April 24, 2018
G.E–14: Former Malaysian Prime Minister returns to Politics
By James Hookway
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—On a recent humid afternoon, experts holding forth here on why former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was too old to fight another campaign were stunned into silence when the 92-year-old walked in, took a microphone and said, “As far as health is concerned, I’m not senile yet.”
Many in the audience cheered the unlikely leader of the opposition, now on a mission to vanquish Prime Minister Najib Razak, the current leader of the party Dr. Mahathir helmed for 22 years, in elections May 9. Dr. Mahathir pledges to stay in power only long enough to hand the government over to his former deputy—a man whose political rise he thwarted two decades ago by having him arrested for sodomy.
A former village doctor from Alor Setar in Kedah, a small border town near Thailand, Dr. Mahathir engineered Malaysia’s transition from a tin-mining backwater into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, known for its semiconductor factories and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, before retiring in 2003. Now he is set on dislodging Mr. Najib, a well-born political insider whom Dr. Mahathir and many others have accused of siphoning money from a scandal-tainted state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB.
U.S. authorities allege that at least $4.5 billion was misappropriated between 2009 and 2015. U.S. authorities also allege in civil lawsuits that nearly $700 million flowed from 1MDB into the personal accounts of “Malaysian Official 1,” a reference to Mr. Najib, people familiar with the matter say. 1MDB and Mr. Najib have denied wrongdoing and said they would cooperate with any lawful international investigation.
Dr. Mahathir said re-establishing legal accountability would be his first order of business if the broad, multi-ethnic opposition coalition wins. “There is no rule of law anymore,” he said in an interview. “Najib can do practically anything he likes.”
In his heyday, Dr. Mahathir blocked his rivals ruthlessly and centralized nearly all political power for himself through his party, the United Malays National Organization. When his ambitious deputy Anwar Ibrahim challenged him for power, Dr. Mahathir ordered his arrest in 1998 on charges that he had broken Malaysia’s sodomy laws by having sex with two male aides. Mr. Anwar was subsequently convicted and served six years in jail, sidelining his political career until the conviction was overturned.
Speaking in Putrajaya, the purpose-built capital he constructed in the final years of his premiership, Dr. Mahathir acknowledged that the campaign would involve a reckoning with his own past—as well as an awkward détente with Mr. Anwar. The former deputy prime minister remains a popular figure and is the most viable long-term opposition candidate for prime minister, but he is in prison on another disputed sodomy conviction and barred from running.
Dr. Mahathir pledged to pardon Mr. Anwar and hand the prime ministership over to him within a few months if he wins. Mr. Anwar, due for release in June, will remain banned from politics for another five years unless he secures such a pardon.
“My reputation as a dictator and an unjust man, my jailing of Anwar, they have all come back. Some people in the opposition ask, ‘What is the difference between Najib and him? It’s like Coca-Cola and Pepsi cola. There’s not much difference, so why should we bother changing the government?,’” Dr. Mahathir said.
“But if I had really been so bad they wouldn’t have wanted me to be prime minister again,” he said, smiling.
Dr. Mahathir said he had no choice but to fire Mr. Anwar and allow his prosecution after the national chief of police said the deputy prime minister’s alleged offenses made him vulnerable. The police chief has challenged that account.
For his part, Mr. Anwar, now 70, said that while disagreements remain, “we have all agreed to move on.”
“He’s not going to say ‘Oh Anwar, I’m sorry about what happened to you,’’’ Mr. Anwar said during a recess at a court hearing earlier this month. “He’s not like that. I know him very well.”
Still, Mr. Anwar appears willing to strike an alliance with Dr. Mahathir, whom he sees as a significant campaign asset.
“What he brings to the table is the ability to penetrate that hard core of Malay voters who still support UMNO,’’ Mr. Anwar said. “People remember the things he did.”
Mr. Najib’s supporters say Dr. Mahathir’s real motivation in running is to secure a long-term political role for his son, Mukhriz Mahathir. The younger man failed to establish himself in the top ranks of the ruling party, so now his father is hoping to eventually catapult him to premiership via the opposition, says Shahril Hamdan, a member of the ruling party’s youth committee. The son is running for a parliamentary seat, but the family denies any such intention. “It’s ridiculous,” Dr. Mahathir said.
During his nine years in power, Mr. Najib has adopted and even doubled down on some of Dr. Mahathir’s old policies. He has strengthened a long-running affirmative-action program to benefit Malaysia’s majority Malays, who have often lagged behind the generally wealthier Chinese minority.
Mr. Najib has also echoed Dr. Mahathir, critics say, in moving toward a more Islamist position on social issues. He has crafted a soft alliance with the country’s largest Islamist party, stirring fears that a more strident, politicized version of the faith may gain ground. Last year, authorities banned Oktoberfest-style beer festivals in the Kuala Lumpur area under pressure from the Islamist party, known as PAS. The ruling United Malays National Organization has also flirted with the idea of expanding the role of Shariah.
The government has also redrawn electoral boundaries in its favor, something Dr. Mahathir used to do in his day. As a result, some observers say Mr. Najib is a shoo-in to win. In 2013, his coalition won 60% of parliamentary seats with less than half of the popular vote; this time, thanks to the redistricting, he could return as prime minister with as little as 16.5% of all votes, according to calculations made by an opposition-backed election watchdog.
Malaysia’s government didn’t respond to a request for comment on its electoral arrangements.
Many in the opposition’s coalition feel they can win in rural districts left behind by the export boom driving Malaysia’s 5.9% growth last year by highlighting how rising living costs, new taxes and inflation are putting people in a pinch as wages stagnate.
Another pivotal factor could be Dr. Mahathir himself, and whether he can win the trust of former government voters and Mr. Anwar’s supporters. Both men rose from humble beginnings and worked hand in hand for years. Mr. Anwar was viewed as Dr. Mahathir’s successor and became known for espousing a more democratic form of government. But when Mr. Anwar challenged Dr. Mahathir’s leadership, he ended up in prison.
“It’s difficult for people not to blame me,” Dr. Mahathir said.
While Mr. Anwar is ready to move on, other opposition leaders are less forgiving of the former leader, including Mr. Anwar’s eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar.
“He needs to be watched,” she said. “Mahathir created the divides in Malaysia. We inherited his system. It’s up to him to fix it.”