Asia Watch: The Song Remains the Same

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir: Biding his time

 

The groundswell of disgust that ushered out Malaysia’s corruption-riddled Barisan Nasional government in the 2018 elections brought with it high hopes for sweeping reform. Civil and political liberties, particularly laws relating to sedition and indefinite detention, as well as rampant race-based discrimination and corruption across the economy, education, civil service and judiciary galvanised the grassroots movement that swept the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to victory.

That hope has now turned to deep disillusion as a Government riven by barely concealed infighting has slid towards the business-as-usual inertia that characterised its discredited predecessor. Having already lost almost every by-election since last May, only decisive change will prevent the ruling coalition from being dumped in the next general elections. 

Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the backbone of the coalition, is beset by a rivalry pitting Anwar against Mohamed Azmin Ali, a party stalwart and former Selangor state chief minister now serving as Minister of Economic Affairs. 

Azmin has outmanoeuvered PKR reformers including Nurul Izzah, Anwar’s daughter, to position himself as a lieutenant to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, whose public promise to cede power to Anwar appears to be evaporating, with Azmin the presumed beneficiary.

As ever, ambitious Malaysian politicians eventually become the subject of scandal. With obvious irony, Anwar’s intraparty rival has been ensnared in a sex scandal of his own: a video surfaced in May showing Azmin in an apparent homosexual encounter with a fellow PKR MP named Haziq Abdul Aziz, who has confessed to being in the leaked footage. Azmin has denied the liaison and threatened a lawsuit.

Notwithstanding Anwar’s own history of being jailed on dubious evidence of similar activity, Kuala Lumpur is abuzz with allegations that it was Anwar himself, or his allies that leaked the video. Even if that is untrue, Anwar has attracted criticism for not publicly standing by his deputy and a number of party leaders admit that the animosity and distrust between Anwar and Azmin has reached the point of no return.

Meanwhile, PM Mahathir has the luxury of standing aloof from the issue. Waylaid by reporters for his opinion on the latest developments, he simply says he has “lots of other things to do”.

As for the leadership succession, the 94-year-old Mahathir offers only that it will be dealt with “when the time comes.”

With his coalition partner consumed with itself, Mahathir holds the whip hand in playing for time and endeavouring to strengthen his own Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or PPBM). A newcomer in the coalition of largely secular former opposition parties, it holds only 26 parliamentary seats – significantly less than the Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) 42 seats and the PKR’s 50.

To this end, Mahathir is taking the time-worn route of Malay identity politics, encouraging the recruitment of ethnic Malays from other parties, including the corruption-steeped United Malays National Organisation, into his new party – one that espouses the decidedly old idea of racial/ethnic solidarity which underpinned Mahathir’s rule over the Barisan Nasional coalition of ethnic political parties for 22 years prior to 2003.

On July 5, Mahathir told a post-Ramadan celebration that if ethnic Malays are split, “we become weak, united we stand, divided we fall.” Not exactly the progressive, inclusive sentiment that the Pakatan Harapan is supposed to stand for.

When asked if his coalition parties would object, Mahathir reportedly said, “That is their problem. We have no connection with other parties. Although (they are) in Pakatan Harapan, they too get new members.”

Dr. Mahathir’s long history, which includes frequent antisemitic outbursts, shows that as long as he is in charge, his default position is to entrench special privileges for Malays, who make up about 60% of the population. It’s also a proven recipe for entrenching mediocrity and rent-seeking across public education, the government, the Muslim hierarchy, the politically-owned press, the courts, the police and the business community.

Having railed bitterly against his initial successors Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak for ineptitude and gross corruption respectively, Mahathir is unlikely to go quietly unless he can engineer a successor – whether it be Azmin or his own son Mukhriz, the Chief Minister of Kedah – that will pledge fealty to his political program. This includes warmed-over pet projects (such as a Third National Car) that have previously proven to be economically unviable. 

Whether the Pakatan Harapan coalition parties will be willing to accept a leader other than Anwar is another question. Having carried the banner for the Reformasi movement since 1998, Anwar retains a high level of prestige within the ruling coalition. But he will have to navigate the ever-shifting terrain of personal alliances and looming scandal.