Malaysia ‘Returns to Dark Ages’ with Racial Coalition Taking Power

Mahathir loses out despite last-minute vow to hold onto power

By: John Berthelsen and Murray Hunter

Capping one of the wildest weeks in Malaysian political history, it appears – for now -- that Muhyiddin Yassin, who became a political outcast on Monday for his part in a failed attempt to realign politics along racial lines, is likely to become prime minister, probably putting an end to the aspirations of longtime pretender Anwar Ibrahim and setting a course for the country to relapse back into racism and corruption.

Today (February 29), the country’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, confirmed Muhyiddin as the person who commands the confidence of the majority of parliament despite another day of frantic negotiations, during which the now-deposed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proclaimed he had the numbers to remain in power.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which was established by Mahathir and left the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition on Monday, apparently has put enough votes together to nominate the 72-year-old Muhyiddin, who is said to be suffering from pancreatic cancer, to be the next prime minister. It appears that a throng of East Malaysian members of parliament defected from Pakatan Harapan to join Bersatu, as the party is known.

Barring further horse-trading — and there is no reason to assume more horse-trading won’t take place, that is likely to happen. Most neutral observers fear that will return the county to what one observer called “another dark day for Malaysia,” in which racial politics and corruption will prevail, much as it did for the decades until the Barisan National lost its 70-year hold on politics in the May 2018 national election that brought the multiracial Pakatan Harapan coalition to power.

At the center of the turmoil, as it has been for decades, is the country’s fragile racial makeup, with ethnic Malays, who are Muslim, making up about 50.1 percent of the population. Ethnic Chinese, who make up about 20 percent, control the economic heights. Ethnic Indians and indigenous tribes make up the rest. Mahathir, since he entered politics as a physician from the northern state of Kedah, has sought to preserve and build Malay economic power, often through corrupt figures, and to preserve political power to go along with it.

The practical effect of the selection of Muhyiddin is to put on hold for the foreseeable future the ambitions of Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic former finance minister that Mahathir had groomed to replace him before the two fell into disagreement over a long series of policies. Despite periodic expressions of public amity, longtime opposition leader Anwar, the head of the urban, multicultural Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and Mahathir have remained implacable enemies who have been waging a subterranean struggle for political power.

Anwar has been imprisoned twice on charges of sexual perversion -- once at Mahathir’s hands – that were widely considered to be trumped up. He was at one point named a prisoner of conscience by global human rights organizations.

“(Mahathir) started the fire,” said a Kuala Lumpur source with deep knowledge of the situation who asked to remain nameless. “Now he goes back to his cocoon - mission accomplished. Anwar won’t make it, so he’s happy. And he fucked Malaysia twice over along the way.”

The story began on February 23 with a meeting of Bersatu members along with allies from the discredited United Malays National Organization and Parti Islam se-Malaysia at a Kuala Lumpur hotel where they were finalizing a plan for a new coalition that would guarantee Malay Muslim political supremacy in Parliament.

The new alignment was designed to bring down the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, which has stumbled badly ever since it overthrew the 70-year-old Barisan Nasional in May 2018 elections and largely has proven itself unable to govern. But Mahathir, who according to a wide range of sources had been planning the coup for eight to 10 months, backed out at the last minute over the inclusion of the corruption-ridden UMNO and a request to erase criminal cases against some of their members.

Mahathir sent his letter of resignation to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, the next day and Bersatu left the ruling coalition. Mahathir’s lieutenants, Mohamed Azmin Ali, the ambitious Minister of Economic Affairs, and Muhyiddin, among others, were identified as the main culprits helping Mahathir to foment the plot. At that point they were widely considered to be political outcasts whose careers were regarded as finished, along with that of Hishamuddin Hussain, the former defense minister in the Barisan Nasional.

Mahathir and his allies are dedicated to so-called ketuanan Melayu or Malay Muslim supremacy, which has created decades of racial tension in the country. Anwar, who rose to power as a Malay Muslim nationalist himself, embraced multiculturalism in establishing his Parti Keadilan Raykat, or People’s Justice Party.

What the makeup of the new coalition will be is uncertain. It is also uncertain if the Bersatu group will embrace the remnants of UMNO and its disgraced former prime minister, the architect of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Scandal, in which US$4.6 billion of state money disappeared through theft and mismanagement.

On February 27, Mahathir told reporters that "Muhyiddin might become a candidate. If everyone chooses him, I am okay. If everyone chooses him, he can form his Cabinet." Muhyiddin, he said, was more accepting of working with UMNO and PAS but “My position is I will not accept UMNO, but I will accept those who leave UMNO. But Muhyiddin is ready to accept them. Whoever wins I will accept him to be the prime minister.”