Former PM Mahathir Adds to Malaysia’s Muddled Political Mix

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and nowhere more than in Malaysia, struggling with a political scandal that has all but paralyzed governance. Thus it was that on Sept. 5 the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim met his enemy and persecutor of 18 years, Mahathir Mohamad. It was Mahathir’s forces that engineered trumped-up charges of sexual perversion that put Anwar in prison in 1999, to be freed in 2004 when Abdullah Ahmad Badawi became prime minister.

The meeting, at a hearing for the imprisoned Anwar, who was jailed again in 2015 by Prime Minister Najib Razak on equally trumped-up charges, added a remarkable new twist in the struggle to oust Najib Razak in the wake of the outpouring of evidence of fraud on a gargantuan scale associated with 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the cesspit from which bubbles the biggest scandal in Malaysia’s history. US authorities say at least US$3.5 billion have been stolen, a significant part of that by Najib himself. Swiss authorities have said as much as US$4 billion has been laundered through Swiss banks from 1MDB.

The meeting with Anwar followed another kiss-and-make up between Mahathir and another former bitter enemy, the ethnic Chinese Democratic Party’s leader, Lim Kit Siang, whom Mahathir also jailed in the infamous Operation Lalang in 1987. That these three have come together in this bizarre coalition says volumes about the depth of corruption in the United Malays National Organization, the worm-eaten ethnic Malay party that has led the ruling Barisan Nasional, the coalition that has run the country since independence.

Through use of 1MDB and other slush funds used to bribe UMNO’s ruling cadres, Najib has, despite all the evidence of his direct complicity in the fraud, been able to buy the loyalty of most UMNO members of parliament and division chiefs and appointed persons such as Mohamed Apandi Ali, the Attorney General and UMNO lackey who has steadfastly blocked investigations of criminal activities, however much evidence comes out of probes in the US, Switzerland, Singapore and other countries where loose money theoretically stolen from Malaysian taxpayers has been sloshing for as much as five years.

Yet it remains to be seen whether this old-men’s alliance is more than just a last -gasp effort to cobble together an alliance sufficiently broad to get rid of Najib. Mahathir’s plan, according to a longtime political analyst in Kuala Lumpur, is to establish a pure Malay party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu, that would target the Malay vote bank that traditionally has gone to UMNO.

Parti Pribumi’s broader aim is to be part of the new coalition called Pakatan Harapan formed last year by the PKR, DAP and PAS breakaway Parti Amanah Negara. It replaced the former Pakatan Rakyat which performed well in the last general election but fell about thanks largely to the intransigence of PAS, gerrymandering and the renewed jailing of Anwar who had headed its centrist largely Malay component the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Thus far Pakatan Harapan has made little electoral impact.

Mahathir had earlier announced the formation of Parti Pribumi Bersatu to try to attract UMNO dissidents. But hitherto it has attracted scant support other than former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a Malays-first figure whose own career is not above reproach, and Mahathir’s son Mukhriz, the amiable if unimpressive former chief minister of Kedah until Najib sacked him for perceived disobedience, mainly for being his father’s son.

“I think Mahathir knows (the opposition coalition) can’t form a government and they can’t win all the UMNO seats to become the dominant partner in a coalition comprising DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Amanah,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “But the only way to get Najib out is to make UMNO lose a large number of seats and that is done by splitting the UMNO Malay vote.”

But to split the UMNO Malay vote, there will have to be three-cornered fights, he said. Example – in a recent by-election for an UMNO-held seat, UMNO won by about 1,000 votes in 2013 against PAS. But in the new equation, Parti Bersatu would contest and get 1,500 votes. PAS retains its votes. UMNO loses. Therefore, it doesn’t matter to the good doctor that his party doesn’t win. But he makes UMNO lose.

“Mahathir is banking on general unhappiness throughout the country with 1MDB and Najib and (Najib’s grasping wife Rosmah Mansor.) But he forgets that he was once despised and hated and that still, with the power of gerrymandering and all that, he continued to win.”

In the long run, what happens in the US, with the threat of criminal charges against Najib, and in Switzerland with 1MDB and how well they contain it in Malaysia – as they have so far – is more likely to determine the outcome.

“Malaysia has not reached that stage – in my mind – where people take on the unknown and vote against the Barisan because of all the scandals,” an analyst said. “People have not suffered enough yet to do a Tunisia or Mauritius or a South Africa. The trauma of May 13 (in 1969 when race riots shook Malaysia) is still at the back of people's minds. People are angry but they are also afraid that their “idyllic multi-racial paradise” will be shattered if they take on the unknown.

But the situation is now more complex than ever. PAS itself has split but the main faction remains wedded to extreme Muslim policies and has become a de facto supporter of Najib who has, out of desperation, gone along with some of these maneuvers in an attempt to cover crime with an unconvincing whitewash of sanctity.

Mahathir’s role as a bridge-builder is also highly suspect given that he is still advisor to Perkasa, the extremist Malay group that in the past has shown more interest in attacking Bersih, the predominantly non-Malay clean-government movement, than in bringing down Najib.

The moderate Malay core of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which did so well in the new urban areas in the 2013 election still exists but lacks leadership, with factionalism splitting Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Selangor Chief minister Azmin Ali.. Meanwhile support for the PAS breakaway Parti Amanah Negara, which has six federal MPs, has yet to be tested at the polls.

The division of Malays, now into five camps – UMNO, PAS, PKR, PAN and Bersatu – not only makes the ouster of Najib more difficult. Overtly pan-Malay talk also puts off non-Malays who fear Malay ultras more than they despise Najib. The recent election in Sabah showed voters far more interested in local issues, and the canny use by Chief Minister Adenan Satem of Najib’s weakness to extract huge concessions for his state.

That is now pushing Sabah to demand more autonomy too. The overweighting of the two Borneo states in the election system is now essential for UMNO’s survival in power – and the people know it.

For all the theoretical strength of Pakatan Harapan plus Mahathir, money and government jobs are still a more powerful magnet. The combined opposition now has no real leader and, having no agenda now much beyond Najib’s ouster, would fall apart in the event he was removed. Malaysia is farther away than ever from having (other than in Borneo) a multi-ethnic party that could take the edge off racial divisions and rely on popular appeal rather than money and a gerrymandered electoral system as the basis of its power.