The shape of things to come under Mahathir 2.0
Malaysia's 92-year-old new premier has moved swiftly against his scandal-plagued predecessor Najib Razak, setting the tone for a new political era
A new era has dawned for Malaysian politics with the once opposition, now ruling Pakatan Harapan at the helm of government after a shock May 9 election result few experts foresaw. And it’s first hours in power have already produced a string of dramatic events.
In a stunning reversal of fortunes, the once-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition garnered just over one-third of the national vote, bringing an end to its uninterrupted 61-year rule. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad – an iconic former prime minister who led the BN coalition for 22-years – was again sworn in as premier, this time as Harapan’s chairman.
Malaysians greeted the extraordinary events with jubilance, celebrating in the streets and waiting with baited breath for Mahathir, 92, to take his oath. Electoral gains by Harapan, an unlikely coalition of former rivals and adversaries who set differences aside to end BN’s scandal-plagued rule, have since turned the country’s political landscape on its head.
As nonagenarian Mahathir began his first non-consecutive term as premier, ousted leader Najib Razak retreated into quiet as the first Malaysian premier to ever lose a general election, a stunning fall from grace that forced his resignation as head of the once-ruling BN and its lynchpin party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
On his first day in office, Mahathir announced full investigative probes into government agencies and Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, who was singled out by Mahathir on the campaign trail for allegedly hiding “evidence of wrongdoings” pertaining to corruption at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment arm founded by Najib.
The beleaguered fund is the subject of ongoing international graft probes into billions of dollars embezzled through foreign banking systems. US Department of Justice documents allege that US$681 million from 1MDB was transferred to the personal account of a “Malaysian Official One”, who US and Malaysian sources have identified as Najib.
Apandi was appointed by Najib following indications that the previous attorney general was moving to prepare an arrest warrant for the premier in connection with the scandal. Critics of Najib’s role in the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal were also sacked. The former premier has consistently denied wrongdoing after Apandi cleared him of misconduct.
Apandi denies that he concealed evidence. Hours after Mahathir announced plans to re-open investigations into 1MDB, reports surfaced that the names of Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, appeared on the flight manifest of a private jet scheduled to leave from an airport near Kuala Lumpur for Jakarta.
The ousted premier said he and his wife would be taking a weeklong trip, prompting Immigration authorities to issue a travel ban on the pair on Mahathir’s direct orders. Given the timing and circumstances, the pair’s attempt to quietly travel abroad has been widely interpreted as a bid to flee the country for political reasons.
“I’ve just been informed that the Immigration Department is not allowing me and my family (from travelling) abroad. I respect the directive and will be with my family in the country,” the former premier tweeted.
Najib soon after announced his resignation as UMNO’s leader at a press conference, two days after the party commemorated its 72nd anniversary, the first time it has ever done so as the opposition. Members of UMNO’s youth wing have been quick to demand meaningful reforms in the wake of the mainstay party’s historic defeat, though it is unclear how senior leaders have interpreted those calls.
Investigations into 1MDB, meanwhile, have seemingly progressed with breakneck speed. Malaysian police yesterday raided a deluxe Kuala Lumpur apartment block where Najib’s relatives had been staying in search of documents pertaining to the state fund, which the new Harapan government apparently feared would be spirited from the country, news reports said.
A government vehicle had been spotted earlier delivering designer handbags and other luxury items to the apartment, presumably belonging to Najib’s wife, Rosmah, who is perceived by many Malaysians as a symbol of greed and excess who fueled perceptions of corruption that ultimately contributed to Najib’s loss of support and downfall.
In another big move, Mahathir gave police orders to unseal 1MDB’s audit report, which had been sealed by a former auditor general under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and never debated in parliament. Malaysia’s new government will now cooperate with ongoing global probes into 1MDB as it aims to repatriate state funds allegedly embezzled from the scheme.
Malaysians, many of whom regard the 1MDB scandal as an affront to national dignity, have welcomed and celebrated these fast-moving developments. Also slated for investigation are the state anti-corruption watchdog and Election Commission, along with its chairman, Mohd Hashim Abdullah. Both bodies are widely suspected of being partisan.
“Certain heads must fall. We find that some people were aiding and abetting a prime minister who the world condemned as a kleptocrat,” stressed Mahathir in remarks made to the media. The premier vows his government would not be “seeking revenge” and sought only to restore the “rule of law.”
Images of the nonagenarian premier’s first day on the job went viral on social media as supporters welcomed Mahathir’s vow to abolish an unpopular goods and services tax (GST), which will be replaced with a previous sales tax. Mahathir has also named three senior cabinet ministers, giving the heads of Harapan component parties top jobs.
Lim Guan Eng, a former chartered accountant and chief minister of Penang state, has been named finance minister, a portfolio Najib once held during his premiership. Mohamad Sabu will be defence minister, while Muhyiddin Yassin – Najib’s former deputy premier who was ousted over 1MDB criticisms – will get the powerful post of home minister.
Harapan is now expected to introduce a raft of reforms, including the introduction of term limits for the office of prime minister and chief ministers, which is expected to be set at two terms. The extent to which the new government’s economic agenda will shift remains uncertain, though analysts forecast a potential for change.
Fitch Ratings agency projects that Harapan’s plans to roll back tax and fuel subsidy reforms could raise government deficits, though it noted Malaysia’s growth momentum remains strong and welcomed inquiries into scandals that had constrained ratings. The credit rating agency forecasted short-term headwinds and average growth exceeding its so-called ‘A’ median.
Mahathir’s stance on China is also being closely watched as he vows to review and renegotiate terms for projects with China agreed to during Najib’s tenure. The premier has cautioned that Malaysia could be forced into sovereignty-undermining deals if unable to service debts to Beijing taken on to fund mega-projects and infrastructure deals.
Some observers see Mahathir’s comments as being consistent with his fiercely protective and highly nationalistic attitude towards Malaysia, whether criticizing British colonial rule or modern economic ties with China. The premier, who turns 93 in July, was born as a subject of Great Britain’s King George V and is among the last active politicians that hails from an era of anti-colonial struggle for independence.
He has nonetheless voiced support for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, (BRI) of which Malaysia is among the top beneficiaries of Chinese investment commitments. Mahathir has, however, cautioned against further militarization of the South China Sea, noting in remarks to the media that “a warship attracts other warships.”
Among the most persistent questions hanging over Malaysia’s first-ever political transition is the fate of Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed in 2014 on politically motivated sodomy charges. Images of a beaming Anwar watching Mahathir being sworn in from a Kuala Lumpur hospital have gone viral on social media.
Anwar underwent shoulder surgery in November 2017 and has been in hospital recovering since. The scene had “brought him great joy after being imprisoned for so long,” according to Mohamed Azmin Ali, chief minister of Selangor and a top leader of the Anwar-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
Mahathir has said he would seek a royal pardon for Anwar that would allow him to participate in politics with the expectation that he would take over as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister at a later date. He would first, however, need to contest and win a by-election for a parliamentary seat before being eligible to become prime minister.
Mahathir now functions as a placeholder for Anwar, who was his deputy premier until being sacked in 1998 and jailed under similar sodomy charges. Despite years of enmity, the two men buried the hatchet and came together in mutual opposition to perceived corruption and abuses of power that had festered under Najib’s rule.
Nurul Izzah Anwar, an influential parliamentarian and daughter of Anwar, recently told media that her father would be released on May 15, ahead of a scheduled release in June, after Sultan Muhammad V, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, or Yang di-Pertuang Agong, agreed to give an immediate pardon to him.
Despite Annwar’s earlier than anticipated release, Mahathir has stated his intention to remain in office for two to three years, saying his experience is required to remedy damages caused by Najib. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, meanwhile, currently serves as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister.
Wan Azizah, in remarks to Channel News Asia, indicated she would likely vacate her position as a parliamentarian to trigger a by-election that would expedite Anwar’s return to office. She said it would be “politically incorrect” for a husband and wife to serve simultaneously in the country’s highest offices.
That scenario opens the door for Anwar to take up his old post as Mahathir’s deputy premier, a post he held from 1993 to 1998, before taking the country’s top job, a scenario that was considered unassailable just a few short years ago given the dramatic and tumultuous personal histories between the two men.
The story of Anwar and Mahathir – their chemistry as leaders, their falling out as adversaries, and their improbable rapprochement to set their country on a new course – will fascinate and enthrall Malaysians and outside observers in the months ahead. For now, Malaysians have woken to a new nation and are eagerly watching a new history unfold.