Mahathir, Zahid and a new round of personality attacks in Malaysia

Differences between Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and current Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have spiralled into personality attacks.

It all started when Datuk Seri Zahid revealed that Tun Dr Mahathir, now an opposition leader, is not a pure Malay, but has Indian blood. As the Home Affairs Minister, Dr Zahid has access to Dr Mahathir's personal biodata.

In retaliation, Dr Mahathir released a short video via social media challenging Dr Zahid to produce the identity card which indicated his race.

In that same video, Dr Mahathir himself made three allegations about Dr Zahid: that as soon as he became DPM, he sought Dr Mahathir's blessings; that in 1996, he declared having RM230 million in his bank account while serving as Umno Youth chief; and that he is a liar and not fit to be in the Cabinet.

This public squabbling did not stop there. Denying the allegations, Dr Zahid pledged his loyalty to Prime Minister Najib Razak, and claimed he had the recording of his meeting with Dr Mahathir.

This spat raises several interesting questions. Why are Umno leaders questioning Dr Mahathir's ancestry today, and not when he was at the helm of their party, from 1981 to 2003? During the last general assembly of the Malay nationalist party, his portrait was hung alongside those of the other former Umno leaders, and the question of whether he is a Malay or not was not raised. In his writings, Dr Mahathir has always identified himself as a Malay first. His controversial book, The Malay Dilemma, discusses the Malay plight. It was published in the 1970s and continues to be read to this day.

Similarly, when Dr Mahathir was Umno president, Dr Zahid's personal wealth was never put in the spotlight. Why did he keep it a secret?

In the same vein, why did the government take three decades before agreeing to investigate Dr Mahathir for his alleged involvement in the 1987 Bank Negara Malaysia foreign exchange scandal, which led to the country losing about RM30 billion?

In the 1990s, opposition leaders, including those from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), called for an inquiry into the scandal, and it was only this year that the Umno government consented to the setting up of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate it.

The recent tit for tat between Dr Zahid and Dr Mahathir suggests that there could be more revelations about politicians' past. As the 14th General Election approaches, it seems politicians across the political divide are seeking to dig up every skeleton they can find.

It is doubtful, however, whether this strategy can answer society's call for answers to pressing contemporary problems such as those surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) issue.

These personal attacks speak volumes about the behaviour of Malaysia's political elites: They are willing to publicly shame opponents if things do not go their way. They are also eager to expose their opponents' weaknesses, while concurrently ignoring their friends' fallacies. As the Malay saying goes: See the bug across the seas, blind to the elephant before the eyes.

For example, in the past, it was DAP leader Lim Kit Siang who had demanded an investigation into the forex scandal. He raised the issue in Parliament, and even published a book, The Bank Negara RM30 Billion Forex Losses Scandal. Today, he is joining forces with Dr Mahathir.

Malaysians should also ask why the government decided to open up the inquiry after Dr Mahathir crossed over to the opposition. The amount of time that had elapsed suggests that the government's move is politically motivated.

The opposition is also asking why a similar inquiry has not been undertaken over the 1MDB scandal. This is even more pertinent, given the United States Department of Justice's suspicion that US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) was stolen from 1MDB funds.

Several prominent names have been linked to the scandal. So far, Australian model Miranda Kerr has returned US$8.1 million worth of jewellery to the Department of Justice because the pieces were believed to be gifts from Mr Jho Low, a figure at the heart of the 1MDB scandal. Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio has also returned US$3.2 million worth of artworks, which were also gifts from Mr Low.

In the meantime, Malaysians should be aware that the personal attacks from the two opposing political camps should not make them lose sight of the bigger problems facing their country.

Malaysians should make their politicians accountable by demanding that they clearly state their position on allegations of abuse of power. They should remind their politicians to be consistent in their thinking, and not be coloured by politics solely.

The elites must know that how history will judge them does not depend on their ability to win the next election - but on their integrity, and putting their country's interests ahead of personal ones.

• The writer is a fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2017, with the headline 'Mahathir, Zahid and a new round of personality attacks in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe