Mahathir: immaturing with age

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Source: Flickr

Malaysia’s turbulent political scene took a peculiar twist last week, even by the federation’s standards, when the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and a coalition of opposition parties joined together to form what was dubbed a “Citizen’s Alliance” to force Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign.

Mahathir, 90, the architect of the Malaysian contemporary political scene in so many ways, appears an odd choice to suddenly become a pioneer for reform.

He resigned from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) last week and is being built up as a godfather of political rights. He is now being mentioned in the same heroic terms as jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the most high-profile victim of Mahathir’s plotting while he was in office.

Mahathir’s move into opposition will definitely keep him in the forefront of the campaign to oust the embattled Najib, while suggesting a paucity of talent among the nation’s opposition parties.

Most Malaysians admit that someone of Mahathir’s stature is needed to unite the opposition into a viable alliance but it is worrying that no one else has emerged.

The opposition secured the most votes in the 2013 general election but was denied the chance of forming an administration because of Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Umno’s adversaries are riven with divisions with little to bind the ethnically Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the conservative Muslim arm of the coalition, is edging into an agreement with Umno and said it would not support the Citizen’s Alliance challenge to Najib.

Mahathir’s arrival does address the opposition’s leadership vacuum while providing him with a taste of the influence he used to enjoy in Umno during his 22 years of near-dictatorial leadership until November 2003.

Many critical figures were jailed under the Internal Security Act (ISA) when Mahathir was premier, including opposition leaders Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng, and many wonder why Lim would ever back his former jailer today.

Evidence that the former prime minister’s influence had slipped could be seen last month when he could not save his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, who was forced to resign in disgrace in an internal party rebellion as Kedah chief minister: the family’s home state.

And now it seems Mahathir is looking to animosity with Umno, especially among the politically dominant Malay majority, to force Najib out of power at the next general election, which is due before mid-2018.

But can the opposition find anything to unify over beyond their mutual antipathy to Najib? The question remains if there is more to Mahathir’s defection than just an enraged desire to unseat Najib.

He has been led by his anger in the past. He sacked and imprisoned his deputy, Anwar, in 1998. Although the motives have been disputed, he appears to have been unhappy with his dynamic deputy’s economic policies in response to the financial meltdown which threatened Mahathir’s friends in business.

Mahathir’s anger was on display again when his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, rapidly scrapped several of his predecessor’s high-profile projects.

He was apparently so furious when Anwar was released in September 2004 that he left Umno for the first time and he campaigned mercilessly against premier Tun Abdullah, who was forced to hand power to Najib in 2009.

The Citizen’s Alliance will no doubt be aware of his history and wary of following a general into battle who is predominantly motivated by a desire for revenge. Some observers believe Mahathir’s rural conservative Muslim Malay supporters might be alienated by his new alliance with the ethnically Chinese DAP, potentially reinforcing the Umno vote.

While he has been out of power for many years, several of the structural problems with the Malaysian economy can be traced back to Mahathir’s mercantilist hand.

His push for industrialisation led to the decline of the once-flourishing agricultural sector.

Huge investment in steel and cement production has failed to reap rewards while his landmark project, the Proton car, is burdened by debt and is in need of government support. Najib’s lukewarm backing for Proton is apparently one of Mahathir’s sore points.

Mahathir’s calls for Najib to be brought to account over allegations of graft and financial mismanagement lack credibility as he fatally undermined the judiciary in the late 1980s. The compromised trials of Anwar from 1998 onwards demonstrated the toothless nature of the legal system under Mahathir.

Mahathir and former finance minister Daim Zainuddin engineered Umno’s push into the world of business predominantly through handing out billions of dollars in infrastructure contracts. When Umno-linked firms, like the Renong Group, fell into debt, the taxpayer bailed them out.

The polarised political scene is unlikely to help ease Malaysia’s economic predicament with Umno likely to be distracted from much-delayed reforms.

The Malaysian economy is in peril of suffering with the Chinese downturn as ethnic tensions are on the rise and the education system struggles. It would not appear the time to be sidetracked by political power plays.

Mahathir’s move last week appears to be an attempt to move away from his chequered record, presumably in the hope that voters are too young, forgetful, or forgiving.