A Political Comeback at 93

October 2, 2018

A Political Comeback at 93

Malaysia’s Prime Minister discusses his alliance with a man he once jailed, his trouble with the Chinese, and his country’s system of racial preferences.


By  Tunku Varadarajan

New York

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Dr Mahathir with Dr.Fareed Zakaria after the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York.

Even in a city swarming with statesmen and panjandrums from every nook of the globe—all gathered here for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly—Mahathir Mohamad stands out as exceptional. That he is the world’s oldest head of government is almost prosaic compared with the magnitude and audacity of his political reinvention. After 15 years out of power, he’s back as Prime Minister of Malaysia for a second time. Now he is ruling in a courteous (and remarkable) coalition with a man he once sent to prison for sodomy and abuse of power on charges widely accepted to have been trumped up and politically motivated.

Illustration: Ken Fallin A Political Comeback at 93

The wily Dr. Mahathir—he’s a physician—may be 93, but he insists in conversation that that’s merely his “chronological age—biological age is quite different.” He seems perhaps a decade younger. “I’m still myself,” he says, “still able to function.” He returned to office in a cathartic May election, which swept out incumbent Najib Razak, regarded by many, including the U.S. Justice Department, as exceptionally corrupt. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Dr. Mahathir is contrite about the autocratic way in which his critics believe he governed from 1981 to 2003, he does have a few regrets.

“There were criticisms against the time when I was Prime Minister for 22 years,” he says in his suite at the Plaza Hotel, “and I find some of the criticisms are worth looking into.” Now, he adds, “I have the benefit of all this experience, 15 years working with the opposition.” But “I will do things only slightly differently. Otherwise, a lot of the old policies and strategies are still relevant today.”

Dr. Mahathir admits that “one of the things that they criticized me about was that I had cronies, and that I helped my cronies.” He argues that criticism is unfair, that those people received his favor “because they were able to do things. I tend to support people who are capable, who have shown some achievements.” This results-oriented approach to doing business, he believes, was misunderstood. “But now, since I am [governing] with the people who used to criticize me, I want to show them that I’m not what they think I am.”

Those new partners include Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the People’s Justice Party, or PKR, which has 47 seats in Malaysia’s 222-member Parliament—the most of any party. Mr. Anwar was Dr. Mahathir’s protégé and Malaysia’s finance minister, but the two fell out acridly in 1998. The following year Mr. Anwar was tried, convicted and imprisoned.

Dr. Mahathir leads the Alliance of Hope coalition, of which Mr. Anwar’s PKR is the spearhead. The prime minister’s party, Bersatu, has only 13 of the coalition’s 113 parliamentary seats. Dr. Mahathir’s status as the foremost politician of modern Malaysia might have made him the obvious choice to lead the coalition into elections. Yet he did so also because Mr. Anwar was still in prison—on a second iteration of the sodomy charges for which he was first jailed by Dr. Mahathir in 1999.

The coalition campaigned on the understanding that Dr. Mahathir would be prime minister for two years, after which he would cede office to Mr. Anwar. It was also understood that the latter would receive a pardon and be released from prison—as he was. Will Dr. Mahathir stick to the promise of a transition of power to Mr. Anwar? “Well, there have been a lot of people who mention two years,” he says, “but I am supposed to be the interim prime minister. It may be two years, it may be one year. . . . It may be three years. I wouldn’t know.”

Pressed to clarify, he remains cryptic: “I didn’t know what to say, but I believe that after two years he will take over.”

Does Dr. Mahathir regret the legal action against Mr. Anwar in the late 1990s? “Well, I don’t know about regretting,” he responds, “but at that time, it was done by a court of law. The trial lasted nine months. All kinds of evidence was produced, and the court decided. It’s not me! So people will blame me for that, but I don’t interfere with the courts.” His critics, he says, “want to take a political view” of Mr. Anwar’s imprisonment. “I was not the best-liked leader in the Western world, because I’m critical about other wrongdoings elsewhere”—he was famously outspoken against Israel—“so the moment they find reason to blame me, they will.”

Dr. Mahathir suggests he could have resorted to Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, “which allowed the government to detain a person without trial. I didn’t do that. He went to the courts.” Asked if Mr. Anwar’s succession would be good for Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir says, “well, that is what the people want. It’s not a question of what I like. If the people want that, they will have it.”

How does Mr. Anwar feel about his erstwhile jailer? “He seems to be quite nice,” Dr. Mahathir says. “He sees me; we talk to each other. We didn’t discuss about old things, because we decided that those things are the past, and we can’t look at the past. We have to look ahead.” As for the sodomy law, Dr. Mahathir says his government will not repeal it. “We are a Muslim nation, and we do not tolerate sodomy. The rest of the world may tolerate it, but we cannot. That is against our religion.”

Dr. Mahathir doesn’t like the way radical Islam is commonly described in the West. “In Malaysia, we believe that what we practice is Islamic fundamentalism. If you go according to the teachings of Islam, you will be able to set up a good society, a good government. You will not be oppressive.” What the West calls Islamist fundamentalism, he says, “is a deviation from the teachings of Islam. It’s not Islam at all. We have some people [in Malaysia] who are attracted to these deviations, but we have been able to argue against them. And by and large, the people support us.” He alludes to his recent criticism of a Shariah court in the Malaysian state of Terengganu, which ordered the caning of a lesbian couple.

“It’s not a moderate position,” he says of his own disapproval of the court, “it’s an Islamic position. I mean, in Islam there is tolerance. We have to be merciful and compassionate. There are other forms of punishment. It’s not necessary to cane these people, so we objected to that. It gives a very bad impression of Islam.” He has said the two women should have had to undergo counseling, not caning.

Another contentious facet of modern Malaysia is its entrenched system of racial preferences. Ethnic Malays—the Sons of the Soil, in local parlance—receive notable advantages over citizens of Chinese and Indian origin in jobs and educational opportunities. Will the New Mahathir, as Malaysians now describe him, reset his country toward a goal of equality and genuine pluralism? Will the idea of Malay dominance diminish?

“There is no Malay dominance,” Dr. Mahathir says quickly, before launching into an explanation of how he sees his country’s political demography: “The problem is we have three major communities, and the wealth of the country is not evenly distributed between the three. So we have to correct that.” If not, he continues, there will be “tension” as a result of the “big disparity” between rich and poor. And if “the rich belong to one race and the poor belong to another race, then the potential for tension and conflict will be much greater.”

“The rich” are Malaysia’s Chinese, and to a lesser extent its Indians; the poor are the Malays. “What we did was to favor the poorer people, so as to be able to catch up with the rich. That is affirmative action. Naturally, affirmative action means that you have to discriminate against one group in favor of the other. If you don’t do that, there can never be any changes in the disparities.”

He intends, however, to effect one change. Dr. Mahathir plans to crack down on the widespread practice whereby Malay beneficiaries resell to businessmen of other races contracts they’ve been awarded based on affirmative action. “We have to make sure that if we give a contract to the deprived community, then they cannot sell or transfer the contract to anybody else. If they do, then the contract becomes invalid.”

Dr. Mahathir says he also is determined to address the more profound issues of corruption that bedevil his country. These include the relentless prosecution of his predecessor, Mr. Najib, who stands accused of gargantuan theft from a state-owned fund known as 1MDB.

“I believe that if the leader is not corrupt, then the level of corruption will not be very high,” Dr. Mahathir says. “What happened was that the Prime Minister himself was totally corrupt, openly corrupt, and because of that, corruption spread throughout the whole government machinery and the business community.” There will be no amnesty deal with Mr. Najib, Dr. Mahathir insists: “He claims he can explain everything, that he didn’t take the money. And that is up to the judge, to evaluate his defense against the prosecutor’s evidence.”

A legacy of the Najib years is a series of contracts with China, which critics and economists believe will leave Malaysia deeply indebted. Dr. Mahathir has put most of these projects, worth around $22 billion in total, on hold. On a visit to Beijing in August, he startled his hosts by speaking of a “new version of colonialism”—an allusion to China’s galloping economic expansion. In New York, Dr. Mahathir says that “the press put those words into my mouth, I didn’t say that”—even as there are YouTube clips online that show him uttering those words in the presence of an open-mouthed Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier.

In what appears to be a quibble over words, Dr. Mahathir insists that he meant “neocolonialism,” in the sense that “Sukarno said after independence.” (Sukarno was Indonesia’s president from 1945-67.) Dr. Mahathir says that “any attempt to gain control of our country is a form of colonialism. So we do not want that. I wasn’t specifically saying [it] about China.” He adds that “it is the duty of an independent country to retain its independence by whatever means possible.”

The Chinese projects “involve huge borrowings, and we cannot repay that money,” he says. “So the best thing to do is to drop the project. But of course we have made agreements with them. If, unilaterally, we drop the project, we have to pay compensation, so instead we proposed a postponement, or a reduction in the scale.” The Chinese “haven’t said no, so far. They are listening to what we are proposing.”

His own relationship with the giant neighbor to Malaysia’s north isn’t Dr. Mahathir’s only worry. He doesn’t like the growing hostility between the U.S. and China. “Confrontation, I think, isn’t going to be good for anyone,” he muses, referring to the presence of U.S. warships in the South China Sea. “It’s far better to talk and discuss things, rather than to send battleships to show your dislike for whatever move that the countries there make.”

Donald Trump appears to disconcert Dr. Mahathir, who laughs nervously when asked about the American President. “We cannot make out what the presidency is like, because he changes his mind sometimes three times in one day. It’s very unsettling, because how do you deal with a person who is not consistent? This is our worry.”

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Malaysia’s previous Prime Minister, says Dr. Mahathir, “tried to bribe” President Trump “by offering to buy aircraft and all that. He actually said he wanted to help the economy of the United States. Malaysia is a small country. We can’t help people.”

Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Appeared in the September 29, 2018, print edition.

Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad are Thinking About Coming Home.

May 17, 2018

Affirmative Action Drove Many Chinese Malaysians Abroad. Now They’re Thinking About Coming Home.

Mahathir Mohamad’s new ruling coalition pledges level field after decades of affirmative action for ethnic Malays

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia– Robert Leong left Malaysia about 40 years ago, first for boarding school in Northern Ireland and then to study medicine in Dublin. He went on to the U.S., where he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works in biotechnology.

Now, political upheaval back home is making it more likely that ethnic Chinese expatriates like Mr. Leong will return to Malaysia, bringing talent and capital back with them.

The electoral collapse of the ethnic-Malay-based party that ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 is raising expectations that the new government will soften or end a decades-old affirmative-action policy that favors the majority Muslim Malay population, often at the expense of ethnic Chinese.

“Would I return? Yes, after allowing time for the new government to settle down and begin implementing reforms,” said Mr. Leong, who is 55 years old. “There is a huge pool of talented and experienced Malaysians living overseas that this new government could tap into.”

Before it was voted out of power last week, the ruling United Malays National Organization gave quotas, handouts and other preferential assistance to Malays to help them catch up with the generally wealthier Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese Malaysians left the country to seek a fairer hand elsewhere.

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The newly elected ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad—who championed affirmative action during his earlier, 22-year stint in the post—has decried the UMNO government’s “narrow racist rhetoric” and promised to level the playing field by providing support for all Malaysians who need it.

It is a sensitive and closely followed issue both here and abroad. The pledge from the Alliance of Hope coalition offers to ensure that “Malaysians of all backgrounds will enjoy a fair share of this country’s wealth.”

Mr. Mahathir suggested on Tuesday that the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy “so there are more opportunities for people to practice as professionals, as well as invest in this country.” Speaking via video link to a Wall Street Journal conference in Tokyo, he dodged questions about whether he would seek to remove racial quotas.

Removing the affirmative-action program could be difficult, with Malays and other indigenous groups making up more than two-thirds of the country’s 32 million people.

Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Above, troops patrol streets in the Malaysian capital’s Chinatown.
Hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. Above, troops patrol streets in the Malaysian capital’s Chinatown. Photo: Bettmann Archive/GETTY IMAGES


The pro-Malay policy emerged after 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur in which hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed. The government introduced an affirmative-action system that, among other things, reserves many spots in college for Malays; they also benefit from subsidized housing and equity ownership policies and dominate the public sector. The programs have helped nurture an ethnic-Malay middle class, to the extent that some Malays in Kuala Lumpur and other cities say they no longer need help.

From the start, many Chinese Malaysians, unsure of finding spots in universities or getting scholarships, began sending their children to Australia, the U.K. and America. “That’s how the exodus began,” said Jason Wong, 23. “Anyone could get the money together would send their children overseas to try to get a foothold there.”


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He should know. Mr. Wong aims to return to Australia where he previously studied to pursue a doctoral degree in ecology. If he does, he would add to a brain drain in which 1 million Malaysians left the country as of 2010, according to a World Bank study published a year later, the vast majority of them ethnic Chinese.

“Whenever I read about what happens in Malaysia, I daydream—maybe one day I would visit home and change things,” said Chin Fen Teo, 38, who also lives in the Bay Area. “I wish Malaysia is a country where racial harmony is real, not like the fake posters that are plastered all over to promote tourism,” she said.

Newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy.
Newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy. Photo: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg News


Half of the Chinese Malaysians surveyed last year by researchers from Oxford University said they would leave the country if they could. Malaysia’s Department of Statistics has predicted that the ethnic Chinese population could drop to 20% by 2040, down from 38% at independence and around 23% today, although higher birthrates among Malays is a contributing factor.

Mr. Wong says he would prefer to wait and see how the government tackles the affirmative action system before deciding whether to leave—noting that Mr. Mahathir is still leader of a party that segregates Malay and non-Malay membership.

“As long as his pride stops him from challenging the racial supremacism he engineered decades ago, it will continue drifting around in the Malaysian psyche,” Mr. Wong said. “But if circumstances force him to confront that racism, I suppose I’ll play along.”

Another wild card: Mr. Mahathir, who is 92 years old, has said he plans to hand power in a year or two to former rival Anwar Ibrahim, a longtime advocate of free-market economics, who was released from prison on Wednesday and pardoned for a sodomy conviction he says was politically motivated.

He heads the most avowedly multiracial party in the new coalition. Meanwhile, Mr. Mahathir is focusing his attention on building a case against former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who he accuses of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB.

Mr. Najib denies any wrongdoing and has been barred from leaving the country. Police searched Mr. Najib’s residence for several hours overnight Wednesday into Thursday for evidence, taking away several boxes of personal items, one of his lawyers told reporters.

The issue of Malay supremacy will likely linger on in rural or semirural areas, where the idea that Malays serve as the bedrock of the nation and deserve preferential treatment has taken a deep hold, said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the polling company Merdeka Center

“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “The idea of Malay rights will still be a big part of the political landscape.”

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

Malaysia’s Ruling Party Sacks Defectors as Election Fight Heats Up

May 6, 2018


Malaysia’s Ruling Party Sacks Defectors as Election Fight Heats Up

Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting to stay in power, dogged by the continuing 1MDB scandal

By Yantoultra Ngui


Malaysia’s ruling party said on Saturday that it expelled two of its best-known members and began investigating a third for backing the opposition in Wednesday’s Wednesday’s national election, a fresh sign that Prime Minister Najib Razak might be facing a tougher-than-expected battle to stay in power.

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Former UMNO Ministers–Daim Zainuddin, Rafidah Aziz and Rais Yatim

The two politicians expelled from the United Malays National Organization or UMNO, Daim Zainuddin and Rafidah Aziz, as well as Rais Yatim, who is under investigation, are closely associated with Mahathir Mohamad. The former prime minister came out of retirement to lead an opposition coalition that aims to unseat Mr. Najib, his former protégé.

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Now 92, Dr. Mahathir has blasted Mr. Najib for his management of the country, and particularly his handling of state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB. Dr. Mahathir and many others accuse Mr. Najib of skimming hundreds of millions of dollars from the debt-laden fund, which is the subject of several international investigations. Mr. Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

 Dr. Mahathir’s emergence at the head of the opposition has reinvigorated that movement and put UMNO on the defensive. Opinion polls suggest, however, that the party will be able to form a government, even if it loses the popular vote, as did in 2013.

Mr. Daim, Ms. Rafidah and Mr. Rais, all former ministers, have been openly critical of Mr. Najib in the election run-up and joined Dr. Mahathir at a huge rally Friday. Ms. Rafidah, who was Malaysia’s emblematic trade minister under Dr. Mahathir’s long premiership, urged the crowd to give him a “new contract.” She and Messrs. Daim and Rais didn’t respond to requests for comment Saturday.

UMNO officials said Saturday that they would take action against members breaking ranks, but the defections underscore divisions in the party feeding into uncertainty in formerly rock-solid strongholds. It comes at a time of increasing authoritarianism in Southeast Asia amid challenges on trade and security as the U.S. and China contest for influence in the strategically important region.

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A prime example is on Sabah, an oil-and-gas-rich state on the northern tip of Borneo island on the South China Sea, lying near the troubled southern Philippines. Islamic militants from the Philippines have occasionally staged attacks in Sabah or tried to use it as a safe rear area.

The state delivers the third-most seats in Parliament and has long resembled a “fixed deposit,” as Mr. Najib put it, of support for the Front. In 2013, 22 of its 25 seats went to the governing coalition. Parliament has a total of 222 seats.

This time, the opposition in Sabah is being led by a former UMNO Vice President, Shafie Apdal, who quit the party in 2016 after Mr. Najib suspended him for being critical of the 1MDB scandals. Mr. Shafie later formed an opposition party in Sabah with opposition lawmaker Darell Leiking.

The opposition rallies in Sabah are heavily attended, including with younger voters who have increasingly been deserting UMNO. Supporters say they are looking for more autonomy for the state.

“I thank God I left UMNO. It was divine intervention,” Mr. Shafie said in an interview. “I have been observing the body language of people. It is very positive for us as the numbers coming out are very good.”

UMNO has been at the center of every Malaysian government since 1957, but it lost the popular vote in the 2013 elections to a resurgent opposition and allied parties in the long-ruling National Front coalition were reduced to insignificance. As the 1MDB scandal gained steam in recent years, Mr. Najib purged challengers and opponents.

James Chin, a Malaysian academic who heads the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said that the most recent defection of former UMNO ministers who served under Dr. Mahathir showed that “more and more senior UMNO people are willing to challenge Najib at the polls.”

“On the other hand, the fact that all these people were in Mahathir’s cabinet gives the impression that May 9 is a fight between the old UMNO elite and the new UMNO elite,” Mr. Chin said.

—James Hookway contributed to this article.

Write to Yantoultra Ngui at yantoultra.ngui@wsj.com