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Mahathir Mohamad’s spectacular return to the prime ministership of Malaysia – and its first overturning of government since federation in 1957 – was meant to pave the way for Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership. But will the 92-year-old Mahathir rush to fulfil that promise? By Hamish McDonald.

Mahathir’s grip on Malaysia

It has been an opposition-held electorate for a long time, so the roads in Permatang Pauh, a sprawling semi-rural district on the mainland side of Penang, are not the best. Last Sunday night they were jammed as thousands converged to greet the man they hope will fix all that, not to mention the entire country.

In a marquee in the village of Guar Perahu, ablaze with lights, thousands of people – mostly Malay, and hence mostly Muslim, the men with little moustaches and beards, the women in headscarves − abandoned their food and mobbed the star attraction, who had just finished speaking at the podium up the end. Anwar Ibrahim made his way down the marquee as a band played light rock songs. The crowds pressed to shake his hand and get selfies with him. Smiling, he went with the flow. It took half an hour to get out to his car.

As well as his open house for Idul Fitri, the end of the fasting month, this was Anwar’s thank you.

Five-and-a-half weeks ago he was in prison, convicted in 2015 of sodomy, both a criminal offence in Malaysia and a sin for Muslims. Now Anwar was free, newly pardoned by Sultan Muhammad V, the Malaysian king, who declared him a victim of injustice.

The pardon cleared legal barriers to Anwar returning to parliament in a byelection. As the political alliance he founded more than 15 years ago, now known as Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope), took government after a stunning election victory on May 9, he was in position to assume the prime ministership. Anwar’s vindication, after a 20-year political struggle that had him jailed for eight of those years on two separate and equally dubious sodomy charges, would assure little objection to that.

Yet there is one more obstacle for Anwar, now 70, to clear. Two days earlier, I went to Malaysia’s official prime ministerial residence, a sprawling mansion amid manicured tropical gardens running down to an artificial lake in Putrajaya, the new capital built during the 22-year rule of Mahathir Mohamad.

Now Mahathir is ensconced there again, at the age of 92. Frustrated at the ineptitude of his first chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, in 2003 he used his clout in the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO – the centrepin of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) that had ruled Malaysia since independence as Malaya in 1957 – to throw Abdullah out.

The replacement, Najib Razak, was even worse, getting embroiled in scandals including the alleged embezzlement of $US4.5 billion from a government development fund known as 1MDB and the murder, by police from the prime minister’s bodyguard, of a Mongolian model involved in kickbacks in the purchase of submarines from a French supplier.

Mahathir joined the opposition coalition against UMNO and Barisan Nasional to get Najib out. With Anwar in jail, Mahathir became Pakatan Harapan’s figurehead. His record of defending Malay and Muslim privileges was enough to lift the share of the Malay vote going to Pakatan Harapan to 28 per cent, which won them a majority of seats. Mahathir took the prime ministership, but only until Anwar was ready to take over.

At Mahathir’s own Idul Fitri gathering, a crowd of 80,000 queued back to the streets for a chance to shake his hand, as well as enjoy the free meal in palatial surroundings. Dressed in a purple traditional Malay suit with wraparound sampin and black cap, he took the podium for an hour.

The country has greeted Mahathir’s return with euphoria. When a television clip showed the Mahathirs at a simple breakfast, viewers noticed the bottle of Berocca vitamins and emptied the shops of them. When he was shown wearing humble Bata sandals to the mosque, thousands more rushed to shops to match him. “He’s never been this popular before,” says Steven Gan, editor and co-founder of the Malaysiakini news portal.

The timetable for handing over to Anwar is extending. First it seemed to be only a few months, until Anwar could recover his fitness and organise a byelection. Then it was “one or two” years. Two weeks ago, it became “two years or so”.

In Permatang Pauh, The Saturday Paper managed to get Anwar’s attention briefly. How long was Dr M going to make these supporters wait? Anwar grinned, and said: “He’s doing okay, I think. Give him a chance until when he’s finished.”

But how long? Two years? One year? “I don’t know,” Anwar said. “Give him the latitude to govern effectively. If you start giving the time frame he will not be effective. People will see him as a lame duck prime minister. I want him to be an effective prime minister to carry out the initial reforms. When I assume office I will proceed [with them].”

As for when he would rejoin parliament, Anwar had one word: “Soon.”

Before Idul Fitri he went to London, showing his international cachet as a voice of moderate Islam, ready with a Koranic verse or Hadith supporting tolerance. But in Malaysia, the longer it stretches out, the more Anwar needs to find a role showing his relevance. “The concern is that if he’s out of the limelight people might forget about him,” Steven Gan said. “In two years’ time they’d be wondering, Why should he be the prime minister?”

Despite Anwar’s doggedness in keeping his multiracial coalition going, it was Mahathir’s late entry and the reassurance he brought to many Malays that got Pakatan Harapan into government. Then there is this astonishing popularity.

But at 92, time is not on Mahathir’s side. He has moved quickly to tackle corruption and misgovernance. He blocked Najib from leaving the country and sacked his obedient attorney-general. Police raided several of Najib’s properties, taking away hauls of cash and jewellery. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission summoned Najib for two gruelling interrogations about 1MDB.

Mahathir also sacked the chief of the police force’s Special Branch, replacing him with a deputy sidelined for an attempted prosecution of Najib in 2015, and is reported to be planning the replacement of the three top police commissioners and disbandment of the Special Branch’s secretive political wing, E4, which misused sedition laws to keep the Barisan Nasional in power. The chief justice and the head of the appeals court, both kept on past retirement age by Najib, also suddenly decided to resign, as did the governor of the central bank and the head of the electoral commission. No less than 17,000 consultants, many UMNO cronies, had lucrative contracts terminated.

So far, the new government shows an unusual inclusiveness. The new finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, is the first ethnic Chinese in the job, the new attorney-general, Tommy Thomas, Malaysia’s first non-Malay and non-Muslim in this other sensitive post. Among the top contenders for chief justice are a Christian from Sarawak’s indigenous people, Richard Malanjum, and a female Malay, Zainun Ali. Either would be a demographic first.

Mahathir himself has perhaps not changed. His first foreign trip, two weeks ago, was to Japan, recalling his “Look East” policies that made him Paul Keating’s “recalcitrant” towards a wider Asia-Pacific community. There he talked about a new “national car” project, since his old one, the loss-making Proton Saga, had been largely sold off to the Chinese. He said Malaysia would want to renegotiate parts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, entered under Najib.

But the context has changed. Two of his new cabinet colleagues, Finance Minister Lim and Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu, were jailed on political charges when Mahathir was previously prime minister. Older media hands remember his closure of newspapers, arrests and raids, the purge of independent-minded justices of the Supreme Court, and clipping of the privileges of royalty that created the culture of compliance so abused by Najib.

Gan, who interviewed Mahathir recently, said he is unrepentant, blaming past problems on underlings who “second-guessed” his wishes. But whether Mahathir admits it or not, he has to put back the vitality he sapped from key institutions. And with his group holding only a tenth of the coalition’s seats, he runs a cabinet of sceptical peers, ready to ease him out if he falters. “The NGOs want him to crawl but he won’t,” Gan said. “It would be good enough if he fulfils the Harapan government’s promises.”

He has immediately delivered one of Harapan’s election promises. The GST was varied to zero within days, ahead of its abolition, with Lim left to cover a gaping budget hole as well as to find money for promised petrol subsidies.

As for UMNO, it is holding a leadership ballot on June 30 to replace the ousted Najib. The leading candidate is Tengku Razaleigh, the Kelantan prince who was finance minister in the 1980s before falling out with Mahathir and leading a splinter group against him. I went to a small Idul Fitri gathering at his house in Kuala Lumpur. It is modelled on the White House, and even has an Oval Office, slightly smaller than the original.

Razaleigh told me he would not take UMNO over to the “dark side” – playing up race and religion – and would distinguish itself from PAS, the Islamist party that won two states and increased its federal seats precisely by doing that. An elegant personality still very sharp of mind, Razaleigh is 81.

His closest rivals are Najib’s former deputy, tainted by association, and Khairy Jamaluddin, 42, an Oxford-educated diplomat’s son who is married to ex-PM Badawi’s daughter. As he split from Razaleigh’s team, he may go down for treachery and youthful presumption.

If it ends up with an opposition leader of 81 facing a prime minister of 92, it would seem Malaysia is yet no country for young men.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "No country for young men". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.