Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

July 3, 2017


Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

The former Prime Minister is reinventing himself as a leader of the Opposition

Image result for doctor in the house mahathir

The Doctor seeks a Return to the House

WHEN Mahathir Mohamad spent a week in hospital last year, at the age of 91, talk naturally turned to his legacy as Malaysia’s longest-serving former Prime Minister. How naive. Dr Mahathir may have stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office, but he has hardly been retiring in retirement. His constant sniping helped topple his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, who lasted until 2009.

Now the old warhorse is picking a fight with Najib Razak, the Prime Minister since then and now leader of Dr Mahathir’s former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has run Malaysia for the past 60 years. Dr Mahathir has registered a new political party and persuaded Pakatan Harapan, the fractious coalition that forms Malaysia’s main opposition, to admit it as a member. Now Pakatan is debating whether to make Dr Mahathir the chairman of their coalition—and, perhaps, their candidate for Prime Minister at elections which must be held within 13 months. Having long said that he would not be returning to Parliament, Dr Mahathir has lately been hinting that he would consider another stint in the top job.

Image result for anwar ibrahim and mahathir mohamad

In Politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests

It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely turn of events. The original incarnation of the coalition Dr Mahathir might soon be running was formed in the late 1990s to oppose his own interminable rule. Its founder, Anwar Ibrahim, was Dr Mahathir’s deputy until the latter sacked him during a power struggle; he was later jailed on sham charges of corruption and sodomy. The current government’s methods are copied directly from Dr Mahathir’s playbook. Since 2015 Mr Anwar has been back in prison following a second sodomy conviction, this one just as dubious as the first. The reversal of the authoritarian turn Malaysia took under Dr Mahathir is one of Pakatan’s main objectives.

What makes all this even tougher to stomach is that Dr Mahathir’s conversion to the Opposition’s cause looks disturbingly incomplete. Though he is hobnobbing with former enemies, the old codger still finds it difficult to apologise for the excesses of his tenure. Many of his views remain wacky: in May he told the Financial Times that he still thinks the American or Israeli governments might have arranged the attacks of September 11th 2001. Can Malaysia’s opposition really find no more palatable leader?

These are desperate times, retort Dr Mahathir’s supporters. Since 2015 news about the looting of 1MDB, a government-owned investment firm from which at least $4.5bn has disappeared, has dragged Malaysia’s reputation through the muck. American government investigators say that 1MDB’s money was spent on jewellery, mansions, precious artworks and a yacht, and that nearly $700m of it went to the prime minister. Mr Najib says he has not received any money from 1MDB, and that $681m deposited into his personal accounts was a gift from a Saudi Royal (now returned). He has kept his job, but only after replacing the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General.

Image result for The Politically unassailable Najib Razak

The Prognosis is that Najib Razak is likely to win GE-14

One might expect this scandal to propel Pakatan into power at the coming election, but instead the opposition looks likely to lose ground, perhaps even handing back to UMNO and its allies the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. This bizarre reversal has much to do with Malaysia’s regrettable racial politics: the Malay-Muslim majority largely favours the government and the big ethnic-Chinese and -Indian minorities tend to vote against it. Mr Najib has baited an Islamist party into renewing calls for more flogging for moral lapses, forcing them to leave Pakatan. The split in the opposition will lead to lots of three-candidate races, in which UMNO will romp home.

Put in this context, Dr Mahathir’s reappearance is a godsend. It stands to transform Pakatan’s chances by granting access to a broad swathe of rural constituencies that they had previously thought unwinnable. Many Malays have fond memories of the booming economy of Dr Mahathir’s era (they overlook its crony capitalism and his intolerance for dissent); in their eyes, he put Malaysia on the map. As coalition chairman, Dr Mahathir might also bring some order to Pakatan’s noisy council meetings. His backing could be invaluable after a narrow victory or in a hung parliament, when UMNO’s creatures in the bureaucracy might be expected to put up a fight.

All these benefits could probably be obtained without offering to make Dr Mahathir the Prime Minister. But he may be the only front man upon whom most of the coalition can agree. That role had previously fallen to Mr Anwar, but it has become clear to all but a few holdouts that he cannot continue to manage the quarrelsome coalition from his cell. Voters are not sure whether to believe Pakatan when it says that, should it win, it will find some way to catapult Mr Anwar out of his chains and into the country’s top job. Nor are they much inspired by the notion of accepting a seat-warmer to run the country while this tricky manoeuvre takes place.

It could be worse

This is a depressing mess, even by Malaysia’s dismal standards. The opposition bears no blame for the dirty tricks which, over several shameful decades, the government has used to hobble Mr Anwar and many others. But by failing to nurture—or even to agree upon—the next generation of leaders, they have played straight into UMNO’s hands.

It is possible that the thought of hoisting Dr Mahathir into the top job will at last force the coalition to thrust a younger leader to the fore (some suspect that this is the outcome that Dr Mahathir, a shrewd strategist, has always had in mind). But it is also possible that, facing only uncomfortable options, they will end up making no decision at all. Some in Pakatan seem happy to barrel into the next election without telling voters who will lead Malaysia should they win. That might seem like pragmatism, but it is really just defeatism.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Doctor on call”

8 thoughts on “Mahathir Mohamad’s return shows the sorry state of Malaysian politics

  1. Malaysians should remember the criminals who through their kleptocracy is now set to settle Malaysia with debts which will bankrupt the nation and Malaysians.

  2. Octo’s powers of regeneration (or degeneration) are remarkable. But a Facebook nonagenarian as PM? No thanks. Enough of twittering conmen as heads of state.

    What seems even more remarkable to me, is the hubristic imbecility of UMNOb and the philistine instability of PH. Sharks are NOT the apex predator, okay?

  3. Malaysian opposition political parties do not share the same “political ideology”. They are so fragmented and divisive and the only thing that they can agree is “to topple Najib and BN” but what happens next, no one has any clear answer.

    The Malaysians while upset with BN and Najib sees no alternatives and thus BN will still win the election. The Opposition have failed over so many elections to convince the majority of voters that they can offer a better government, better life, more progress and a stable government for the coming years. The voters have been disappointed with the Opposition because in the past the Opposition have let them down, when given the chance to govern the Opposition have caused havoc through party hopping by MP’s and State Assemblymen (case of Perak), power tussle between the component parties resulting in scandals and loss of support (Kajang move) and the removal of Khalid Ibrahim in Selangor. Then we have the fight between the three component parties in Penang. Thus it shows that a loose coalition whatever you call them cannot survive the test of time without a common political ideology.

    • //Thus it shows that a loose coalition whatever you call them cannot survive the test of time without a common political ideology.

      Well said. But, it reflects the reality of politics, which needed the help of many seeds of mistrust of each other for the sake of protection of a political structure, especially for one which is badly in need of reasons to legitimize its’ rule.

      Glancing through different news piece of the world, through this morning, I came across through this official piece from China, which attempts to open old wounds from the Sino-Indian war.
      (Do use to figure what it roughly says)

      Since Sino-Indian War is not taught in Malaysia, I have to depend on the crude readings of wikipedia to learn what happened.
      What was said on the page, as I have read it this morning, suggests there were strong interests from both China and India to extend the war for the sake of legitimizing their rule of their own people.

      Malaysia, due to our Malay ‘halus’ tradition, learns to deal with these communal mistrust by choosing not to teach them. It mimics the story of the Clintonian idea of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, which follows John Rawl’s liberal idea of ruling with a veil of ignorance. Yet, even the Clintons may no longer support that ideal today.

      What was left in an information flat-world is how a polity would choose to continue to move on, given its’ state. Malaysia, with all of its’ historical baggage as one of the world’s ‘kuli’ is created with a population from a mixed pot of diverse economic migrants. Thus, we inherit all of the world’s deep-seated mistrust also.

      Tun M crafted the original ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ with his ‘Melayu Dilemma’. Perhaps, it is also the ideal time to suggest he could be the best candidate to dismantle that silly ‘Beggar thy Neighbour’ ‘Ketuanan’ philosophy, especially now that Tun M would want to continue to rule through the help of Pakatan Harapan.

      Islam is facing a hostile challenge. China, IMHO, is over-extended with its’ one party rule. Modi’s India has yet to arrive. Most importantly, America and the liberal West has been caught up in a cold spell. Malaysia, with what it’s worth, has only one choice today to do better for their children tomorrow. Now or never.

      Put down our fear and mistrusts. Pressure our political masters to assists us in doing so.

      We needed Tun M’s craftiness. We needed the wealth he gathered during his rule. Most importantly, his ambition needed us to pressure him to undo what the Kleptocracy he has created.

      We needed to believe in our democratic ideal of “check-and-balance” system. It is the most inefficient system. But, at the best of our knowledge, it is the only system we know how to live peacefully.

      I support Tun M’s suggestion. But, we should keenly pressure him to suggest the need of ‘Melayu Dilemma’ has ended, and most importantly, that it is not all correct in its’ implementation.

    • Beyond ‘check-and-balance’, we needed transparency in ‘budget oversight’, and we definitely needed ‘term limits’ both in the government and within each of the major political parties.

  4. In principle, there is nothing wrong with Mahathir wanting or being asked or considered as PM for the second or even third time around, if he happens to live to a healthy 110 year old.

    The question is whether he should, and here everyone, for or against, bring their own pride, prejudices and personal interests into consideration. Here it truly depends on who you ask.

  5. Am I right in thinking that Dr. M. was rejected by the Inns of Court in London as not being suitably qualified to study Law; hence his diversion to the Medical School in Singapore? If so what effect could this have had on him in the future? A thought!

  6. Dr. M applied for a colonial government scholarship to study law in England but was given one for medicine in Singapore instead, as I understand.

    If he had gone to England, he would have met and interacted with Tengku Abdul Rahman, LKY, Tun Razak, and be part of the student socialist movement.

    He would probably not have had such a big chip on his shoulders and perhaps less anti-Singapore.

    He would not have met Siti Hasmah who was also doing medicine there and Marina Mahathir would not come about.

    As a lawyer in the early UMNO party where lawyers were scarce, he would perhaps made it to either a law minister or AG, and without some rudimentary knowledge of genetics and sociology, would not have written “The Malay Dilemma”

    After being kicked out of UMNO, he probably would have practiced law in Kuala Lumpur, met some rich Chinese businessmen, gone into business under the auspices of Tun Razak’s NEP, and the future course of Malaysia’s socio-political history would be very different, for better or worse.

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