Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why Mahathir is at the centre of Malaysia’s opposition power play

The three pillars of the Malay establishment would be much more likely to accept a non-Barisan Nasional government if it is one with Mahathir at the top.

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's former prime minister, in Kuala Lumpur last month. (Photo: Sanjit Das/Getty Images)
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's former prime minister, in Kuala Lumpur last month. (Photo: Sanjit Das/Getty Images)
Published 19 Jul 2017 

Last week marked a milestone in Malaysian politics. After nearly a year of sometimes acrimonious negotiations, the opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan (PH), finally announced its top three office holders. Anwar Ibrahim was made ketua umum (de facto leader), the former Malayasian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad became PH chairman, and Dr Wan Azizah (Anwar’s wife) was named PH’s president. The key sticking point in the negotiations had been deciding the positions of Mahathir Mohammad and Anwar Ibrahim. These two Malay leaders are widely seen to be as the only politicians who can bring PH to within striking distance of ousting incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has been in power since independence in 1957.

The momentous struggle involved in getting Mahathir and Anwar to agree to their PH positions can only be understood by looking at contemporary history. Anwar was picked by Mahathir in the 1980s as one of his potential successors. With Mahathir’s backing, within a decade of joining the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Anwar became Malaysia’s deputy prime minister. When Anwar decided he could no longer wait for Mahathir to step down, he mounted a covert attempt to force Mahathir out. Mahathir struck back by sacking Anwar in 1998 and accusing him of homosexuality. Anwar was subsequently sent to prison for corruption and sodomy, a serious offence in Muslim-majority Malaysia. Mahathir went on to become Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, in power for a record 22 years. 

Mahathir’s power was such that Anwar was not released from prison until 2004, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister. Behind the scenes Mahathir’s political muscle remained intact - he first picked his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and then, in 2009, engineered the ousting of Badawi and the elevation of Najib Razak. Everything was going to plan until Najib refused Mahathir’s principal request: to help ensure his son Mukhriz Mahathir moved up to one of the top five positions in UMNO. Najib did not support this and shortly after Mahathir began his campaign to remove Najib internally in UMNO.

Najib’s position as prime minister, however, has allowed him to remain in office despite Mahathir’s efforts. During Mahathir’s long rule, he had concentrated so much power into the office of the prime minister that it nigh impossible to remove an incumbent. Mahathir became a victim of his own machinations. Even the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB corruption allegation was not enough to remove Najib.

With an internal coup out of the question, Mahathir joined the opposition and formed a new political party - Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) - with former UMNO members sacked for disloyalty to Najib. He understood an opposition alliance would have the best chance of removing Najib.

This is where Mahathir's autocratic past caught up with him. Many in Malaysia’s middle class simply cannot forgive Mahathir for his past authoritarian rule, including jailing Anwar and many other senior opposition politicians. Mahathir’s refusal to admit his past political sins has been especially galling for the middle class. In one infamous interview, he said the mass-arrest and detention of opposition figures in 1987 was done on the recommendation of police! The undeniable truth is that the Malaysian police were totally obedient to Mahathir when he was prime minister. This is mirrored in the way the police are now subservient to Najib, actively protecting him and blocking investigations into 1MDB. Even more galling for the public has been the opposition Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) embrace of Mahathir. The Chinese-based DAP was the main victim of Mahathir’s strong arm tactics when he was in power. Lim Kit Siang and his son, Lim Guan Eng, were jailed several times for political reasons during Mahathir’s tenure yet they have now accepted Mahathir as the leader of the opposition.

Why the opposition needs Mahathir

How is this possible? Especially without any apology from Mahathir. One can argue the breakdown and compromise of key political institutions visible in Malaysia today can all be traced to Mahathir’s long tenure. He even selected Najib (aka ‘Mr Kleptocracy’), to be Malaysia’s fifth prime minister.

The answer most often given to this question is that Mahathir is the only person who can penetrate the rural Malay votes, hitherto the bastion of UMNO and Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS), and PH needs a significant portion of those votes to win the next general election, due on or before 24 August next year.

But there is another reason why Mahathir holds a PH leadership position, one that is not discussed in public. The entire PH leadership knows that Najib and BN will not give up power easily if they lose the election. As stated earlier, Malaysia has never experienced a change of government at the federal level. The conventional wisdom is that, if BN loses the vote, it will try to hang on to power via emergency rule or through Majlis Raja-Raja (Conference of Rulers(CoR)), the body that represents the King and his fellow Sultans. This group is extraordinarily powerful: the King is required for a proclamation of emergency rule and the King swears in the prime minister. Although the CoR represents Malay sovereignty, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the Sultans are supposed to be above politics. But in practice they can decide who sits at the top of the political table. In recent years, three Sultans have intervened publicly to select the menteri-besar (chief minister) of the state, going against the wishes of the winning political party. Only the most foolish politicians in Malaysia would ignore the wishes of the Malay Sultans.

This is where Mahathir could play a crucial role. If PH wins, Mahathir could act at the bridge between the CoR and PH. The Sultans know him well. While some openly dislike him, they also know he is part of the Malay establishment and would ensure Malay domination in any new government.

The other two pillars of the Malay establishment, the civil service and the security forces, would also be much more likely to accept a non-BN government with Mahathir than they would one without. The Malay establishment have a deep fear of the DAP whom many view as Chinese chauvinists who would destroy Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and Ketuanan Islam (Islam supremacy) should they win government. With Mahathir at the helm of PH, these fears are minimised.

Some may argue that Anwar could perform the same role as Mahathir but that would be wrong. Malay establishment view Anwar with suspicion. Many think that Anwar is too ‘liberal’ after more than a decade of working with the no-Malay DAP, and after the PKR’s rejection of Malay supremacy in favour of Malay leadership. The Malay establishment is also worried that, under Anwar, many of the lucrative no-bidding government contracts given to them via Malay ‘special rights’ would be reduced and they would be forced to compete for the business. In this context, they have nothing to fear from Mahathir - he has said many times Malay ‘special rights’ contracts are still needed to help Malay businesses. Mahathir is an enthusiastic supporter of Malay supremacy and he has done more to cement it into the political system than anyone else.

In summary, if the defenders of the Malay establishment are forced to hand over power to someone from outside the UMNO, should it lose the upcoming election, there is no better person than Mahathir. For them Mahathir simply represents an alternative Ketuanan Melayu leadership, rather than real political reforms.

For this reason alone, Mahathir is guaranteed a seat at the opposition’s high table.


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