Mahathir's politics of fatigue

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia's chaotic politics took its most bizarre twist so far last week when former premier Mahathir Mohamad and a wide cast of the country's opposition banded together under a so-called "Citizen's Alliance" to force Prime Minister Najib Razak from office.

Bizarre because Dr Mahathir, who is very much responsible for Malaysia's current political and economic troubles, is being held up as the only leader who can save this South-east Asian nation.

What's more, the 90-year-old politician, who also resigned from Umno last week, is being hoisted to that role by the likes of Mr Lim Kit Siang, the granddaddy of Malaysia's opposition politics, and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who many Malaysians believe is a victim of a high-level government conspiracy engineered by Dr Mahathir's supporters.

From left: Ousted deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad at a media conference in Kuala Lumpur last Friday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The unfolding political drama from Dr Mahathir's latest gambit is set to keep Malaysia's political temperatures running high and put him at the forefront of the campaign against Datuk Seri Najib.

It also underscores the desperate state of the country's politics, particularly when ordinary Malaysians grudgingly admit that only someone of Dr Mahathir's stature can provide the leadership to restore much-needed discipline among the opposition alliance.

The alliance, which won the popular vote in May 2013 General Election but could not form the government because of the country's first-past-the-post political system, is deeply divided because of personality clashes among key leaders from the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the conservative Islamic arm of the coalition, is showing allegiance to Umno. Its top leadership has publicly declared that it will not back the Citizen's Alliance against Mr Najib.

The leadership vacuum in the opposition is offering a new political platform to Dr Mahathir, who no longer enjoys the clout he used to wield in Umno, a party he ruled with an iron grip for 22 years before handing over power in November 2003.

He could not even save his son Mukhriz Mahathir, who was forced to resign in disgrace last month as chief minister of Kedah, his home state, following an internal party rebellion.

As the new de facto opposition leader, Dr Mahathir is betting that toxic public sentiment towards Umno, particularly among the politically dominant Malay population, will be sufficient to kick Mr Najib and Umno out of power at the next general election that must be held before mid-2018.

The strategy looks good on paper but in reality, the odds are stacked against Dr Mahathir and his awkward band of opposition personalities, who have little in common with each other apart from their hostility towards Mr Najib.

For starters, age isn't on Dr Mahathir's side. Mr Najib's clout in patronage-driven Umno and government is also unassailable.

Umno's top brass have come out openly to attack Dr Mahathir for turning his back on the ruling party and joining forces with the opposition.

Analysts expect Umno to exploit Dr Mahathir's new alliance especially with the DAP to win support among rural conservative Muslim Malays and undermine his standing with his own people.

Shorn of the rhetoric that he is fighting against corruption and for greater democratic reforms, Dr Mahathir's latest moves may just be another hissy fit at not getting his way.

There is history to back this. He sacked and jailed Anwar in 1998 because his deputy's economic policies to deal with the regional financial crisis were threatening the survival of his business cronies.

It did not take long for him to sour on successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who, shortly after taking over the premiership in November 2003, moved quickly to put a stop to several of Dr Mahathir's big-ticket projects.

But nothing infuriated Dr Mahathir more than the release of Anwar in September 2004.

He subsequently resigned from Umno for the first time and campaigned mercilessly against Tun Abdullah, who was forced to step down and hand over the premiership to Mr Najib in April 2009.

Dr Mahathir has never been enthusiastic about Mr Najib's policies. Major bugbears include Mr Najib's cosy relations with the Singapore leadership and his refusal to revive the crooked bridge proposal to replace the Causeway.

Another sore point has been Mr Najib's lukewarm support for his pet projects, such as the national car Proton, which is today the last surviving vestige of Dr Mahathir's costly industrialisation policies.

The big push against Mr Najib came early last year, when Dr Mahathir began attacking him for systematically undermining the independence of key state institutions, mismanaging the country's economy and corruptly abusing public funds in the financial debacle at state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

To be sure, Malaysians are justified with their anger and frustration at Mr Najib's management of the economy and his poor handling of financial scandals that have undermined foreign investor sentiment.

But many ills plaguing Malaysia today are direct legacy issues from Dr Mahathir's more than two decades in power.

The undermining of key public institutions to ensure their subservience to Umno took place during his premiership. The assault on the judiciary in the late 1980s presaged the cowing of other arms of government, which were showcased during the controversial trials of Anwar that began in late 1998, after the former finance minister fell out with his boss over the handling of the country's economy.

Malaysia's current economic malaise is also due to the legacy policies of the Mahathir era. His industrialisation push at the expense of developing the country's already flourishing agriculture sectors lies in tatters.

Billions of dollars invested in steel and cement plants have failed and the only vestige of the ambitious economic agenda - Proton - is struggling on a mountain of debt and is in desperate need of a financial lifeline from the government.

If not for the financial windfall from oil and gas exports that Malaysia enjoyed in recent years, the country's economic woes would have surfaced much sooner.

As for the scandal surrounding 1MDB, the company mirrors similar failed ventures that Dr Mahathir began with the blurring of the lines separating politics and business.

He and his financial adviser, former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, engineered Umno's push into business largely through controversial awards of billions of dollars in infrastructure contracts from the government. But many of the Umno-linked companies, such as the Renong Group, got in deep debt and were subsequently bailed out through the use of public funds.

Last week's clean break from the Umno-led government shows Dr Mahathir's political cunning to recast himself as a statesman and to distance himself from the many legacy issues plaguing Malaysia.

It's a gambit that could work.

Among younger and more politically conscious Malaysians, Dr Mahathir is already coming across as a champion. That's because they do not possess any historical perspective of his long years in power.

Malaysia's largely older urban set credits him for expanding the middle class and affords Dr Mahathir soft focus to his many controversial policies.

But fatigue with Dr Mahathir's brand of combative politics is gaining ground among the rural Malays.

It was best summed up last week by PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan, who said that the former premier's move to leave Umno smacked of political expediency. "I can predict that Dr Mahathir will return to Umno the moment Najib steps down and is replaced with an individual of his choice," he added.

Like Mr Nasrudin, many Malaysians need to ask whether Dr Mahathir is serious about reforms or whether he is simply grinding a personal axe.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline Mahathir's politics of fatigue. Subscribe