How Malaysia’s Political Coup Failed

Chaos left in the wake of attempted realignment

By: Murray Hunter and John Berthelsen

A plan to realign Malaysia’s political structure along racial lines to cement ethnic Malays as the country’s ruling force appears to have foundered because its architect, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, backed away at the last minute over a move by lieutenants to include the discredited United Malays National Organization in the coalition.

Mahathir, according to a wide range of sources in Kuala Lumpur, originally envisioned bringing individual UMNO MPs into his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia to strengthen a coalition that would have included his party as well as other ethnic Malay groups. But PBBM President Muhyiddin Yassin, Minister of Economic Affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali, who has challenged longtime pretender Anwar Ibrahim to become Mahathir’s successor, and others went ahead with the plan at a Kuala Lumpur hotel on Sunday night. Mahathir, who was supposed to attend the meeting, backed out.

“The UMNO guys insisted that for joining the coup, they wanted criminal charges against them dropped and the deputy PM post to be given to them,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “Mahathir balked at this, saying he could not accept the very crooks he fought being in his government. He was conscious that he is going to be 95 and this was not the legacy he wanted to leave behind.”

Among UMNO members that have been charged with crimes are former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is caught up in the huge 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, and the deputy prime minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces seven corruption charges for taking kickbacks as home affairs minister, and others. At the end of its 70-year reign as Malaysia’s primary political entity, UMNO had become indelibly corrupt.

Mahathir, said the political analyst, “is too smart, he’s been through too many battles. His position was ‘If the UMNO guys wanted to be a part of my government, they’ve got to resign from UMNO.’ What Muhyiddin did was bring in UMNO as a coalition party and kicked out the (Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party).”

The plan had been in the works for the past eight to 10 months as Mahathir’s longtime rival, Anwar, increased the pressure to honor the pre-election pledge he made in 2018 to step aside after two years, according to the sources. Those Mahathir had been meeting with were leaders of UMNO and the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, all dedicated to the idea of ketuanan Melayu, or continuing ethnic Malay political primacy. Meetings also included the East Malaysia parties Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Warisan.

All those who plotted the failed putsch are now at the mercy of Mahathir -- Muhyiddin, Azmin Ali, former Hishamuddin Hussein Onn, the former UMNO Defense Minister and others. They are now marked for political extinction, according to a range of sources.

Despite the public pleas for the 94-year-old Mahathir to return to head at least an interim government on the part of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party’s leader, Lim Guan Eng, and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s leader Anwar Ibrahim, among others, the premier has inspired behind-the-scenes distrust and anger. Sources within PKR believe the episode was part of a calculated move by Mahathir and his allies to outmaneuver Anwar and destabilize parties within Pakatan Harapan, according to a leading country risk firm that remains unnamed because of the sensitivity of the material.

“PKR leaders have told us that Mahathir had orchestrated the entire debacle, but that the move had backfired in the process of its execution,” according to a confidential report made available to Asia Sentinel

The affair has led to three days of frantic jockeying between the opposing sides, with both seeking audiences with the king in marathon sessions. The outcome is still unclear. Well informed sources say the debacle means Mahathir must formally name Anwar as his successor. Equally informed sources say Anwar is headed for political oblivion.

Since resigning on February 23, Mahathir, who also resigned as chairman of PPBM in the midst of all the fighting, has nonetheless engineered his appointment by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and has been able to assemble a majority of support from sitting MPs within the parliament.

Neither the now-defunct Pakatan Harapan nor Muafakat Nasional, as the opposition is now known, have the numbers to take over the reins of government. A vote of confidence is expected to be called on March 9 when Parliament convenes but meanwhile, the civil service will run the country. Both now-fractured coalitions begged Mahathir to return and continue to pledge loyalty to him.

The king’s appointment of Mahathir as the interim prime minister to establish a new government is seen as the only option, as he is the most likely to have the numbers in parliament to do so. Before any final decision to swear him in as the legitimate prime minister heading a working administration, the king, with the nation's chief secretary as witness will personally interview each and every MP to ascertain who their loyalty lies with. Certainly, any new government will be in the image Mahathir wants.

Mahathir’s resignation as both prime minister and chairman of Bersatu over the botched attempt to realign the government has also ended the tenure of his administration’s ministers and cabinet. Whatever his role in the attempt to realign the government, Mahathir is now clear to appoint whomever he sees fit to serve in any future ministry he may form. The membership of this future ministry will be truly telling on the way Mahathir plans to take his future administration. Whether Anwar Ibrahim will be a member of the ministry will give an indication of Mahathir’s intentions.

There will be a few obstacles for Mahathir to form any coalition. UMNO refuses to serve in any arrangement with the DAP and the DAP most probably likewise. Sarawak’s GPS would object to working with both the DAP and PAS. Warisan would not have anything to do with Sabah chief minister Musa Aman in the government. PKR would work with UMNO, and Amanah would not work with PAS. PKR would not work with Azmin’s independent grouping.

So far, although Kedah, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, and the Johor state governments have technically fallen with the withdrawal of Bersatu from Pakatan, they are holding together waiting up a final solution at federal level. The Bursa Malaysia, which plummeted yesterday, is on the rebound, with the markets seeing the actions taken by the Agong in seeking a solution are bringing sense and stability to the situation.

The Malaysian Bar and Attorney-General Tommy Thomas have both said that he who commands the confidence of the majority in the house should be determined in parliament itself. However, in the unprecedented move to personally interview every MP, the Agong has saved Malaysia’s politicians from the wrath and anger of voters. In the current angry environment, an election within a couple of weeks would have drastically changed the election landscape. This is probably a lost opportunity.