Argument

Malaysia’s Geriatric Palace Intrigues Are Causing Political Turmoil

94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad has betrayed his 72-year-old successor Anwar Ibrahim. Again.

Mahathir Mohamad looks on as he leaves the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 24.
Mahathir Mohamad looks on as he leaves the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 24. Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

Anwar Ibrahim may be the most outmaneuvered man in Malaysia. The trials of his political life have been Job-like, from multiple sodomy accusations to police assaults to nearly a decade spent in jail. In 2018 he seemed, momentarily, to have been rewarded for his forbearance, when his party coalition with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won a surprise election victory, overturning the National Front that had ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957. Anwar “won” from jail, through a baroque setup by which he was supposed to eventually succeed the then 92-year-old Mahathir after two years, in a transition whose specifics were never explained. But he would eventually get his day in the sun … right?

Wrong. After a series of hushed, closed-door meetings, backdoor plots, and obtuse power plays over the past five days, the Malaysian government is now in chaos, and it seems like Anwar may let power slip through his fingers again. Mahathir resigned as prime minister at 1 p.m. on Monday, as well as from his leadership of the Bersatu political party. Meanwhile, Bersatu, which accounts for 26 seats in the lower house of Parliament, announced that it was exiting the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) coalition that won in 2018, depriving it of its parliamentary majority and essentially dissolving the government. The same day, 11 members of Anwar’s party resigned. The clock is ticking for a new ruling coalition to emerge soon. The suddenness and rapid succession of these events have the dramatic flair of late-season scripted television.

“This is a very typical Malaysian way of doing politics,” said James Chin, a political scientist at the University of Tasmania. “They are trying to create a herd mentality so people can start rushing to the presumed forerunner.” Anwar’s People’s Justice Party was the largest component of the Alliance of Hope, having won 47 seats in the 2018 general election. A new coalition needs 112 members of Parliament to form a government, said Chin, but “to prove stability they will need at least 130 people.” On top of that, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, and the king must greenlight a new government. The current king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, interviewed every single member of Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to establish which faction has the majority support, according to the Associated Press. The king also appointed Mahathir as interim prime minister.

On Wednesday, Mahathir delivered a national address and apologized for the recent “political turmoil,” which seemed, at surface level, like an effort to distance himself from the week’s machinations. “If it is possible I will try to establish a government that does not favor any party. Only the interests of the nation will take precedence,” he told the country.

“He is speaking in code,” said Chin. “He is saying: Everyone can come together, but I get to pick and choose who gets to come in. And he is addressing the other MPs as individuals, not as parties. He remains the kingmaker.”

The choice before members of Parliament is essentially whether to back Anwar or Mahathir now, and one of them has been prime minister for a cumulative 24 years, whereas the other has been spectacularly foiled at multiple junctures during that time frame. “The choice,” said Chin, “is not exactly difficult.”

So what set all this off?

“Last Friday, there was an important meeting of the Alliance of Hope leadership and Mahathir’s party was very unhappy with what transpired,” said Chin. Several members of the Bersatu party later told Chin that “they felt strongly bullied by Amanah and the Democratic Action Party,” other parties in the coalition, particularly the Democratic Action Party, which demanded a specific date for Mahathir to step down. “Bersatu felt that you cannot talk to a statesman that way, which triggered talk of acting fast, and sure enough, the ground started moving on Saturday.”

The more deep-seated dynamic underlying these events was one of brewing discontent among Malay Muslims, who make up about 50 percent of Malaysia’s population, said Chin. In September 2019, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a leading national party that claims to represent Malays, and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a conservative, Islamist party popular in rural, peninsular Malaysia, joined forces in a “unity pact” despite their previous rivalry. “They pushed the line that minorities had too much influence and scared voters that the Alliance of Hope will not protect Islam,” said Chin. They pointed to symbolic examples that the new finance minister, chief justice, and attorney general were all non-Malays. “This scared the shit out of Mahathir,” said Chin.

The upheaval has already affected the country’s stock market, which dipped 2.69 percent on Monday, ending a 12-year bull run, the longest in the world. 

Mahathir retains a broad base of support from diverse politicians and sectors of Malaysian society, who hold him in high regard for the economic development he fostered during his previous 22-year leadership and his epic comeback to beat the corrupt former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who allegedly pocketed nearly $700 million in state funds in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

“All the forces involved [in the reshuffle this week] are hoping to draw on Tun Mahathir’s personal credibility as a shrewd, strong, and longstanding national leader to form a government that he would lead until he either dies or decides to step down,” said Amrita Malhi, a research fellow and Malaysia expert at the Australian National University.

Many of his supporters believe he did not actively create the recent upheaval.

“I personally do not think that [Mahathir] would want to tarnish his legacy,” said Abdul Farouk Musa, a liberal Islamic intellectual in Kuala Lumpur, who does not believe that he actively dismantled the ruling coalition. “He would not compromise on his principles to join hands with the crooks. He has brought down one of the biggest kleptocrats in the world and his cohorts and it is simply unthinkable that he would now want to join forces with these disgraced politicians.”

Even Anwar seemed to disbelieve that Mahathir was involved in the recent events.

“No I think it is not [Mahathir].… His name was used by those within my party and outside. And he reiterated what he had said to me earlier, that he played no part in it,” he told reporters after meeting with the king at the National Palace on Monday.    

It’s hard to ignore that the two players at the heart of this drama are now 94 and 72 years old. They’ve been in Malaysian politics forever. And not only are the players the same, but even the trajectory of the drama. In 1998, Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy prime minister, but they fell out, Mahathir fired Anwar, and had him tried for trumped-up sodomy allegations and thrown in jail. Incredibly, Anwar was accused of sodomy again in 2008 and went to jail again in 2015. Last December, Anwar faced a fresh round of sexual assault claims, while his party’s then deputy president Azmin Ali was targeted with an alleged sex tape in June.

“I think the alarm bells started ringing for us several months ago, when that sex video was circulated,” said Thomas Fann, chairperson of Bersih 2.0, an electoral watchdog group. “That sparked the power struggle within Anwar’s party.… And then when Azmin reached out to PAS and supported their call for Mahathir to remain in office, we realized that the Alliance of Hope was cracking.” Bersih 2.0 issued a concerned statement at the time pressing for a speedy transition of power to Anwar, but it may have already been too late.

What are the possible consequences of a new ruling coalition? It will almost certainly reinforce Malay Muslim superiority, said Chin, to the exclusion of the county’s various minority ethnicities, including Chinese, Indians, and non-Malay indigenous peoples.

UMNO and PAS “are practised at forcing the government to back down on its proposed reform measures, whether through street mobilisations or digital campaigning using tools like WhatsApp,” said Malhi. Their policy agenda includes “reserving leadership positions in government for Malay Muslims, abolishing vernacular schools … and even the possibility of withdrawing Malaysian citizenship from members of minority groups,” she said. However, she added, “it’s important to remember that the Pakatan Harapan government was elected, and its component parties still carry the legitimacy that comes with winning an election. Remember also that UMNO has had its reputation dragged through the mud by the 1MDB scandal.”

Furthermore, Mahathir pointedly stated on Wednesday that he will never rule with a coalition that includes UMNO in full, the party of his corrupt predecessor.

“Mahathir is a very cunning politician,” said Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a professor at the University of Malaya. “He can twist, manipulate the situation to his will. We cannot deny the possibility that UMNO tried to maneuver this whole situation to reclaim power, but they may have pushed their luck too far.” He said that Mahathir’s main goal will be to get enough members of Parliament from any party in a new coalition so that he can return to his longtime preoccupation with economic development.

Both factions have gone to see the king, so this situation is likely to be resolved soon, either through the king’s direct decision to award the government to one of them, or else through his counsel to hold another general election and take it back to the people, said Chin. Most civil-society activists prefer the latter option.

At any rate, activists say that any new coalition could erode the political reforms promised by the Alliance of Hope in 2018, which included fighting corruption and enacting political finance legislation. “The reform agenda of the Alliance of Hope manifesto, which was composed with input from civil society organizations like ours, is now effectively useless, and we are back to square one,” said Fann. “No matter what happens after this week, even if the Alliance of Hope somehow survives, people’s trust in this government has certainly eroded,” he said.  

The 2018 election was widely seen as a major milestone for democracy in Southeast Asia in an age of rising authoritarianism. Cornell University political scientist Tom Pepinsky told Foreign Policy at the time that it was “without a doubt the best news for democracy in Southeast Asia” in several years and “an incredible result.”    

“The biggest tragedy for Malaysia will be if people become cynical about democracy and no longer want to participate in the process,” said Fann. There was over 82 percent turnout of registered voters in 2018.

Fann’s organization, Bersih 2.0, has organized several huge rallies in recent years calling for electoral reforms and they are “most definitely” preparing for another potential protest, he said. “If a snap election does not happen, if our leaders do not go back to the people for a mandate, we will be on the streets again.”

Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikaltheory

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