Malaysian politics matters. Malaysia’s ‘cesspool of politics’ holds a mirror to all things unscrupulous and ugly about Indian politics-from corruption scandals to horse-trading, shaky alliances to unreliable coalition partners, protégés gone wrong to social media wars, to leaders driven less by principles, but more by greed and lust for power.
Recently, Malaysia’s nonagenarian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed (who will turn 95 in July 2020), who headed the coalition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) resigned sending political shockwaves across the country. Mahathir wanted to renege on his pre-election promise to hand over power mid-term to Anwar Ibrahim of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Justice Party or PKR). In fact, some coalition partners supported Mahathir to continue as the PM till the end of the term. This is when the coalition began to collapse like a house of cards with both Mahathir and Anwar staking claims to be the PM.
Anwar, in the manner of Prince Charles waiting to be King, has been in the waiting for long. Anwar, an old Mahathir protégé was once Mahathir’s blue-eyed heir. He even served as deputy prime minister. But, Anwar turned bitter foe after he was arrested on what is believed to be politically motivated sodomy charges. In a surprise compromise, both Mahathir and Anwar came together in the 2018 general elections. Thereafter, Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail served as Mahathir’s deputy.
In politics, as it is in royalty, ‘honourable retirement’ doesn’t come easy. More so, for Mahathir, the grand old man of Malaysian politics. He was the PM from 1981-2003. The signs of trouble began when Mahathir began to beat around the bush about political succession. In an interview last November, to the Financial Times (London), Mahathir claimed that there was no set date nor timeline, only an understanding that he would not complete the term.
When Mahathir resigned, he expected to return triumphant, as the PM again. Mahathir announced that he wanted to form a ‘unity government of individuals’ that cut across party politics. But political calculations can go awry. Anwar staked claims with the backing of 92 MPs from the Alliance of Hope coalition. Instead, in what is seen as a political upset, the Malaysian monarch appointed Muhyiddin Yassin. Muhyiddin patched up a coalition, National Alliance and was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on March 1.
Muhyiddin belongs to the same party as Mahathir, Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) and is a political veteran. Yet, Muhyiddin has been in Mahathir’s shadow and for that matter, in the shadow of everybody else who matters in Malaysian politics, such as Anwar and former prime minister Najib Razak. Yet, Muhyiddin beat everybody else in the political game to become the PM. It remains to be seen whether Muhyiddin survives the vote of no-confidence which was initially slotted for March 9. In a master stroke, the next session of Parliament has been delayed by two months, delaying the vote of no-confidence to May.
Muhyiddin’s coalition is hard to digest though. Muhyiddin has the backing of former ruling party UMNO (henceforth Umno). By default, he has the backing of beleaguered former PM Najib, who was voted out in 2018 on grounds of corruption. While the president of Umno, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, faces 87 counts of corruption, Najib faces 42 counts of corruption. It is ironical that Muhyiddin, a fierce critic of the Umno backed 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and Umno is being backed by none other than Umno. Muhyiddin has assuaged Malaysians saying that a snap election would have been even more chaotic. The other party backing Muhyiddin is an Islamist party, Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam SeMalaysia, PAS), a conservative party popular in the north and east coast.
With Muhyiddin’s coalition matters have come full circle at least for Najib. In 2018, Najib was caught in the eye of the storm with his wife Rosmah Mansor’s excesses chronicled by media—excesses that would make Imelda Marcos cringe. Malaysian tabloids chronicled the political couple’s arguably good taste for luxury watches, Hermes bags, Van Gogh and Monet artworks.
The misuse of public funds of the sovereign wealth fund, backed by Umno-1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was the largest corruption scandal. It went from Malaysia to as far as supermodel Miranda Kerr’s neck. The supermodel had been gifted a $1.8 million necklace by Malaysian financier J Lhow, associated with the 1MDB. It also emerged that Najib’s step-son had produced a Hollywood film (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013). These extravaganzas were traced to 1MDB. The US authorities estimated that $4.5 billion had been stolen.
In fact, it was the 1MDB scandal that paved the way for Mahathir’s return. Mahathir re-appeared after a long hiatus challenging ruling party Umno and Najib.This drove the coalition, Alliance of Hope, which won the general elections. And Mahathir became the prime minister—for the second time.
After the elections, Najib found himself out in the political boondocks, entangled in a trial. But now that Umno backs Muhyiddin, Najib is back through the backdoor. Little wonder, Najib posted a ‘thumbs up’ picture on social media. Though the ‘thumbs up’ was ostensibly for the meal that Najib ate, netizens interpreted it differently—as a vindication of the changed political scenario. Najib has coyly indicated that he expects the trial to be fair. All this seems almost a page out of the Sri Lankan politics playbook.
Critics fear that under Muhyiddin, born into a family of religious scholars, Malaysia will tilt more for Malays (Muslims). Muhyiddin is known to have said that he is a ‘Malay first (Muslim first), Malaysian second’. Muhyiddin’s coalition partners, Umno and PAS support a ‘Malay First’ policy too, a policy that is not inclusive and likely to prick Malaysian Indians and Malaysian Chinese. Of the 29.4 million citizens (32 million total population), Malays (Muslims) make up 70%, the Chinese make up 23% and the Indians make up 7%.
In his address, Muhyiddin has promised to appoint a cabinet that is ‘clean, with integrity and value’ and coaxed fears of divide with ‘I am the prime minister of all Malaysians from Perlis to Sabah’. Indeed, Muhyiddin has unveiled the new cabinet sans a deputy PM and tainted Umno political leaders, but dominated by a Bersatu and Umno line-up with loyalists stacked as ‘Senior Ministers’. Zafrul Aziz, chief executive of CIMB one of the biggest banks in the region is the Finance Minister. It’s a ‘functional’ cabinet says Muhyiddin.
But Malaysians themselves don’t know what to believe given the extent to which leaders, old and young, have rallied – not behind a national cause but behind power, money and maybe, a few luxury watches. Nor do outsiders know what to believe. Despite the beguiling tagline of Malaysia as ‘Simply Asia’, Malaysia’s political landscape sidelines Malaysian Indians and Malaysian Chinese. Malaysian politics morphing as ‘Malay first’ (Muslim first) is a familiar sheaf out of the Indian playbook—driven no doubt, by the dark side of religion, race, ethnicity, money, factions and power.
The author is Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi