Mahathir's new party gets flak over membership

Critics in Malaysia's civil society rap party for opening membership only to bumiputeras

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad talks to the media during a visit to Jakarta on July 25.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad talks to the media during a visit to Jakarta on July 25.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR • A planned new political party backed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has been flailed by some critics in Malaysia's civil society for opening its membership only to bumiputeras - Malays and the indigenous races like those from Sabah and Sarawak.

The new party, which is expected to be registered soon, is keen to align itself with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition parties. Its name has not been revealed.

But its critics say that the opposition, though weak today, should not join hands with Tun Dr Mahathir's party, which would be a clone of Malay nationalist party Umno that staunchly defends Malay and bumiputera rights. They say that reform and governance should remain the key platforms for the opposition, and not allowing in a party that based itself on ethnicity.

Their questions have set off a debate in PH and among civil society grappling with how to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is engulfed in the financial scandal of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund that United States investigators said siphoned off US$3.5 billion (S$4.7 billion).

Datuk Seri Najib is in no danger of being ousted today as Umno is strongly behind him and the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia has decided to support his leadership.

While some say bringing in Dr Mahathir will boost opposition ranks in weakening Mr Najib, others beg to differ. "Can any civil society leader or political leader espousing progressive reforms for our country accept a political party that is open only to bumiputeras?" asked Mr Kua Kia Soong, adviser to rights group Suaram. "Have they lost their marbles simply because Mahathir is staunchly anti-Najib?"

The argument among some is that Dr Mahathir's party is needed to attract Umno members who are unhappy with Mr Najib, yet who would join the opposition only if they are assured that priority for bumiputeras in education and business remains a top agenda.

"The party aims to continue as well as renew the fight of the Malays and bumiputeras in the era of globalisation, reform, transparency and openness," former newspaper editor Kadir Jasin, who is close to Dr Mahathir, wrote last Friday.

The new party is expected to be officially led by former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin and former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir, a son of Dr Mahathir. Both leaders lost their positions as Mr Najib replaced them with loyalists in the wake of the 1MDB scandal.

To some in the opposition camp, Dr Mahathir is needed too as the opposition is bereft of influential Malay figures. The opposition lost their Malay icons last year when opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim was jailed and popular cleric Nik Aziz Nik Mat died.

Asked about the new party, a leader of the Bersih pro-democracy group, Ms Ambiga Sreenevasan, said: "The more the merrier... I think it will strengthen the opposition." But activist Haris Ibrahim, who said he has been told to be a pragmatist, wrote on his blog: "If being more pragmatic in this struggle to take our nation back means aligning with Mahathir and breathing new life into race and religion-based politics, then no thank you, I will hold on to my ideals".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Mahathir's new party gets flak over membership'. Print Edition | Subscribe