Malaysian Politics: Nobody to Drain the Swamp

Ambition takes precedence over governance as leaders squabble

By: Asia Sentinel Correspondents

Malaysian politics is likely a recipe for continued chaos until the next election as a coterie of geriatric leaders from the 1980s slugs it out for political primacy at a time when the country is slipping into economic crisis from falling electronics and palm oil exports and crude prices are in collapse, among a plethora of other problems.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional government and Pakatan Harapan, with Mohamad Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim fighting between them for control, are handicapped by bitter internal squabbling and with neither side able to gather the wherewithal to govern effectively. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Najib Razak – who allegedly was responsible for the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history – continues to act as a spoiler.

In an informal coalition with the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, Najib’s United Malays National Organization believes it will be able to take back power in the next general election, and keep him out of jail despite his current starring role as the defendant in a mind-numbingly slow corruption trial for his part in engineering the US$4.6 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal, out of jail. He and his family were heartened when charges were dropped against his stepson, Riza Aziz, which shocked the country, last week for Riza’s part in the 1MDB scandal.

“I think these guys need to be put to sleep,” said a longtime political analyst of the bickering leaders. “They are wrecking the country.”

The 94-year-old Mahathir’s decision to resign as prime minister in February, followed by a quixotic campaign to reclaim the job, means “there is so much community anger at him,” said another source. “He is seen as a traitor by the Malay middle class. He has absolutely no credibility left. Meanwhile Anwar is showing his immaturity and naked ambition by even thinking of talking to Mahathir to try to rebuild the on-again-off-again coalition, which is just weakening what’s left of Pakatan Harapan.  Both command minorities with a lot sitting on the fence.”

While Mahathir and Parti Keadilan Rakyat leader Anwar, 72, continue the enmity that has characterized their relationship since the 1980s, Muhyiddin, 73, who supposedly has recovered from pancreatic cancer, has been going all out to add to his razor-thin 114-109 majority in the parliament by trying to destabilize Mahathir’s tenuous hold over Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – the party Mahathir built for the 2018 election and that Muhyiddin whisked out from under him in the political confusion of last February when Mahathir temporarily resigned as prime minister.

Muhyiddin’s latest move, last week, was to engineer the ouster of Mahathir’s son Mukhriz as chief minister of the state of Kedah, the Mahathir family stronghold. It wasn’t difficult for Muhyiddin to encourage the resignation of two PKR Kedah state representatives, as Parti Keadilan Rakyat itself appears about to implode over dissatisfaction with Anwar, along with widespread anger over Mahathir for bringing down the Pakatan Harapan government last February. 

On the other side is what is left of UMNO following the 2018 election debacle, which continues to be led by Najib, 66, who maintains a tenacious hold on freedom. He has made common cause with the rural, Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS, headed by Abdul Hadi Awang, 72, who according to crusading journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown was bribed by Najib into a political alliance with UMNO.

Muhyiddin is using scorched-earth tactics to try to fracture Pakatan Harapan coalition’s control on a state level. A significant number of Bersatu top leadership signed off on a statement reiterating their support for Muhyiddin, as well making official what had been apparent since February – that Bersatu has left Pakatan Harapan to join Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional. Just a handful of leaders’ signatures were missing, indicative of Mahathir’s waning support within the party as it continues to be engulfed in a “civil war.”

However, it appears since the one-day sitting of parliament on May 18 that Muhyiddin has been picking up numbers, with the apparent fracture between Anwar and Mahathir costing Pakatan Harapan any chance of regaining the numbers to command a majority in parliament. Hopes are fading fast for any vote of no confidence that would bring down Muhyiddin's coalition, as it is not even clear who would be Pakatan Harapan’s preferred prime minister, Anwar or Mahathir. 

The coup that removed Mukhriz means that Muhyiddin’s group is in official in control of nine states – Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Melaka, Johor, Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan with only Penang, Negri Sembilan and Selangor remaining under Pakatan Harapan. Sabah and Sarawak, with outsize voting power, are key to who will control the parliament, giving them the ability to dictate terms of government largesse. Perikatan Nasional is widely believed to be fomenting plans to attempt to engineer coups in Negri Sembilan and Sabah, and that mass defections are expected to occur within the next few weeks.

Perikatan must seek these state party coups because of its own shakiness in parliament. While Muhyiddin may have managed to postpone a vote of no-confidence until the next session in July, his own party is on shaky ground, as Mukhriz is planning to challenge Muhyiddin as party president in the elections due next month, and the positions of Mahathir and his supporters within Bersatu are under challenge.

That could force Muhyiddin to yield more to the demands of UMNO in exchange for 'life support' in the current coalition. Muhyiddin's only consolation is that Anwar’s PKR is losing numbers very quickly with Anwar at loggerheads with Mahathir.

Anwar and Mahathir have completely different objectives. Anwar feels he is quickly losing his last chance to be prime minister after seeking the job for more than 20 years, while Mahathir appears to just want to oust Muhyiddin.

This is where Muhyiddin must realign his supporters within Bersatu to embrace the new Malay-centric coalition as a long-term government, from a party that really had one objective when formed, to oust Najib. Electorally, both Anwar and Mahathir are damaged goods. Few people within the Malay middle class will ever again lend either their support again.

Muhyiddin himself, with the possibility of his cancer returning, is only regarded as a seat-warmer for someone who hasn't shown himself or herself yet. After the 2023 election, the dynamics of the PH coalition will completely change with UMNO being potentially the dominant governing party once again given its alliance with PAS and the stumbling by the quarreling factions.