It’s hard to think of a more surprising political turnaround. This week former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that he will contest this year’s general election as leader of an alliance of opposition parties committed to ousting the government of Najib Razak. It was Mahathir who chose Najib back in 2009 to lead his former party, UMNO, and the coalition it has headed since the 1970s, Barisan Nasional. In taking the candidacy, the former PM allies himself with his one-time colleague and later nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, whom he famously sacked from the deputy prime ministership in 1998.
Mahathir, who rose through UMNO’s ranks to become prime minister in 1981, is ninety-two years old. His decision to stand this year has raised questions about the state of politics in a nation where the median age is only twenty-eight. Malaysian and international media outlets alike have reflected the view that Mahathir’s selection to lead the coalition is “laughable.”
For answers to this apparent paradox, though, look not to the nation’s age profile but to the calculus of building electoral coalitions in a diverse nation that still bears the scars of the political battles of the past two decades. Look also to Mahathir’s singular success in building coalitions over even more decades, using a combination of Malay nationalism, an Islamist ethic favouring entrepreneurship and capitalist development, and selective minority representation. In combination with favours for allies and civil and judicial pressure on opponents, his use of these themes has been masterful.
During his twenty-two years at the top, Mahathir transformed the nation — for better or for worse, depending on which constituency you consult. He resigned in 2003, having sacked Anwar, his deputy and finance minister, in 1998. Anwar had quickly become his most formidable opponent, and went on to lead several iterations of the opposition “pact” or alliance that Mahathir now heads. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, is Mahathir’s deputy.
Anwar himself has almost completed a second prison term — the first instigated by Mahathir, the second by Najib — and is due for release in June, at which point he is likely to seek the royal pardon needed for him to re-enter political life. His convictions resulted from charges of corruption and sodomy — a criminal offence in Malaysia — both of which he has strenuously denied. Without a pardon, he won’t be able to participate in politics for another five years after his release. One way or another, the opposition parties’ aim is for Anwar to replace either Mahathir himself or Wan Azizah — though both sides of politics know that there’s a risk Mahathir and his family might permanently capture the opposition machine.
At the last election, in 2013, the Anwar-led opposition parties won the national popular vote but didn’t gain sufficient seats to replace Barisan in government. Anwar has invested years in perfecting a form of political code-switching that allows him to argue for democratic reforms using both Islamic and secular liberal principles, a skill many voters, Muslim and non-Muslim, consider impressive. But his coalition failed to win important rural seats whose largely Malay Muslim voters hold disproportionate power in this largely urban nation. Many voters in these seats view their economic and political interests as tied up in development schemes, subsidies and loans — hallmarks of the Barisan government — that have propelled many Malay Muslims into better jobs and more secure livelihoods in a modernising economy.
Appointing Mahathir as opposition figurehead is a bid to secure the one missing ingredient in the opposition parties’ 2013 bid for power. It is for precisely this reason that the “nonagenarian,” as Najib calls him, is suddenly running again. He is a critical component of an opposition pitch to these voters that voting against the government will not turn their lives or the polity upside down, as many fear it will.
The nature of these fears are no mystery — they reflect frequent public comments by government ministers and by other figures linked to UMNO and its affiliated non-government organisations. They include the assertion that the opposition is un-Islamic because it takes in the Democratic Action Party, whose membership is largely Chinese. Allowing the opposition to come to power, the argument goes, would give it the chance to dismantle the web of state schemes that protects ordinary Malay Muslims not only from poverty but also from the country’s other “races.” It would also lead to an ethnic Chinese bid for power that would displace Malay Muslims in their own nation — from which they ejected their last group of colonisers only in 1957.
Mahathir’s participation signals that the opposition understands it must make clear to these voters — and their political patrons — that there will be no sudden dismantling of Malay Muslim privileges if the government falls. Nor, as Mahathir signalled earlier this week, will there be a public reckoning for members and officials of UMNO. Instead, voting for the opposition will rewind and reset the nation at the point it had reached twenty years ago, when Mahathir and Anwar were last leading the nation together, indeed as the leaders of the very same Barisan that these voters continue to support.
Mahathir also aims to reassure two other important constituencies, even while they express dismay at a potential return to “Mahathirism” and seek to limit his power. These are non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and “Other” minorities, and “liberal” Malay Muslims, a term generally given to urban professionals comfortable with interracial and mixed-gender interactions in private and public life. Many of these voters are already familiar with the opposition, and may fear not only Barisan but also what appears to be the government’s new ally, the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS.
PAS has left the opposition alliance and is now working in coordination with Barisan, ostensibly lured away by UMNO on the basis that PAS might join a unity government that upholds Malay Muslim political supremacy for all time. It commands a large following, although it has lost some to a breakaway party, Amanah, which has remained in the opposition.
If the opposition fails and Barisan wins decisively with PAS by its side, minorities and liberals will not like the price PAS is likely to extract from the re-elected government. Many fear that this would include hudud laws and a wholesale Islamisation of the state and public life. Such a transformation would be risky for Malaysia, though, and would destroy its cultivated reputation as a safe and diverse nation in which “moderate” Islam prevails. Malaysian government departments and linked foundations currently participate in a number of international programs aimed at countering violent extremism and promoting religious moderation.
Through the 1990s, Mahathir presented himself to minorities as a bulwark against PAS, a party he has sometimes likened to the Taliban. A strong argument along these lines might well disrupt Barisan’s strategy of coordinating its campaign with PAS, and potentially deliver Barisan a weak win that opposition parties would portray as illegitimate. Najib has instigated a new battery of national security laws that he might consider using if political disaffection continues after such a result — but again, using them will be risky if Malaysia wants to continue projecting itself as a democracy. Using such laws would evoke the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960.
As for the likelihood of an outright opposition win — this would take a surge of energy that hasn’t so far been forthcoming from supporters demoralised by the seeming impossibility of dislodging UMNO. Even the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, which broke in 2015 and remains the subject of a US Department of Justice investigation, seems not to have weakened its position.
In a move some critics interpreted as a signal to his opponents that the investigation could not shake him, Najib visited the United States last year. The essentially symbolic nature of the visit was evident in the only recorded interaction between Najib and US President Donald Trump, an extract from a meeting uploaded to Najib’s Facebook page by his own staff, in which he mentioned a set of “value propositions” for the United States. Najib also delivered a speech at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, this time with no audio recording circulated at all. Its transcript promoted a close US–Malaysia defence relationship, suggesting another government weak spot at which Mahathir might aim — Malaysia’s increasingly close relationship with China.
Since the 1MDB scandal, China has helped settle a proportion of Malaysia’s 1MDB debt and invested heavily in high-speed rail projects linked to its One Belt One Road initiative. Mahathir and other opposition leaders have already targeted the government for “selling” the nation to China in order to bail out Barisan. In Johor state, meanwhile, Chinese developers are constructing an enormous housing project called Forest City, which aims to attract 700,000 investors including overseas Chinese buyers. Mahathir has been critical of this project too.
Adding to these concerns was the publication by Malaysian Insight, around a month before Najib’s trip to the US, of a claim that China had offered advanced rocket launchers and a new radar system to the Malaysian armed forces. These would also be located in Johor, which faces Singapore. Alarmed, the Singapore authorities immediately sought clarification. The Malaysian government denied the claim.
China’s rise offers Mahathir an opportunity to externalise the potent political theme of the Chinese threat, pointing to Big China as the real menace rather than Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority. The opposition parties used race in a similar way in 2013, in that case via the “phantom Bangladeshi voter.” In the days before the election, rumours circulated that 40,000 foreign workers — images of whom suffused the opposition’s get-out-the-vote campaign — would be mobilised with false IDs to vote for the government. This time, discussing Big China property investments, infrastructure loans, debt bailouts and other interventions could allow Small China — Malaysian Chinese — to re-enter the political boundaries drawn around the Malaysian people.
This tactic has the potential to shore up the opposition’s positioning as the voice of the “real,” multiracial Malaysia — just what the old Barisan, led by Mahathir and Anwar, purportedly used to represent. Many Malaysians are nostalgic for this notion of the Malaysian people and its ruling government — a version the new Barisan seems to have abandoned to cultivate PAS, but that the opposition parties are deliberately channelling.
All these scenarios aside, it’s important to remember that no opposition has ever won government in the postcolonial nation’s sixty-year history. Such a win isn’t inconceivable, though — assuming Mahathir can capture the minority of voters who will determine the future government. Indications are that the opposition parties are working to unearth further scandals that might touch these voters more closely than 1MDB, including in the workings of the rural development agency FELDA. FELDA settlers already complain of excessive debt burdens and insufficient yields.
The opposition might well respond with a plan for reducing the settlers’ dependency on government, which would allow them to consider changing their votes. For this plan to succeed, however, the opposition’s ageing leadership will need to avoid losing Malaysia’s youth. Like the prospect of future infighting between the opposition parties, this is an opposition weak point and the government knows it.
Whatever happens next, the campaign has begun in all but formal terms. Mahathir and Najib will have plenty of other weapons hidden up their sleeves. ●