Inside Story

Mahathir’s choice

Less than two years after its historic election win, Malaysia’s ruling coalition is in chaos. How did it come to this?

Ross Tapsell 28 February 2020 2396 words

Man in the middle: Mahathir Mohamad (centre), now Malaysia’s interim prime minister, arriving for a press conference at his office in Putrajaya yesterday. Parliament will pick a new prime minister after the king failed to establish who has majority support following the collapse of the ruling coalition. Vincent Thian/AP Photo

Since its euphoric victory in May 2018, Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan coalition government has been beset by internal divisions and declining support. Opinion polls have recorded a steady fall in satisfaction from a high of 80 per cent to a low of 25 per cent in late 2019. The coalition lost four by-elections on the Peninsula last year, and the disaffection seems consistent across people of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage.

As 2019 came to an end, questions were being asked about who would be the first to leave — prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister–in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, or Anwar’s party rival Azmin Ali — and how much longer the Pakatan Harapan coalition could last, especially after the government almost imploded in October last year.

This week’s disintegration, which created headlines around the world, came earlier in 2020 than many thought, but it had come to seem inevitable. How did a government that won such a convincing victory only twenty months ago become so unpopular? The answer is important, because it shapes what happens next.

The biggest question mark over Pakatan Harapan’s 2018 election win was whether Mahathir would follow through on his promise to allow Anwar Ibrahim to eventually take over the prime ministership. The Malaysian media, free for the first time to cover intra-party strife and leadership tensions, vigorously reported the factional machinations within the coalition and the unfolding Mahathir–Anwar succession story. The lack of a clear and agreed-on transition date meant this was always going to be a big story, even more so with the government struggling in the polls and Anwar’s faction increasingly determined to see a change at the top.

The inevitable revival of the decades-long competition between the two men gained intensity and meaning for two reasons. The first was Mahathir’s continuing vagueness about the dates and details of the succession. The initial plan seemed to suggest that Mahathir would step down sometime around May this year. But individuals within Mahathir’s circle have denied such a timeframe existed, while Mahathir himself has been coy about an exact date. In late 2019 he settled on “after APEC,” which will be held in November 2020, but in one interview he suggested that he would not be stepping down this year. Despite turning ninety-four in July, he has managed to keep the support of key allies within and without his coalition.

Perhaps more importantly, he seems to be enjoying his second tenure as prime minister and keen to continue in the role. In August he showed off his physical prowess by riding a bicycle for more than eleven kilometres around Putrajaya. Photos of the feat were widely circulated and discussed in Malaysia’s social media. In September he went horseriding amid smog and received yet another honorary doctorate, this time from Japan’s Doshisha University.

The leadership transition issue has also been kept alive by the potential for a third candidate to be the next prime minister. Mahathir has long played political rivals off against one another in order to hold on to power. As he remained stubbornly noncommittal on a handover date, pundits and others began to look for an alternative Mahathir-endorsed successor. The result was a rollcall of Malaysian politicians, of which economic affairs minister Azmin Ali, Anwar’s most formidable rival within his own party, was considered to be Mahathir’s favourite. Anwar became correspondingly concerned about his support within the ruling coalition, going as far as to claim that “traitors” were trying to keep him from being Malaysia’s next prime minister.

The infighting within Anwar’s own party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or PKR, became more pronounced, reaching a sensational height with the surfacing in July last year of a video clip allegedly showing Azmin Ali in a compromising situation. When Anwar said that Azmin should resign if he proved to be the man in the clip, Azmin responded by telling him to “look at the man in the mirror.”

The factionalism became so overt that moves were made to hold rival party gatherings at the PKR’s national congress in December. In the event, Azmin and his supporters sensationally walked out of the congress, claiming they were being attacked in speeches by pro-Anwar members and that Azmin was being portrayed as a “traitor” to the party. One former PKR member has described the factionalism as “tearing [the party] apart” and likely to bring on a defeat at the next election.

Mahathir had a choice. He could bring Anwar into the cabinet and choose a reasonable succession date. Or he could continue to keep Anwar in the dark, making the factions more paranoid and restive. Mahathir chose the latter, and a showdown became inevitable.

While the end of the sixty-year reign of the Barisan Nasional coalition in May 2018 was indeed momentous, Pakatan Harapan’s electoral legitimacy relied heavily on fulfilling a broader national transformation. Among the sixty pledges in its 194-page Buku Harapan (“book of hope”) manifesto were reforms to the Anti-Corruption Commission to ensure “transparency and robustness of our election system,” moves to “abolish oppressive laws” and “enhance the transparency and integrity of the budget and budgeting process,” a “decentralisation of power to Sabah and Sarawak,” measures to make “government schools the best choice” and a pledge that Malaysia would “lead efforts to resolve the Rohingya and Palestine crises.”

It would be easy to highlight the unfulfilled promises of the manifesto. No major education reforms have been introduced at any level, no progress has been made on decentralisation, and the plight of Orang Asli (indigenous peoples) has only partially been tackled. With global fund managers signalling their concern about the lack of reform, the economy has been buffeted by capital outflows and a weak ringgit. Even Malaysians who were initially part of the reform process have become despondent.

In the face of these criticisms, senior government politicians have spent much of their time defending their track record. Some of them have argued that “reform takes time,” others have chosen to blame the “high expectations” of voters. Mahathir himself believes that he and his ministers are “victims of our own manifesto.”

This is not to say that no progress has been made since Pakatan Harapan came to power. Driven by opposition figures at federal and state level who had long yearned for better governance, some reforms have passed through parliament, including the abolition of the country’s draconian anti–fake news law and a reduction in the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. New parliamentary committees have been established, and efforts made to ensure parliamentary oversight of important institutions. Politicised prosecutions of opposition leaders — a feature of Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional government — are less prevalent.

The delays in Najib’s corruption trial over the past year suggest that the government preferred an independent, evidence-based judicial proceeding to a political show trial. Moves were made to professionalise and boost the independence of the Attorney General’s Chambers and the Anti-Corruption Commission. There have been signs of reform in electoral and parliamentary procedures, including the Electoral Reform Committee’s recommendation for a proportional representation voting system for parliamentary seats.

But reformists claimed throughout last year that Mahathir’s resolve to undertake important changes remained weak. For him and many others within the governing coalition, they said, politics remained a matter of holding power and winning elections by maintaining the status quo.

Of serious concern is the lack of measures to reduce corruption and patronage politics, and of institutional mechanisms to make politicians and political parties more accountable for the way they acquire and spend money. As economist E. Terence Gomez and others show in Minister of Finance Incorporated, a key conduit for corruption and patronage politics under the previous government was the finance ministry, which came under Najib’s jurisdiction as finance minister. In the current government, the Democratic Action Party’s Lim Guan Eng is finance minister, but Gomez argues that “covert” reconfigurations have allowed the prime minister’s department to control key government enterprises. According to Gomez, the “entire corporate sector” is under the control of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which has the power to appoint political appointees to head government-linked companies.

These arrangements suggests that the government, and Mahathir’s party in particular, has retained the same system of patronage used by its predecessor to channel resources to key constituents. In response to such criticisms, a deputy minister from Bersatu declared, on the one hand, that the new government had never committed to getting rid of political appointees in government-linked companies while, on the other hand, arguing that people should “not pluck words and phrases” from Buku Harapan promises. As an analyst privately remarked, “When the fox is in charge of the sheep, why change anything when it’s good for the fox?”

Meanwhile, the past twenty months have been a period of introspection for the UMNO party, which dominated the decades-long Barisan Nasional government. Many cadres blame Najib for the 2018 loss, and rightly so, but party president Zahid Hamidi has remained loyal to the ousted PM. (Both men are under criminal investigation in connection with the 1MDB scandal.) Under Zahid there has been little internal reform, though a decision has been made to ally more closely with conservative Islamic voters.

In September, UMNO and the Islamic Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS, signed a unity pact, the Muafakat Nasional (or National Cooperation Charter). Over the years, UMNO and PAS have gone through various official and unofficial alliances (PAS actually competed under the Barisan banner in the 1974 elections) but this latest “marriage” marks a more concerted focus on the rights and privileges of Malay Muslims, which the two parties claim have been increasingly threatened under the current government. That this narrative has attracted the support of the Malay community is evinced by the 50,000-strong prayer rally held at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur in late 2018, calling for Malay rights to be preserved and Islam to continue as the national religion.

The decision by UMNO and PAS to focus on Malay identity politics has raised concerns among many Malaysians about the potential for greater ethnic and religious tensions. These concerns were heightened when four public universities organised the controversial Malay Dignity Congress in October last year. The congress advanced ideas associated with Malay racial supremacy and featured speeches demanding the abolition of vernacular schools and the reservation of top government posts for Malays.

Mahathir delivered a speech about non-Malay foreigners, lamenting how his ability to defend the Malays has been weakened by the Pakatan Harapan coalition but denying hearing the lead organiser proclaiming that “Malaysia is for Malays.” The congress was not a partisan affair, with some Bersatu MPs involved in key organising roles, but notably absent was Anwar Ibrahim, who claimed his invitation arrived too late. Azmin Ali stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the congress with Mahathir and the top Malay opposition figures in PAS and UMNO.

Malay support is clearly a pre-eminent concern for Mahathir and many of his fellow Bersatu cadres. In late 2018, Mahathir reversed his government’s decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination after weeks of protests organised by UMNO and PAS and fear-mongering about the loss of bumiputra (or Malay) rights.

Under Mahathir, Pakatan Harapan has been primarily concerned with defending itself against the charge of being “anti-Malay.” The result is a government reluctant to change how money is collected and distributed. Deliberations about reforms in areas like schools, university admissions, government scholarships, poverty and rural development continue to be narrowly framed in terms of their impact on Malays.

While no one expected the nonagenarian Mahathir to become an outspoken advocate for racial harmony, these decisions highlight the ideological diversity of the Pakatan Harapan coalition and its supporters, as well as Mahathir’s commitment to a narrative that had served him in the past. A more pluralist Malaysia seemed to have beckoned, even if Pakatan Harapan’s choice of Mahathir as leader was made strategically to woo more conservative Malay voters.

Scholars are now arguing that the country appears to have evolved into four different Malaysias: a pluralist domain concentrated around the west coast of the Peninsula, a conservative Malay heartland based along the east coast of the Peninsula, and the two increasingly diverging Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. Rather than uniting under Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan, Malaysia has seemingly become more fractured and divided.

If a transition were to occur in Malaysia, political scientist Larry Diamond wrote in 2010, it would arise from “the coalescence of an effective opposition and the blunders of an arrogant regime.” And so it happened in 2018. While “clean elections” campaigning and the legacies of the Anwar-led reformasi movement played an important role, Pakatan Harapan came to power largely because of the protest vote against Najib’s corruption. Its problem was an inability to consolidate in the absence of an “arrogant regime” to oppose. Many voters had chosen Mahathir not for the prospects of a “new” Malaysia but because he represented the promise of the “old” Malaysia of his first prime ministership: a time of economic growth and pro-Malay policies, of which local patronage systems and cronyism were a feature, though not on the massive corrupt scale of the Najib years.

In power once again, Mahathir has spent most of his time as prime minister manoeuvring over his succession, blocking the reform of draconian laws, and reiterating his support for Malay rights. Despite all this politicking, however, he has failed to increase his support among the Malays and has alienated a large percentage of the non-Malay electorate. No one person is responsible for the declining satisfaction of the government, but Mahathir must take the bulk of the responsibility.

At the same time, sober commentators know that an Anwar prime ministership won’t solve all these problems. Even reformists who have worked with Anwar for many years have been concerned about his judgement throughout the crisis, and his faction has often made rash decisions.

Pakatan Harapan has at least been attempting a more democratic form of governance, and a return of UMNO to power would signal a halting of that push. Malaysians would be left more disillusioned with the political system and increasingly likely to think that politicians have little to offer them. In this regard, they would be part of a global trend, though that’s likely to give them little solace. •