Malaysia

Mahathir moment

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, centre, next to newly appointed Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, after a press conference held to announce his Cabinet members in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, on May 12. Lim Guan is the first Malaysian of Chinese origin to hold the powerful post in 44 years. Photo: Andy Wong/AP

Najib Razak, the outgoing Prime Minister, at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 12. It was a groundswell of animosity against his policies that led to Mahathir’s unexpected victory. Photo: AP

Mahathir Mohamad makes a historic comeback as Prime Minister after the coalition led by him records a spectacular win against all odds in the general election in Malaysia.

MAHATHIR MOHAMAD, who will turn 93 in a few months’ time, has come out of the political wilderness to become the Prime Minister of Malaysia again after a gap of nearly 15 years. The coalition led by Mahathir, known as the Pakatan Harapan (Pact of Hope), defeated the long-ruling Barisan Nasional comprehensively in the State and parliamentary elections held concurrently on May 9. It got 122 seats in the 222-member Parliament. Mahathir said he could count on the support of 135 members in Parliament. The coalition also won 10 of the 12 States that went to the polls.

The major constituents of the Pakatan Harapan are the People’s Justice Party led by Anwar Ibrahim and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The DAP, which earlier was identified as a party mainly representing Malaysians of Chinese origin, now has more broad-based support. Two smaller parties, one a breakaway faction of the Islamist outfit Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the other a regional party from Sabah, are also part of the winning coalition. Mahathir’s newly formed Malaysian United Indigenous Party won 13 seats. The People’s Justice Party and the DAP together have 90 seats.

It was a groundswell of animosity against the policies of the government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak that led to the Pakatan Harapan’s unexpected victory. The corruption charges against Najib and his family were an important factor that led to the disenchantment of the electorate with the ruling party. The unpopular goods and services tax (GST) also played a big role in his defeat. After the GST was introduced in 2015, as many as 80 per cent of Malaysians, who paid no income tax, suddenly found the cost of living going up steeply.

However, a victory of this scale for Mahathir was made possible only by his decision to personally take charge of the campaign. The results showed that the old man of Malaysian politics still retains considerable charisma and pull among voters.

Architect of the Bumiputra policy

This time Mahathir, who has earned a reputation as one of the architects of the “Bumiputra” policy that seeks special privileges for the Malay majority, led a multiparty coalition that stood for equal rights for all Malaysians irrespective of their ethnicities. In 1969, Mahathir was expelled from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in his avatar as a fiery Malay nationalist. A qualified medical doctor, he published a book, The Malay Dilemma, which said that the Malays were “bumiputras”, the indigenous people of the country, and that they were exploited in their native land because of their “non-confrontational nature”. Arguing that the colonial powers gave preference to the Chinese immigrants, he said Malays deserved preferential treatment in the business, education and employment sectors until such time a level playing field was established for all ethnic groups inhabiting the country.

The Chinese have excelled in the business sector, but the majority of them are like other ordinary Malaysians. The leadership of the Communist Party of Malaya, which fought for the liberation of the Malayan peninsula in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, was dominated by the Chinese.

Mahathir’s views were considered too radical for the UMNO at the time and he was expelled from the party. But within two years he made a comeback. The policies he recommended soon became government policy, and Mahathir was on his way to becoming the undisputed leader of the UMNO 11 years after the publication of his book. His first stint as Prime Minister lasted from 1981 to 2003. Mahathir is credited with rescuing the Malaysian economy in the 1990s as it was buffeted by the economic crisis that mainly hit the tiger economies of South-East Asia.

Western financial institutions have warned that if his government abolishes the GST and restores subsidies, the economy will once again be in trouble. After he was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 10, Mahathir has been mainly talking about making the country “corruption free” and restoring the rule of law. One of his first senior Cabinet appointees is Lim Guan Eng, belonging to the DAP. He gets the important Finance portfolio and is the first Malaysian of Chinese origin to hold the job in 44 years. Lim was jailed twice during Mahathir’s earlier stint at the top.

In the late 1990s, Mahathir, going against the advice of Western financial institutions, fixed an exchange rate for the ringgit. In international affairs, he was a trenchant critic of the West and a champion of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Among Asian leaders, he was the most forthright critic of the invasion of Iraq by the United States. This correspondent was present in Kuala Lumpur on the occasion of the 2003 NAM summit, as the U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq, when Mahathir delivered a blistering critique of U.S. policies. After leaving the Prime Minister’s office in 2003, he set up the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal to investigate the activities of the U.S. and Israel in Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Upset victory

Only the most foolhardy of political pundits could have predicted an upset victory in the general elections for the opposition coalition in Malaysia. Since the country gained independence in 1957, only one party, the UMNO, and the electoral front it dominates, the Barisan Nasional, has ruled the roost. For this year’s election, the government had put up even more roadblocks than before to thwart the opposition. The ruling party also outspent the opposition in a big way in the elections. Some leading opposition candidates were not even allowed to contest on the pretext of minor technicalities.

In what Mahathir predicted would be the dirtiest election in the country’s history, the Barisan Nasional used the race and religion cards to sway the electorate. Malaysia has a history of voting on racial lines, but since the last elections in 2013 many Malays have started looking at real issues before casting their votes. This election was a watershed as even more Malays deserted the ruling front and voted for the opposition.

In the 2013 elections, the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim won around 52 per cent of the votes, but the UMNO still managed to garner the majority in parliament. This time, despite the gerrymandering and the deployment of nefarious tactics, the electorate had the last laugh.

There seems to have been some last-minute efforts by Najib to stave off the inevitable by persuading the constitutional monarch, Sultan Mohammad V, to delay the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Prime Minister. Najib, in his address to the nation after most of the election results were out, said that he would accept the verdict of the people but urged the people to wait until the King had made a decision. According to reports, Najib and his close associates had hoped to sway some of the smaller parties in Mahathir’s coalition to defect.

After he was sworn in for a new term in office, a prospect he would never have visualised two years ago, Mahathir vowed to run a corruption-free and inclusive government catering to all ethnic communities. Speaking to reporters after the election results were announced, Mahathir said that one of his priorities was to get a “royal pardon” for Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed opposition leader. Anwar, who served as Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s, fell out with him over economic matters. Anwar wanted Malaysia to follow the diktats of the International Monetary Fund in the wake of the Asian economic crisis. Convicted on charges of “corruption and sodomy”, Anwar was booted out of the UMNO.

After serving his sentence, Anwar re-emerged as the undisputed leader of the opposition in Malaysia, leading the “reformasi movement” against Mahathir and the UMNO. A fiery orator, he posed the first serious challenge to the political hegemony of the UMNO. As Prime Minister, Mahathir brooked little opposition, either from politicians or from the media.

Anwar was again put in jail three years ago on trumped-up charges of sodomy, which is deemed a criminal act under Malaysian laws inherited from the colonial era. The opposition was left leaderless. That was when in desperation it turned to Mahathir, a man it despised less than a decade ago.

1MDB scandal

It was the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal that brought about a political reconciliation between Mahathir and Anwar. The United States Justice Department has estimated that around $3.5 billion was siphoned off from the state’s development fund and around $700 million deposited in the personal account of the Prime Minister. This did not stop President Donald Trump from hosting Najib in the White House earlier in the year and proclaiming that the Malaysian Prime Minister was among his favourite world leaders. In 2015, when the gargantuan corruption scandal first surfaced, Najib fired Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Rural and Regional Development Minister Mohamed Shafie Apdal for criticising the Prime Minister’s handling of the controversy. They later teamed up with the opposition and played a big role in the 2018 election campaign. Najib also removed the Attorney General, Abdul Gani Patail, who had ordered a probe into the corruption allegations.

Mahathir said that the corruption charges against Najib would be investigated thoroughly. The former Prime Minister is now under virtual house arrest. Najib was stopped from leaving the country ostensibly for a vacation a few days after Mahathir took over his job.

According to a pre-election understanding, Mahathir will occupy the Prime Minister’s position for a maximum of two years and will be replaced by Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ishmail, will be the new Deputy Prime Minister. Although the new Malaysian government will have more minority representatives, there will not be any radical change to the country’s Bumiputra policy. However, there is talk of gradually easing the reservation and empowerment policy favouring the majority Malay population.

Poverty among the non-Malay population, especially those of Indian origin, is increasing. Mahathir on the campaign trail promised to better the lot of the marginalised Indian community. As a Malaysian columnist observed, Malaysia’s GDP growth has been good, but the people are not happy.

There will of course be no change in the status of Islam as the official state religion. The quasi-authoritarian system that is now in place in Malaysia was ushered in after Mahathir first took office. Mahathir had confessed to a British newspaper that he had stayed in power far longer than necessary and had failed to properly mentor his successors who, according to him, seemed to be clueless about the development path Malaysia ought to have taken. Mahathir said he had made a mistake in not allowing Anwar to succeed him. In his second political coming, he now will have the opportunity to rectify matters and strengthen the institutions necessary to firmly re-establish the rule of law.

Foreign policy

The foreign policy direction Malaysia takes under the new dispensation will be keenly watched. Mahathir has been critical about Malaysia agreeing to join the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc. He is of the view that such a move will make Malaysia an economic colony of the U.S. The opposition had also made the growing Chinese economic presence in the country an election issue. China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner. In his first interaction with the media, Mahathir said that he had no misgivings about China’s ambitious Belt Road Initiative. Malaysia has been an important component of the Belt Road project.

Among the infrastructural projects China has undertaken in Malaysia is the building of a $13-billion rail network on the East Coast and a $100-billion property development project near the border with Singapore.

It was Mahathir in the 1980s who started Malaysia's “Look East” policy that led to the strengthening of relations with China. “I welcome Chinese foreign direct investments. In fact, I was the one who originally encouraged Chinese investments in Malaysia. I have shown that I am not afraid of China,” Mahathir said.

The outspoken Mahathir will not shy away from expressing his opinions on other contentious international issues, including Palestine, Syria and Iran. Unlike the other leaders in the Asian region, people expect Mahathir, with his exalted status as an elder statesman, to stand up to the West on critical issues.

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