Mahathir–Anwar Partnership rattles Najib Razak but brings fresh hope for Malaysians

July 28, 2017

Mahathir–Anwar Partnership rattles Najib Razak but brings fresh hope for Malaysians

by William Pesek

Image result for Anwar-Mahathir 2017

The newfound Mahathir-Anwar Ibrahim coalition could lead Malaysia out of economic stagnation and, even if Najib Razak plays tough, the good news is it can no longer be business as usual.

Twenty years after the financial crisis that devastated Asian economies, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad still hates currency traders. But the Deputy Prime Minister he fired, and later jailed, during that chaotic period? Not so much.

180-degree turn on Anwar Ibrahim is as disorienting as any bromance Asia has seen. What otherworldly force was enough to reunite the 92-year-old firebrand who ruled Malaysia for 22 years and his nemesis? A shared disgust for current Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose corruption scandals have Malaysia in the global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Image result for Najib Razak I am not a crook
Indeed you are a bloody crook of the worst kind Malaysia has seen. You can’t even control your greedy wife.


Since 2009, Najib hasn’t just tarnished the national brand at every turn – he has pursued an agenda ensuring a lost decade for a resource-rich economy that should be booming. Cronyism isn’t new to Malaysia; there was plenty during Mahathir’s 1981-2003 tenure. When Malaysia hit a wall in 1997 along with Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, its culture of patronage, political ties over merit, and weak institutions sent currency speculators, including George Soros, pouncing on the ringgit.

Mahathir hasn’t forgotten that episode, during which he pegged the currency and imposed capital controls. He called Soros a “moron”, while the financier called Mahathir a “menace”. In recent interviews explaining his return to politics, he said currency dealing “should not be a business at all” and is “causing a lot of poverty” around the world.

Najib hasn’t just tarnished the national brand, he has pursued an agenda ensuring a lost decade.

Najib is now the menace, in Mahathir’s view. Studying his gripes about Najib, another protégé turned arch-enemy, Mahathir seems less perturbed by the stench of corruption than the reek of economic backsliding. Malaysia’s population, like those of Japan, China and elsewhere, will put up with dodgy governance practices so long as living standards rise. The ends tend to justify the means if bellies are full and bank accounts grow. But as Indonesia, the Philippines and other neighbours move forward, Malaysia is regressing in dangerous ways.

When Mahathir left office 14 years ago, Malaysia ranked 37th on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. It’s now 55th. Since Najib grabbed the reins, Malaysia has stagnated in competitiveness and innovation rankings. He’s huge on buzzy conferences heralding Malaysia’s success in raising its game, but the facts belie the hype.

Image result for Anwar and Mahathir

Then Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (left) flicks dust off Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s sleeve during a press conference in February 1997.

The pair fell out the following year over allegations of corruption and sodomy against Anwar, who was sacked by Mahathir. But they have now reunited to take on Najib.

Najib pledged to dismantle the affirmative-action policies his Prime-Minister father implemented in 1971. Those productivity-killing quotas favour the ethnic Malay majority for jobs, education and government contacts, and scare off foreign investment. Once scandal hit, Najib went the other way – backward – and expanded what can be best termed apartheid economics.

Many of those controversies surround 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), the state fund Najib created in 2009 to burnish Kuala Lumpur’s image as a financial centre. Instead, it’s been a national embarrassment, sparking money laundering investigations from Singapore to Zurich to Washington, and pulling Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio and Miranda Kerr into the fray. There’s also a little matter of US$700 million that found its way into Najib’s personal accounts (he claims it’s a donation from rich Saudis).

Watching Malaysia return to cautionary-tale status was too much for nonagenarian Mahathir. He and former deputy-turned-foe-turned-ally Anwar are joining forces with opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan to unseat Najib.

Anwar must get out of jail first, of course, but that seems a mere formality, as many in Putrajaya turn on Najib and perhaps the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled for seven decades.

Is all this good news for Malaysia’s calcified economy? In the short run, no. These last eight years of drift and dysfunction resigned it to a multi-year period of lower living standards and perhaps the dreaded middle-income trap. Longer-term, though, Mahathir could be the jolt that rescues Malaysia from mediocrity.

Mahathir could be the jolt that rescues Malaysia from mediocrity. Granted, Mahathir is as much a forefather of Malaysia’s one-party sclerosis as anyone. And his headline-generating tirades against currency traders, capitalism and Jews over the years did their own damage to the Malaysian brand.

Mahathir also should have done more in the years after 1997 to discard growth-draining policies championed by Najib’s father 26 years earlier. Years of being somewhat removed from Putrajaya’s political bubble and an eye on his legacy, though, have ­re-energized a man with more gravitas than anyone in the nation of 30 million. Just as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew held larger-than-life sway in his post-leadership incarnation, Mahathir’s voice has a resonance that is unmatched.

That makes Mahathir both Najib’s worst nightmare and Malaysia’s best hope. There is a risk that Najib, desperate to maintain power, clamps down on dissent and monkeys with the rule of law, as, frankly, Mahathir once might have. This tussle of leaders past and present could extend Malaysia’s lost decade if Najib digs in for a protracted fight.

Najib, for example, has resorted to playing the God card, harnessing intolerance in his Muslim-majority nation at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities. This could descend into a political catfight that roils markets and slams business and consumer confidence.

But even if Mahathir fails to wrestle the premiership from Najib’s hands, his return ensures business as usual is no longer an option. That could lead to a more dynamic and modern Malaysia.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades. Twitter: @williampesek


8 thoughts on “Mahathir–Anwar Partnership rattles Najib Razak but brings fresh hope for Malaysians

  1. Let’s hope that this is one marriage of convenience that really works and last a lifetime.

    The almost comical irony is that this is also a same-sex marriage.

    Malaysia, a land of truly endless possibilities.

    Anyone for an Anwar-Najib, or Anwar-Zahid or even Hisham-Guan Eng marriages to fight Mahathir if after becoming the 7th PM pushes too hard for his son to be the 8th or 9th PM?

    • Politics is the art of the possible. I never thought I would see the day when Anwar would be reunited with his jailer in common cause. He is like Nelson Mandela. Madiba had a big heart who put his country first and forgave his enemies. What made him unique is that he did not cling to power after reconciliation. That is made him great. like Gandhiji.–Din Merican

  2. A very good point at the end. What happens if Mahathir fails? Will things change, even if it does, enough to avoid a disaster?

    Malaysian institutions are destroyed. The more educated KJ says he and his generation knows it and will change it. Even if KJ can take the reigns someday, will he still want and be able to change it as he promises now? Fact is KJ is at best next-next in line – much can happen before he and his generation can take the reigns but look around those who are with him – they are so highly mediocre KJ can never fufill what he says he want even if he gets the job. As powerful as the PM post is, the propose change is a team effort and KJ, to rise and keep rising has surround himself with mediocrity the best and brightest of his co-horts does not respect and will not team with him.

    But even before KJ team dream vision, there is Zahid Hamidi who will definitely team with Hadi’s PAS and entrenched themselves to destroy even more of the founding of this country even before the fantasy KJ team dream vision can even start. After the Zahid Hamidi & Co is done, its irreversible, there is no possible fantasy KJ team dream vision.

    • Correction. He did not graduate. They gave it to him when he became PM. Cheapskate. Anyway, He is the Sheriff of Pekan, Orang Malaya. –Din Merican

  3. Why izzit that certain folks can’t take things on face-value?

    They would revisit the past ad infinitum or project so far into the future, that they don’t live in the here and now.. The first type, i deem as ‘Voimtus’ – who vomit every infringement and take bad decisions as an affront to their accountancy godliness. They then go on to project the ‘what-ifs’ as if things never change – like their ability to evolve. The second type forget totally the past and seer into the future like ‘CrackHeads’.

    Who is the Paramount Existential Threat to the idea of Malaysia presently – the best of Asia (sic)? A Clear and Present danger, somewhat akin to the doctrine adopted by the U.S Supreme Court with regards to the First Amendment?

    It certainly ain’t Octo. He certainly has the Gravitas, but I don’t think he stands a chance against the fervid incumbent, given the filthy tricks and weight of establishment machinery. But as Mr Pesek says, Octo represents a paradigm change of what must be done – as Malusians cling to the edge of the Abyss. Hope, faith and charity, as we desperate Christians always intone.

    The nightmare scenario is actually Jibros own deputy, Zahood backstabbing him, then ganging up with the dinosaurian Taliban ragheads – as bigjoe pointed out. The East Malusians will vamoose asap should that happen – and so will i. Why? Cuz Zahood has all the brain power of a nematode with all it’s devolutionary and parasitic affections.

    Between the present leaders of UMNOb and the second echelon in PH, who would you incredible intellectuals chose?

    • //The nightmare scenario is actually Jibros own deputy, Zahood backstabbing him, then ganging up with the dinosaurian Taliban ragheads – as bigjoe pointed out.

      Amen. Exactly! This is how democracy is supposed to work. We need the Prince to fight among themselves, such that each of them would want the rakyat to claim their legitimacy. Ours have been distorted by the silly malapportioned electoral system, and not to mention the concentration of power. We need to have the above scenario to take place, so that we could have a collective will to fix the original distortion.

      //Niebuhr has given us the knowledge that political organizations would always only coerce. But, modern day pragmatic political theory reminded us that 2 other forces, that is the force of distortion and subjugation, are always at work. The force of distortion happens whenever princes fight amongst themselves vying for ‘Ketuanan’. The force of subjugation from the rakyat wishing to get their rights represented gets the princes work for their good.

  4. //Najib, for example, has resorted to playing the God card, harnessing intolerance in his Muslim-majority nation at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities.
    //But even if Mahathir fails to wrestle the premiership from Najib’s hands, his return ensures business as usual is no longer an option. That could lead to a more dynamic and modern Malaysia.

    Amen. No pun intended. This is what I have learnt from two men of God some years ago. We got to put the ambitious work for the people, i.e. you and me.
    Our leaders, in reality, are as broken as we are. Knowing all is broken is the core tenet of my faith.

    After years of working as an activist, Rienhold Neibuhr realized that even an ideal society had to coerce some into conforming to the ideal. While an individual could choose to sacrifice one’s share of provision for the greater good, one could never claim rights to give away the rights of those one represents, as Neibuhr explains in his essay ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society‘.

    Paul Tillich’s work on ‘Love, Power and Justice’ suggested that loveless power would not last, while powerless love would lead to mere idle talk, if it is not followed with actions that lead to justice. Justice guided by a genuine heart of love for each other is the only pragmatic approach to be taken by any society that aspires to last

    – With above realization, I hope all those who support TunM, DSAI, and Harapan, support the ending of Article 153 openly also. We must tell our leaders to look inside what took place in 1969 which caused so much of heartache which led us to today’s mess, so that the next generation of Melayu could stop being this generation of Welayu. Stop being the imperialistic Cina, which led forefathers of this pendatang to the shores of Tanah Melayu. For the pendatang Cina, don’t forget what led your forefathers left their homeland in the first place.

    DSAI avoided my question of what should be taught about May 13, if he ever become PM. Please ask him again openly, especially since he has more time to think about this for his people.

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