and even Anwar was partly responsible, but even Lim Kit Siang and the Chinese that are so eager for reform are to be blamed for the short-sightedness many decades ago.

    IT IS NOT JUST NAJIB AND UMNO/BN THAT ARE PATHETIC AND SHAMELESS. Truth is Malaysian should take reponsibility for our forefathers own pathetic and shamelessness. That is right – your fathers, mothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, other elders were all guilty being pathetic and shameless. We reap what our forebears sow, we pay for their sins.

    By all means criticize Mahathir, Anwar, etc etc BUT each and everyone should act, should pay the sins of our forebears. Its fundamentally why I disagree in DAP that resign over issues of cooperation with Mahathir/Bersatu and even blame the leadership for past cooperation with PAS. Fact is there is no room for blaming. DAP’s cooperation with PAS was a gamble from the start. It is a gamble with Bersatu and Mahathir. There is no choice but to gamble and lose at least tried because there is no better choices because our forebears screwed up.

    • // DAP’s cooperation with PAS was a gamble from the start. It is a gamble with Bersatu and Mahathir.
      // They have to move away from race and religion and instead adopt the stand that we are all Malaysian first.

      I think otherwise of the current situation of the opposition. I am actually glad all parties are authentic and truthful to themselves. With a little guidance, all parties within the opposition would learn the strength to be oneself, and work with each other without needing to resort to hatred. I am seeing this is being reflected in LKS’s writings.

      If we truly embrace diversity, neither of the scenario mentioned above would happen. We would not need to give up one’s race nor religion. In a post-truth world, convictions in one’s belief system become more important than ever. It is true in US, Australia, and UK. It is true in Malaysia. But, it has to be a kind that need not embrace hatred towards others. Looking back today, I am grateful for my pendatang experience in Malaysia. I am actually beginning to see the need to call out Melayu first, and growing Bersatu. It is only when Melayu gets to save themselves today, then only Malaysia would survive in the future. For myself, who speaks and writes Chinese, what worry do I have? I have a billion people with whom I can serve. For the Melayu with another billion of Muslims, why worry when Allah is there. Why worry about hilang di dunia, when we know there are a lot work to do something concrete for today’s Islamic world.

      Melayu first, then Malaysia. Yes, It is Melayu first, not me first.
      For the DAP Malaysians, if it is not Melayu first, there is no chance for Malaysia, all Malaysians. Unlike LaMoy, I am not hopeful in China’s OBOR effort under current Xi-core administration which has been ruling by fear, and hate, throwing good resources into dubious grand projects. Xi-core and Trump deserve each other. Neither would lead well. I am not hopeful for my kind (Chinese Americans) in US in the coming decade. But, I am grateful I have a book to remind me that this world is not my world, and continue to live a peaceful and productive life.

  5. Relatively old folks like Dino can just say Que Sera Sera. Those in the 50s who has maybe another 20 years to walk the earth would not want to sit and watch two more decades of utter ruin. Sorry to be a bit harsh but when many visit your blog hoping for some enlightenment at worst and some words of comfort at best are met with sighs of hopelessness and comfort of no longer be present when things deteriorate the message you are sending is that you don’t care a hoot and serve you right for being born a bit later! As an academician, the role you are playing after years in diplomatic circle or civil service perhaps should be the one giving hopes to people instead of utter hopelessness.

    I have done my bit over many years. I know when the game is over. So I am not dispenser of hope, but someone who will tell you like it is. Sorry to disappoint you. Being academic means having the guts to speak the truth. –Din Merican

  6. Yes bigjoe99, we reap what we sow. Most of us, anyway.
    But there are some who sow on fertile ground, not on thistle or barren deserts. That fertile ground is a holistic education, not mere literalism. Good education is NOT based on paper qualifications – but remains the responsibility of society, upbringing and therefore parenthood.

    Critical thinking should not be regarded as ‘liberalism’ and ‘resistance’. Unfortunately most Asians including our so called ‘highly qualified politician’s spouses’ lack that. All come down to emotionalism and self-preservation.

    What guilt there is, lies in our reaction to the policies that our leaders dictated or promulgated. Idealism must be tempered by realism and laws of natural justice for nation building. But all politicians play up our insecurities – emotional or otherwise; and basest selfish instincts.

    A dispassionate inclusive view is never possible when exclusiveness and parochialism is institutionalized. So we must make the best of it..

    Orang Malaya, Din and i tend to look at the broader perspectives. It is not about the PASUMNOb nexus, but the sheer inability of the Opposition to come up with an alternative narrative to the Establishment populist lies, deceit and denial. Or their reckless, feckless and banal misuse of religion as a tool of oppression.

    Look at DAP who takes every opportunity to whack MCA and Gerakan to kingdom come, without offering any concrete or viable alternatives. PKR whose internecine struggles distract from ‘Justice for All’ or Amanah who don’t know whether they are coming or going. PPBMahatir who insists on perpetuating the rent-seeking entitlement for the ‘indigenous’. Or PAS, who’s vision is literally outta this world!

    “Unity is disunity” doesn’t sound like much of a Motto.

    Criticism is part and parcel of politics but let’s not over do it.

    Not to have alternatives beyond ‘Opposing for the sake of opposing’ and the lack of a profound common policy approach to the problems bedeviling the common man, is unforgivable.

    So where is the Shadow Cabinet?

    • Thanks, CLF for the honorable mention. Yes, Orang Malaya, you and I are beneficiaries of a well grounded, holistic and liberal education with reasonably good critical thinking skills and passion for books with humour to boot. When young we were bunch of idealists, but tempered by time and tested through the baptism of fire (and that did not make Orang Malaya and I Christians!), we became realists. You and I, for example, have never allowed race, color, creed and religion come in the way of our relationship and discolor our discourse. In fact, I am amply enriched by my banter with you, LaMoy, Conrad I am grateful to you for your many intellectual contributions on this blog. –Din Merican

    • There must be something opposition is doing right. Is there any good thing to say about Pulau Pinang and Selangor state government?

    • Reading a short article on Politicians of yesteryear and today, Malaysia had our share of the unpredictable. There was a ferry mandore who became a Menteri Besar and a former Security Guard who also became Menteri Besar. Then there was a small town rubber dealer who became a Cabinet Minister and a complete illiterate who also made it to the Cabinet.

      Today the upshot is that we need politicians who are smart and well educated in addition to their leadership qualities. These Y B’s however must not forget that they are ‘wakil rakyat’ first and YB second.

    • Orang Malaya,

      How true. At least, because their needs were small, they are not corrupt and could identify with aspirations of the rakyat. But things were different after Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman,Tun Tan Siew Sin and Bank Negara’s Ismail Md. Ali and got worse after Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Under Najib, we have some smart Ministers, but all of them are crooked because the culture is corrupt. True, “we need politicians who are smart and well educated in addition to their leadership qualities” but they must be imbued with strong ethical and moral values. This is non existent, everywhere you look, even in Donald Trump’s world.

      If I may, I like to quote Dr. Albert Schweitzer as follows: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know; the only ones among you who will really be happy are those who have sought and found how to serve”(others). Did Mahathir serve others? If he did, then he would have found not only happiness but also joy.

      Orang Malaya, CLF, Conrad et. al, if you can find the time, I recommend a book titled In Search of Leadership:how great leaders answer the question ‘why lead?’by Phil Harkins and Phil Swift (New York: McGraw-Hill,2009). ISBN 0-07-160295-X (alk.paper). Hopefully we can begin to know the difference between happiness and joy.–Din Merican

  7. For decades the self serving career politicians, including powerful vested interest groups, had bent the system to their interests at the great expense of the hard working and decent ordinary people.

    It’s not about race or religion……Malay is not even a race and Islam is used as a political ideology. It’s all about decades of corrupt political leadership and culture that want total domination at all cost to hide their misdeeds.

    Until there is a huge crisis, the self serving career politicians and vested interest groups will continue to think 24/7 to screw the ordinary people and the country.

  8. Democracy, among other things, means the right to be stupid.

    At the last GE, 47% who voted exercised that right. What’s the problem?

    At the next GE, voters will continue to exercise that right. It’s their country.

    Look at the USA, a country we all look up to to show us the Way of True Democracy. Their voters too exercised the democratic right to be stupid.

  9. The ENMITY of the present dire state of affairs of Malaysia is largely due to the Deeply Entrenched Umno Baru and its Leaders’ Culture of MACCP#, Not(and not condoning) Najib and 1 MDB as per see . This has been Disenabling or Disrupting the country’s Delivery System,that crucially included the broken Judiciary. Every Scandal, from BMF, …to BNM Forex Loss, Perwaja, MAS, ….. to 1MDB,…. amounting to hundreds of billion (if not in trillion) losses Unfolding​, HAS INVOLVED at least one or more of the elements in MACCP. Those involved and Responsible for the Scandalous Losses are seldom made accountable or punished.

    Unless the Leaders( or its new generation) within Umnob have the courage to speak up and reform themselves or a renewed Empowerment(=BERSIH)of the people is in the making to exert sustained pressure for change in reducing the practice of MACCP to near zero or to a tolerable level, the country will be heading for a failed state, a decade or two down the road.

    The focus is Not Mahathir vs Najib, which the Insidious, Self-serving Corrupt leaders have been​ (un) intentionally or conveniently crafted as a national diversion from the real issue.

    The focus should be on the UNDIVIDED DESIRE shown by the people across the nation who are craving for a ” Clean, Fair and Free ” Government, Institution and Election.

    The REAL ISSUE is the ERADICATION of dipilating Practise of MACCP.

    It is the Empowerment of Rakyat vs the Culture of MACCP.

    # MACCP= Money politics, Abuse of Power, Corruption, Cronysm and Puppetry.

  10. Our critical analysis of the Oppo apparently has generated some backlash and angst among the hardcore groupies, my friends. The usual “With us, or against us” sort of exclusivity and inherent idiocy.

    With any ‘Third Force’ castrated, hobbled or otherwise in hibernation; and the sheer disenchantment of our youth to politics, perhaps it is relevant to mention the dualistic nature of what it means to STRIVE. Enough of the normative: “I’m Right You’re Wrong!” sort of entitlement.

    The ancient Greeks categorized the effects of ‘Strife’ into 2 kinds:
    1. causes uncompromising discord, chaos, wars, famine and ultimately human calamity;
    2. results in competition, hard-work, excellence. self reformation and inventiveness.

    The former is what our Establishment and Oppo Goons are good at, perhaps because they remain infantile and lack the skills to engage each other productively. They shout and scream blue murder at each other, with us long suffering proletariat caught in between. So sad..

    The ‘democracy’ that most humans participate in, is ‘Might is Right’ and thus the erroneous misconception that more is better. There is no compromise or Middle Path, that Eastern traditions espouse.

    What we need are soft skills and an alternative way at looking at things. The call to “Save Malaysia”, rings hollow if it only targets a crooked, murderous and corrupt Money Launderer. Because the same technique is being applied to the Oppo Leaders. Is that not reactionary?

    We can’t even form an effective two-party system of governance! Policies are just that – hot air.. Hijacked in the name of self enrichment and aggrandization.

    Is the Quality of Life really better in the Oppo run states? Or does it remain in Limbo? With tons of bureaucracy, deteriorating infrastructure, crime rate, corruption, cost of living, irrelevant social safety nets and lackadaisical public service (patchy water and electrical supply, for instance)? So, it remains more or less the same as elsewhere and only slightly better than in the truly rural areas.

    In order to come to terms with our predicament, we must overhaul the whole system of Elitism, Apartheid, Rent-Seeking, Patronage, Rule-By-Law and Feudalistic Yearnings. It requires a great deal of Self Contemplation, Discernment, Patience, Goodwill and Maturity. And it must start with each and every Individual with a smidgen of ‘common sense’. This ain’t a trickle down Enlightenment process!

    But it seems that we are too late and a failed state is what we face.

    Jangan Syiok Sendiri!

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