Mahathir: Malaysia's Prophet of Doom or Second Messiah?

This is part of a three-story package on the upcoming Malaysia election. See Malaysia’s Najib Calls 14th General Election and Najib Razak: A Kleptocrat Skilled at the Game

Malaysia’s struggling opposition is now led by the most unlikely of figures, the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose political comeback as the leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, and his nomination as its prime ministerial candidate, prompts one question. What side is he on?

Will he support reform as the electorate wishes? Reform was once a word that he apparently despised. Or will he return to what has become known as Mahathirism – under which the judiciary was emasculated, the press was brought to heel by the government, draconian laws were enacted which affected millions of Malaysians during his tenure, and affirmative action policies created a rentier class of ethnic Malays? Has he rediscovered the need for the democratic safeguards that he discarded as premier?

Nation Turns its Eyes Away

It is 15 years since hysterical scenes riveted the General Assembly of the United Malays National Organization, the country’s leading political party and the head of the ruling Barisan Nasional, or national coalition. As an emotional Mahathir announced his resignation in 2003, tearful UMNO politicians pleaded with him to reconsider.

Fast forward to today, and the UMNO pols who begged him to stay now have no compunction about savaging him. Once considered an ethnic Malay although his father was from Kerala, India, his enemies now refer to his "Indian" roots, as if to say he has been rejected by the Malay community.

He is disillusioned with his successors, worried about increased racial and religious tensions, outraged that large swathes of prime land and businesses are owned by foreigners, and furious that UMNO politicians refuse to consult him.

He is a victim of his own policies, and the mainstream press whose freedom he curtailed is forbidden to report his speeches for fear of upsetting the government. The only way he disseminates his views is via his popular blog, Chedet and through rallies as he crisscrosses the country.

It is four decades since Mahathir swept to power, but Malaysia's longest serving PM is as charismatic as before, attracting huge crowds both in and outside Malaysia. He is also as divisive as during the time he wielded power.

Rural Malays his Base

He remains highly popular among rural Malays and those who associate him with many of the landmarks, like the Petronas Twin Towers, KLIA, Proton, the Formula 1 circuit. For others, however, he is an anachronism, lost to history and irrelevant.

As the "Father of Modern Malaysia," he dared to oppose the west, and was not afraid to be controversial. His grand ideas, many of which went awry and cost the treasury billions, nonetheless enabled him to believe that Malaysia would attain developed nation status by 2020.

Najib Razak, whom he groomed for succession, altered the script, and with a variant of King Midas's touch, managed to corrupt all those with whom he came into contact. Najib is the architect of two of the biggest scandals in Malaysian history, which have not brought him down because according to critics he has simply bribed influential cadres to keep him in power.

Instead of focusing on Mahathir's projected 2020 high-income nation status, Najib simply moved the goalposts and set the time back by 30 years to "Transformation Nasional 50" (TN50) for the year 2050.

Last year, Mahathir teamed up with the opposition, finally apologizing for the misdeeds that occurred during his tenure. He may have re-energized the political scene, but just saying sorry was insufficient for his diehard critics.

Some wondered if he regretted dismantling the institutions of the state, taking away the independence of the judiciary, destroying civil liberties, later dumbing down the education system, silencing the students, removing the freedom of the press and endangering freedom of religion.

Onetime Malay Savior

Back in the early 70s, Mahathir was the Malay savior and the great hope of the nation after the racial troubles of 1969. The Malays acknowledged their shortcomings, which Mahathir compiled in his book "The Malay Dilemma," but they failed to question the veracity of some of his conclusions.

By empowering the Malays, Mahathir gave them a sense of identity. He cajoled them to excel. He initially gave their children a sound education. He also provided good health care and business opportunities. They were beholden to Mahathir and he overlooked the fact that the majority of these policies alienated the non-Malays, or that the Malays may have been unable to cope with these sudden expectations.

The Islamic Revolution, which hit Iran in the late 70s, worried Mahathir. He feared that the Malays would switch their allegiance from UMNO to the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, and was desperate to show that UMNO was as religious.

Mahathir's political masterstroke was to invite Anwar Ibrahim, then a charismatic student leader, and president of The Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM, The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement), to join UMNO.

This tactic effectively co-opted Anwar, who was at the time one of Mahathir’s greatest critics. With Anwar’s help, Mahathir solidified UMNO's Islamic credentials, introducing the tudung, or headscarf, which covers the hair, ears and neck, leaving only women’s faces exposed, raising the profile of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM), who essentially function as religious police, and allowing the Saudi petrodollar to influence the local religious scene.

Islamic Conservatism Worrying

Today, Islamic conservatism has damaged the multicultural fabric of Malaysian society and ironically, both Mahathir and Anwar are now attempting to reduce rising extremism. With Iranian women fighting to take off the tudung and Saudi Arabian women earning the right to drive and other rights, PAS continues to erode the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia with Najib’s help.

When Anwar was set to eclipse his leader following the 1998 currency crisis, leading tens of thousands in rallies in opposition to the premier’s economic policies, Mahathir had him jailed on charges of sodomy and corruption that have been criticized universally by global human rights organizations as fabricated. Ironically, Mahathir is now fighting to have Anwar released from a second conviction at Najib’s hands, and to receive a royal pardon to pave the way for his premiership.

Forty years ago, both men belonged to UMNO and conspired to overcome PAS. Today, the two have again joined forces to destroy PAS, which has teamed up with UMNO in all but name.

Besides Anwar, Mahathir was arguably the best political communicator of his time. His command of English is strong, unlike that of the Home Minister, Zahid Hamidi, whose speech at the United Nations Assembly in 2016 made Malaysians cringe. Mahathir is famous for his trademark sarcasm and wit, unlike the Minister of Tourism, Nazri Aziz.

The ministers' lack of fluency also reflects Mahathir's concerns about Malaysians' overall lack of English proficiency. The move to de-emphasize English for Malay in schools during Mahathir’s reign must weigh heavily on him, especially when today companies are reluctant to employ local graduates, because of their poor fluency in English and terrible communication skills.

Taking On the Sultans

As PM, Mahathir clipped the wings of the country’s nine sultans, whom he felt were alienating the people, with their profligacy and excesses. When criminal acts like the attacks by the late Sultan Iskandar of Johor on a golf caddy and on motorists who refused to stop for the royal convoy angered the nation, Mahathir knew he had to act.

It is doubtful that he feels any remorse for curbing their powers. Last December, the Sultan of Selangor demanded that Mahathir return his awards, and he did so with grace and sarcasm, saying that he was not deserving of the title. In January, another sultan retracted his awards. More offloading of the baggage.

Conversely, it is the Sultan of Johor who has become a potent force against Najib’s increasing receptibility to Islamization. Najib skillfully has manipulated PAS’s desire for shariah law to destroy the opposition, but according to one pundit, "Mahathir put UMNO there. He knows their weaknesses and strengths. If anyone can take UMNO down, it is Mahathir."

UMNO supporters fear that Mahathir wants to destroy the party. Mahathir's critics wonder if his comeback is to lay the foundation for his son, Mukhriz, as a future PM, whilst others maintain that Mahathir wants a return to Mahathirism.

Politics can create some strange bedfellows. Some political heavyweights who support Mahathir are his former political foes; Lim Kit Siang, the adviser to the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Mohamad Sabu, the former PAS vice president, both of whom were jailed by him under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) along with 104 other opposition figures, human rights activists, journalists and others.

Lim once accused Mahathir of starting the "rot" in Malaysia through unchecked corruption and rampant abuse of power.

Najib, the protégé, is now attacking his former mentor. In the early 1970s, Najib's father rescued Mahathir from the political wilderness and returned him to the UMNO fold. He had been expelled for insubordination towards Tunku Abdul Rahman, considered the father of Malaysian independence.

Struggle for Acceptance

The late Asian Wall Street Journal editor Barry Wain's book, Malaysian Maverick, showed how Mahathir struggled to be accepted by the Malay community when he was a boy. The social- and class-conscious Malay children in his school despised his Indian origins, so Mahathir buried himself in his books. His contempt for the non-Malays may have arisen from his encounters with them in Singapore. Mahathir's early stint as a general practitioner giving free medical treatment to the poor honed his knowledge of the suffering peasant class.

Conversely, Najib is the consummate career politician. His teenage years were spent in an English boarding school, although his university degree is a subject of much dispute. Born into a privileged family, Najib has never encountered discrimination, unlike Mahathir. Even his entry into politics was eased by a sympathetic vote, given after his father's death.

Last July, a retired judge, Gopal Sri Ram, blamed Mahathir and former attorney-general Abu Talib for eviscerating the judicial power of the courts via an amendment to the Federal Constitution in 1988.

Return to Separation of Powers

Mahathir denied the role he played, but last December, he reiterated that the separation of powers between the executive, legislature (Parliament) and judiciary would be restored if the opposition comes to power. He also stressed that the government, especially the PM, would not be able to control the judiciary.

With the general election only weeks away, many who once felt helpless about the state of the nation fully endorse Mahathir and say that they are "voting for hope for the future and wish to turn their backs on the wanton wastefulness and sheer recklessness of Najib's profligacy," according to one disillusioned voter.

If the opposition wins GE-14, Mahathir knows that there are longer-term challenges like maintaining a united front, upholding the rights of ethnic minorities and appeasing the Muslims and Malay heartlands, especially the Malay middle class, many of whom are educated professionals living off the system who fear the loss of their benefits, particularly to the Chinese, who for decades have controlled the economy.

Sick individuals who refuse medical intervention may suffer a total organ failure, and Mahathir is aware that the nation may never recover from another five years under Najib and UMNO.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysia-based journalist and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel