State of Malaysia's political parties

When will Mahathir hand over to Anwar?

Malaysia's prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim at an event in Singapore last month. He was quoted in a Bloomberg report as saying that he expected to take power from Dr Mahathir in less than two years, but the wait seems longer than expected, rai
Malaysia's prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim at an event in Singapore last month. He was quoted in a Bloomberg report as saying that he expected to take power from Dr Mahathir in less than two years, but the wait seems longer than expected, raising questions about whether it will materialise. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Political giant Anwar Ibrahim may be prime minister-in-waiting, but one year on, his position is still shrouded in uncertainty.

The plan by the victorious Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had been for the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president to succeed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister. And in February this year, Mr Anwar was quoted in a Bloomberg report as saying that he expected to take power from Dr Mahathir in less than two years, but wanted to give the current leader enough time to govern effectively before he assumed control.

Still, the wait seems longer than expected, raising questions about whether it will materialise.

Datuk Seri Anwar, 71, was the deputy prime minister between 1993 and 1998 before he was sacked by Dr Mahathir - who was also prime minister then - amid allegations of homosexuality and corruption that eventually led to him being jailed for six years. Later, in February 2015, Mr Anwar was jailed again, this time for five years, after a second sodomy conviction was upheld. However, after PH took power, he was given a royal pardon and released. The resilient senior statesman was back.

To strengthen his political comeback, Mr Anwar contested the Port Dickson parliamentary seat in Negeri Sembilan last October, winning with a convincing 23,560 majority. His presence is seen as a major factor behind PKR's strength, but even so, the PH still lost three seats to the opposition in by-elections in the Cameron Highlands , Selangor's Semenyih and the latest, Negeri Sembilan's Rantau state.


Since taking over Putrajaya, Dr Mahathir has been keeping his cards close to his chest on his succession plan, triggering rumours that Mr Anwar's former aide Azmin Ali - also Malaysia's Economic Affairs Minister - could be the one to end up helming the post as he is widely seen as the PM's blue-eyed boy.

"The transition of power is far from certain. Mahathir may choose to step aside for Anwar, but based on what happened on May 9, Anwar will have to prove that he enjoys the support of the majority of the MPs," says political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia's director Adib Zalkapli, referring to the refusal by Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - Mr Anwar's wife - to take up the King's offer to be made prime minister. She held firm to a deal by PH component parties to elect Dr Mahathir as premier.

Asked when is the right time to hand over power, Mr Adib says: "As long as Mahathir is able to carry out his duties as the Prime Minister, there can never be a right time to hand over power. An election manifesto alone is not enough to convince the public that a leadership change is necessary."

Meanwhile, Mr Amir Fareed Rahim, an analyst at political risk consultancy KRA Group, says it is up to the two leaders to mutually decide on when the succession plan should materialise. Both need to draw up a clear agreement, he says. "It needs to be made transparent and both parties have to commit to it. Dr M as the PM must also be given sufficient time to carry out his legislative agenda and tick all the boxes in regard to what he wants to achieve," he says, adding that an orderly transition within this term is important for stability.

Speaking from the PKR camp, Subang MP Wong Chen says the government is making slow progress on reforms and many MPs are keen to see a smooth transition of power to Mr Anwar. But he does not discount that there may be "hidden hands" out to sabotage the deal. "In politics, we can expect ambitious politicians eyeing power," he says. "However, no real contender to Anwar has emerged of late...Anwar is still in the driving seat to succeed Tun Mahathir. I am certain that the people will never accept any alternative PM candidate who is without substance or ability to lead the coalition."

A PH insider says the transition should not be later than 2020 as Malaysians need to move forward with a clear vision and a stable political leadership, adding: "The right time would be in the second half of 2019, not to wait until 2020. If possible, before the tabling of Budget 2020 so that Anwar could use it as his first mark of policy direction."

Dr Mahathir has also "lost his grip", the source says, citing his age - 93 - as one of the factors, and his reliance on "old cronies" such as his former finance minister and the chairman of the Council of Eminent Persons, Tun Daim Zainuddin.

"You can't really teach an old dog new tricks. As a result, he is forced to concede a lot of powers to Daim and his ilk," the source says.

But it is unlikely Dr Mahathir would relinquish his position in the near future as he is still working on measures to stabilise the country.

Mr Daim last week said the government needs another six months to repair the damage left by the previous one. Malaysia's newswire Bernama reported him saying that although the government was aware of the people's demand for change, it still has to take into consideration all aspects of every issue, including the economic and financial situation.

"The government has a lot of problems to think about, including national security, foreign relations and defence... a lot of things will be more stable in another six months."

The rise and fall of Umno's grand old men


He had been retired from politics for over a decade. But Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 93, roared back onto the scene with the Pakatan Harapan coalition victory, becoming the oldest world leader when he was sworn into office last year as Malaysia's Prime Minister.

He previously held the role from July 1981 to October 2003, when he was president of Umno, the largest party in the country and the backbone of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which ruled Malaysia for 61 years until the May 9 polls last year.

Dr Mahathir joined Umno in 1946 but was expelled in 1969 for criticising the government, which was then led by former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Following Mr Abdul Rahman's resignation in 1970, he rejoined the party after being persuaded by the country's second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.

In 2015, years after retirement, he teamed up with former foes in Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Democratic Action Party and became a vocal critic of then-premier Najib Razak, especially on issues regarding troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

In his first stint as prime minister, Dr Mahathir was seen as an authoritarian leader who brooked no dissent. He now portrays himself as a reformist, ready to restore transparency, freedom and rule of law for the people.


Najib Razak, 65, served as prime minister of Malaysia from 2009 to 2018. He is a political "blue-blood" - his father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was Malaysia's prime minister from 1970 to 1976, and his uncle, Tun Hussein Onn, was prime minister from 1976 to 1981.

At 23, he was elected in 1976 as Member of Parliament for Pekan in Pahang before becoming the country's youngest deputy minister after being appointed to the role with the energy, telecommunications and post portfolio in 1978. He subsequently became the Pahang chief minister between 1982 and 1986 before holding various Cabinet posts throughout the years, including defence and finance. In 2009, he became the prime minister.

Support for Najib eroded after he was implicated in a graft scandal involving 1MDB. The United States authorities have alleged that over US$4.5 billion (S$6 billion) was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered across the globe.

After leading BN to its first election defeat in history and stepping down as Umno president, Najib has reinvented himself as a member of the opposition and vocal critic of Dr Mahathir's administration.

His attempts at securing a new-found popularity, however, have been curtailed by the ongoing criminal trials against him for corruption and money laundering.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 05, 2019, with the headline When will Mahathir hand over to Anwar?. Subscribe