Mahathir-Anwar handshake: Patching up for a shake-up?

On Monday, Malaysia's former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, turned up at the High Court for Anwar Ibrahim's filing of an interim injunction to stop the government from enforcing the newly-passed National Security Council (NSC) Act.

The former allies-turned- enemies shook hands and Dr Mahathir wished Anwar well.They also chatted for a good 45 minutes in the witness room - a long time for two bitter foes. This unscheduled encounter very quickly became the talk of town. It was their first contact since September 1998, when Dr Mahathir, then Prime Minister of Malaysia, unceremoniously sacked Anwar as his deputy. He subsequently had Anwar jailed for abuse of power and sodomy.

That was 18 years ago. In court this week, Dr Mahathir said he was there "not to talk about the past" but to show support for Anwar's bid against the NSC, which both see as unconstitutional and fear will give Prime Minister Najib Razak too much power.

This is, however, not the first time this year that the two have attempted to come together. In March, Dr Mahathir launched his Citizens' Declaration movement to mobilise public support against Datuk Seri Najib, who is fighting for his political survival in the wake of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal.

There were moves then to get the divided political opposition to throw their support behind Dr Mahathir, who was emerging as Mr Najib's strongest opponent. Anwar, from behind bars, initially intimated support. He later pulled back when Dr Mahathir showed more interest in just toppling Mr Najib than in bringing about sweeping reforms to the political system, including the national leadership. Anwar's change of heart raised doubts about his trust in Dr Mahathir.

Malaysia's former prime minister, Dr Mahathir (right), shaking hands with Anwar at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Monday - a gesture that led many to wonder if this could be the start of a new chapter in the country's politics.
Malaysia's former prime minister, Dr Mahathir (right), shaking hands with Anwar at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Monday - a gesture that led many to wonder if this could be the start of a new chapter in the country's politics. PHOTO: REUTERS

Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah, who succeeded him as opposition leader, is still bitter about Dr Mahathir's jailing of her husband 18 years ago on what she still regards as trumped-up charges. After the historic meeting in court this week, Dr Wan Azizah, though still guarded, seemed more accepting. If so, it could be because of Dr Mahathir's gesture of apparent reconciliation. For a man of immense pride, the former premier's decision to turn up in court to support Anwar was doubtless a big thing.

Shrewd politician that he is, Dr Mahathir must be aware that his presence at Anwar's court hearing could be interpreted in many ways, including whether or not this was a form of apology to Anwar and his family. Dr Wan Azizah said she would take things from here. Anwar, when besieged by the media, said "anybody who supports the reform agenda must be given a chance".

Will this mark the start of a new chapter in Malaysian politics? Umno leaders, as expected, shot down the Mahathir-Anwar reconciliation as a political gimmick born out of Dr Mahathir's desperation to unseat Mr Najib. Nothing would come of it, they said, not from two men who have lost trust in each other. But it would be a folly to underestimate the Mahathir-Anwar tag team.

Both know they can do much, provided they overcome their animosity and close ranks once again - as they did in the 1980s. For in a rather deceptively peaceful way, Malaysian politics is going through an existential crisis that could do with their statesmanship.

On the ruling coalition side, the pillar that holds up the system - Umno - is under pressure to defend or replace its controversy-ridden president, who is also the country's Prime Minister. If Umno has another leadership crisis, the whole Barisan Nasional coalition could be shaken, if not unravelled. The Umno crisis has already pushed Dr Mahathir and deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin out of the party and into the fold of the opposition.

Yet the opposition, once strong and unified under Anwar's leadership, has suffered its own debacle. With Anwar in jail, there is no leader of the same stature and pulling power, no rallying point. The once-promising multi-ethnic Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) has split and been reconfigured as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). In that vacuum has emerged Dr Mahathir and Mr Muhyiddin's new party, Bersatu. This new mix is, however, fragile. Will Dr Mahathir and/or Mr Muhyiddin be the new de facto chief of an opposition that is still loyal to Anwar as its spiritual leader?

It is against this background - the state of flux for both ruling and opposition coalitions - that the Mahathir-Anwar handshake should be seen. Both know they are rushing against time. If there is any lawful change to be made, it must be done through the general election. The signs are that Mr Najib will try to hold the election while the opposition is in disarray. He might call snap polls next year instead of waiting until the government has served its full five-year term in 2018. It takes time for an opposition that has been split into factions on many fronts to rebuild itself.

Ever the wily political animal, the single-minded Dr Mahathir saw that the only viable solution was to eat humble pie and signal a desire for a new modus vivendi with his former protege. Anwar, ever the embracing politician, signalled his willingness to go forward and "engage" Dr Mahathir. A new page in opposition politics, and perhaps the broader Malaysian politics, is being drafted. Or is it?

The big task ahead for both men transcends them. The political system as a whole needs re-engineering. Umno, as Malaysia's political core, needs a shake-up to root out deep-seated corruption, but how can any leader do it when Umno has proven to be impervious to change and reform?

Three former high-ranking Umno leaders - Dr Mahathir, Anwar and Mr Muhyiddin - are now out of the party and are seeking to bring about change from the outside. That is both ironic and telling. As for the opposition, its journey to become the government-in-waiting is proving to be a painful one.

If Dr Mahathir and Anwar succeed in forging a new alliance to challenge the Barisan Nasional at the coming election, they will still need to prove this new alliance can win. Assuming they do and throw the Barisan Nasional and Mr Najib out of power, Dr Mahathir and Anwar will still have to bring about real political change. What that might look like remains unclear, but they should consider the legacy they wish to leave behind for the next generation.

• Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Mahathir-Anwar handshake: Patching up for a shake-up?'. Subscribe