Mahathir Exacerbates Malaysia’s Racial Divisions

A decision by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to invite ethnic Malays from other political parties – including the corruption-steeped United Malays National Organization – to join his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is not only a betrayal of the objectives of the Pakatan Harapan coalition that won the May 16, 2018 general election but puts the country, with its decades-old racial tensions, into dangerous territory.

The statement also puts a definitive end to any idea of reform. On July 5, the 94-year-old prime minister, who previously ruled over the Barisan Nasional coalition of ethnic political parties for 22 years prior to 2003, told a post-Ramadan celebration in Johor that if ethnic Malays are split, “we become weak, united we stand, divided we fall.”

When asked if other Pakatan Harapan component parties would object, Mahathir was quoted as saying. “That is their problem. We have no connection with other parties. Although (they are) in Pakatan Harapan, they too get new members.”

It is thus becoming clear, if it wasn’t already, that Mahathir’s one goal was not political reform but getting rid of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom he accused in the 2013 general election of betraying the Malay race, rather than paying even lip service to create an inclusive society in the wake of the May 2018 political earthquake that drove the Barisan from power.

The coalition’s pre-election manifesto called for reform of labor laws, economic reform, abolishing laws restricting political freedom and many other reforms. Few have been implemented. On July 8, for instance, a high court in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam ruled against an independent Muslim cleric’s appeal on a seven-year-old case in which he made allegedly seditious remarks against the Sultan of Selangor. The judge also increased Wan Ji’s prison sentence from nine months to a year.

Mahathir, while not profiting himself, during his years in power turned a blind eye to scandals that should have ended the Barisan’s reign as early as 1983, when US$1 billion was stolen from the state-owned Bank Bumiputra Malaysia’s Hong Kong unit. He was shown in an auditor general’s report at the time to have been behind a cover-up of the theft. French authorities also cited him as knowing about the theft of US$141 million in the 1990s, money from kickbacks in the purchase of submarines that was steered to UMNO.

Mahathir's statement inviting in UMNO members caused a prominent lawyer who asked not to be named to erupt.

Mahathir, he said, “is still fixated with this whole ‘Malay’ thing. Until and unless the politics in Malaysia becomes multiracial, I do not see a happy ending for this country. Rob and plunder as if there is no tomorrow. There is so much more that needs to be said but I've given up trying to do anything about it. I am running on a quarter tank and the choice is now to dump and run or to stay and fight. My very real fear is there will be no change in what is left of my lifetime, so is this all futile?”

UMNO after 60 years in power was indelibly corrupt, headed by Najib, who as prime minister presided over – and participated in – the biggest scandal in Malaysian history, which is saying a lot. With the US Justice Department having named him “Malaysian Official No. 1” in the US$4.6 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal for having stolen US$681 million for himself, he remained in power by bribing an entire political party, dispensing RM50,000 (US$12,076) each month to each of the 191 loyal district chiefs that made up the UMNO hierarchy, or RM114.6 million annually (US$27.498 million).

Other payments in the millions were dispersed through various government agencies including the Village Security and Development Committee, to which the cadres were appointed, as well as to four propaganda agencies under the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture, which have offices in each of Malaysia’s 13 states and three federal territories. The bulk of the money to support these propaganda bureaus came from the 1MDB Foundation, from which more than RM1 billion was siphoned off, purportedly for charity work.

At Mahathir’s instigation, at least 23 companies, some of the country’s biggest, were secretly owned by UMNO, many of them run into the ground, to be passed on to such vehicles as Tabung Haji, the Muslim pilgrims’ funds; Khazanah Nasional, the national investment fund; Petronas, the national energy company; and others where make-work jobs and contracts or subcontracts helped to feed UMNO. Presumably, these are the people whom Mahathir is now inviting into Parti Pribumi Bersatu.

In addition, the system Mahathir built was anchored in ketuanan Melayu, or ethnic superiority of the Malay race, which makes up about 60 percent of the population. That was a system that Mahathir built during the years he spent in power, starting in 1981, which would ultimately result in a regime in which public education, the government, the Muslim hierarchy, the politically-owned press, the courts, the police and the ethnic Malay business community were all dedicated to keeping ethnic Malays in the trough.

Inviting these UMNO rent-seekers is a slap across the face for the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which was born as a multiracial opposition, its pre-election manifesto including reforming political and administrative institutions to boost “fair and just economic growth.” The coalition is the home of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up predominantly of middle-class urban Malays. A long list of splinter parties makes up the rest of the coalition.

Nothing illustrates more vividly the failure of Malaysia’s six decades of nation-building “than having its prime minister making a clarion call for all his race – the Malays – to unite under one single Malay-only party. He said this is to make the Malays strong,” wrote Kim Quek, a Malaysia-based author and critic. “Adopting PM Mahathir Mohamad’s thinking, would it be all right if the Chinese also unite among themselves under one party, and the Indians, Kadazans, Dayaks and other races following suit, making this country a conglomerate of many racial groupings each united among its own race and led by its own mono-race party?”