Ma­hathir's Last Stand

Is Malaysia's 92-year-old for­mer prime min­is­ter the man to lead the op­po­si­tion to vic­tory?

Southeast Asia Globe - - Front Page - BY KATE MAY­BERRY

Malaysia’s op­po­si­tion coali­tion has picked 92-year-old for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Ma­hathir Mo­hamad to try and break the UMNO’s 60-year grip on power. Will this po­lit­i­cal gi­ant prove to be the golden ticket or is he viewed as the ar­chi­tect of the very prob­lems his new al­lies are ral­ly­ing against?

IT was a lit­tle af­ter 4pm when Sai­fud­din Ab­dul­lah walked onto the stage at the an­nual meet­ing of Pakatan Hara­pan, Malaysia's op­po­si­tion coali­tion.

Po­si­tion­ing him­self be­hind the lectern, Sai­fud­din be­gan to read, point by point, Pakatan's plans for re­form, in­clud­ing as­set dec­la­ra­tions for politi­cians, term lim­its and the abo­li­tion of the un­pop­u­lar Goods and Ser­vices Tax.

The au­di­ence, dressed in the colours of the coali­tion's four par­ties, lis­tened pa­tiently as, in the same mea­sured tone, he moved on to lead­er­ship is­sues – the sub­ject of months of spec­u­la­tion in Malaysia's largely gov­ern­ment-con­trolled me­dia.

In the front row of this ban­quet­ing hall atop a largely aban­doned shop­ping mall in the city of Shah Alam was Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, the man who was the coun­try's prime min­is­ter for 22 years. He joined forces with the op­po­si­tion last year. Ma­hathir and his wife sat along­side peo­ple who were once their po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies, in­clud­ing Wan Az­izah Wan Is­mail, the cur­rent leader of the op­po­si­tion and spouse of An­war Ibrahim.

It was Ma­hathir who jailed An­war, his for­mer deputy, on charges of sodomy in the depths of the

Asian Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis in 1998, un­leash­ing a move­ment for re­form with An­war at the helm that has man­aged to whit­tle away at the sup­port for the rul­ing al­liance. Once again in jail on charges of sodomy – a crime in Malaysia, and in this case widely de­cried as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated – An­war is sched­uled for re­lease on June 8.

“Yang Amat Ber­ba­ha­gia Tun Dr Ma­hathir Mo­hamad [is] can­di­date for prime min­is­ter,” said Sai­fud­din,

show­ing his re­spect by us­ing the full list of hon­orifics be­stowed upon the 92-year-old. Like Ma­hathir, Sai­fud­din was once a mem­ber of the rul­ing United Malays Na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion (UMNO).

The an­nounce­ment prompted a cho­rus of cheers from the au­di­ence, as some of Ma­hathir's most ar­dent sup­port­ers jumped to their feet, punch­ing the air with de­light.

Wan Az­izah, the eye doctor who was thrust into pol­i­tics upon her hus­band's ar­rest and is now MP in An­war's old seat, was named Ma­hathir's deputy should the coali­tion pre­vail. Some­times dis­missed as ‘soft', Wan Az­izah has proved a qui­etly de­ter­mined pres­ence over the past two decades of op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics. She said last year, dur­ing an in­ter­view with Al Jazeera, that she would give up her po­si­tion for An­war on his re­lease.

“It wasn't easy for An­war Ibrahim to ac­cept me,” Ma­hathir ad­mit­ted in his first speech to the assem­bly – with what was, per­haps, more than a lit­tle un­der­state­ment. As Wan Az­izah had wel­comed the vet­eran leader to the stage, her voice had cracked, tears welling in her eyes.

With a gen­eral elec­tion due by Au­gust, and Pakatan sens­ing its best chance yet to wrest power from the UMNO-dom­i­nated al­liance that has run the coun­try since in­de­pen­dence 60 years ago, the de­ci­sion may yet prove as ground­break­ing to the coun­try as An­war's sack­ing. The rul­ing coali­tion un­der Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak is bat­tling dis­con­tent over the cost of liv­ing and al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion that have trig­gered in­ves­ti­ga­tions and con­vic­tions across the world.

The prospect of Ma­hathir as prime min­is­ter – at least un­til An­war is re­leased and se­cures the par­don

“How the op­po­si­tion coali­tion con­vinces the pub­lic about its move to em­brace a fig­ure it once scorned re­mains a chal­lenge”

that will al­low him to re­turn to po­lit­i­cal life – should Pakatan win is a sign that the op­po­si­tion wants to reach be­yond its tra­di­tional mid­dle-class, ur­ban sup­port­ers to the ru­ral Malays who have long helped sus­tain the UMNO's power. But in do­ing so it must try to per­suade peo­ple that a man who was of­ten de­scribed as au­to­cratic or even au­thor­i­tar­ian while in power is now com­mit­ted to re­form.

Ma­hathir “is both a uni­fy­ing and po­lar­is­ing fig­ure”, ob­served Nor­shahril Saat, a fel­low at the In­sti­tute of South­east Asian Stud­ies in Sin­ga­pore, in a state­ment fol­low­ing the con­ven­tion. “How [the op­po­si­tion coali­tion] con­vinces the pub­lic about its move to em­brace a fig­ure it once scorned re­mains a chal­lenge.”

An­a­lysts say the op­po­si­tion's pub­lic dis­agree­ments over its lead­er­ship cre­ated an im­pres­sion of dis­unity and pro­vided grist to Na­jib and his back­ers' claim that they couldn't be trusted to run the coun­try ef­fec­tively. A De­cem­ber sur­vey by polling com­pany Merdeka Cen­tre found sup­port for Pakatan de­clin­ing, with just 21% say­ing they were happy with the group­ing – al­though few showed much ap­petite for the in­cum­bent ei­ther.

Rafizi Ramli was one of the ten se­nior coali­tion mem­bers who helped bro­ker the agree­ment on the group's choices for prime min­is­ter and deputy, as well as each party's al­lo­ca­tion of seats.

Fu­elled by chicken rice and Malaysia's na­tional dish of nasi lemak, the team spent three days holed up at the head­quar­ters of Ma­hathir's party, Parti Pribumi Ber­satu, work­ing the phones and thrash­ing out the de­tails to se­cure a deal in time for the con­ven­tion. Af­ter a “lot of give and take”, a “bind­ing agree­ment”

was fi­nally signed at 8:49pm on the eve of the event, Rafizi said.

“We are ready to go back to our con­stituen­cies,” Rafizi told South­east Asia Globe on the side­lines of the con­ven­tion, ac­knowl­edg­ing that the lead­er­ship de­bate might have weak­ened Pakatan while as­sert­ing that the agree­ment would ul­ti­mately strengthen the coali­tion. “It's not about this per­son or that per­son. It's about the over­all strat­egy to re­solve all the con­tentious is­sues. At ev­ery stage, we have the power struc­ture in place, and that al­lows us to re­ally fo­cus on the bat­tle against UMNO and who­ever comes to their side.”

A po­ten­tial spoiler is Pakatan's for­mer part­ner, Parti Is­lam SeMalaysia (PAS), which dropped out of the al­liance in 2015. With An­war in jail, pol­icy dif­fer­ences ex­ploded into the open as PAS stepped up its de­mands for the im­po­si­tion of the Is­lamic pe­nal code. The party in­sists it is in­de­pen­dent, but it has moved closer to the UMNO since the split.

Ma­hathir's el­e­va­tion also risks mak­ing the elec­tion about com­pet­ing vi­sions of the past at a time when the mid­dle-class, ur­ban elec­torate – who make up much of Pakatan's sup­port base – want change. They ac­knowl­edge the vet­eran leader's eco­nomic suc­cesses but ques­tion his po­lit­i­cal record, ar­gu­ing that he helped con­trib­ute to the sit­u­a­tion in which Malaysia now finds it­self by un­der­min­ing the coun­try's demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the ju­di­ciary and par­lia­ment.

“He does have a cer­tain pull,” said Brid­get Welsh, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at John Cabot Univer­sity in Rome and an ex­pert on Malaysian

“Ma­hathir does have a cer­tain pull. But it’s not con­sis­tent and it’s tied to a sense of nos­tal­gia. It’s not re­form-ori­en­tated, and it al­lows peo­ple to say: ‘What’s dif­fer­ent?’”

pol­i­tics. “But it's not con­sis­tent and it's tied to a sense of nos­tal­gia. It's not re­form-ori­en­tated, and it al­lows peo­ple to say: ‘What's dif­fer­ent?'”

There's also Ma­hathir's age, and that of the wider lead­er­ship. The av­er­age Pakatan leader is 64, com­pared with an av­er­age age of 30 for the coun­try's pop­u­la­tion. Wan Az­izah is 65 and An­war is 70.

“There's a his­tor­i­cal am­ne­sia about Ma­hathir's premier­ship,” said Ne­tusha Naidu, a stu­dent at Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham Malaysia who ques­tions whether a Pakatan un­der Ma­hathir can pro­vide the re­form she and other young vot­ers wants to see. “Peo­ple seem to for­get that he was an au­thor­i­tar­ian leader, [in power] at the same time as Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew; the time of ‘Asian val­ues'. I don't think he's done enough to show that he's changed as a per­son. It's time for fresh, new faces – some­one with no bag­gage.”

Young Malaysians are al­ready among the most scep­ti­cal in the elec­torate. A sur­vey com­mis­sioned last Au­gust by Watan, a non-profit set up to get more young peo­ple to vote, found that 40% of Malaysians aged 21 to 30 had not

reg­is­tered to vote. At the same time, at least 57% said they were dis­sat­is­fied with the way the coun­try was headed.

Na­jib is seen as hav­ing an ad­van­tage de­spite the graft al­le­ga­tions and un­hap­pi­ness over the cost of liv­ing. As the in­cum­bent, he has greater fi­nan­cial re­sources, con­trols the main­stream me­dia and has the ben­e­fit of con­stituen­cies that are heav­ily weighted to­wards his coali­tion's tra­di­tional ru­ral base – the UMNO did, af­ter all, win more par­lia­men­tary seats and thus the last gen­eral elec­tion in 2013, de­spite the fact they lost the pop­u­lar vote.

“The choices that are in front of us are not sim­ple,” said Mas­jal­iza Hamzah, Watan's ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “Some­times when you vote, you do not get the per­son you want. [But] be­ing a strong voice for democ­racy is not just about vot­ing ev­ery five years – it's also about what we are pre­pared to do to en­sure the in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures are strong. It's not just one man, but a sys­tem.”

“Some­times when you vote, you don’t get the per­son you want. [But] be­ing a strong voice for democ­racy is not just about vot­ing ev­ery five years – it’s also what we’re pre­pared to do to en­sure the in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures are strong”

At the con­ven­tion, suc­ces­sive Pakatan lead­ers were keen to stress their po­lit­i­cal suc­cesses and plans for re­form. The coali­tion has been in charge of Se­lan­gor, Malaysia's rich­est state, since 2008. A four-page glossy leaflet high­lighted the elec­toral prom­ises made, and kept, and the state gov­ern­ment's plans for 2018. Ad­dress­ing the au­di­ence, its chief min­is­ter Azmin

Ali vowed that the state would be a “model for a new [Pakatan-led] Malaysia”.

In the cor­ri­dor out­side the con­ven­tion hall, mem­bers browsed books, posters and T-shirts em­bla­zoned with the faces of the coali­tion's lead­ers, in­clud­ing Ma­hathir. On a chalk­board set up for peo­ple to share their hopes for Malaysia, some had writ­ten their wish for “Tun”, as Ma­hathir is of­ten known these days, to be­come premier again.

Through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, Ma­hathir has shown an un­canny abil­ity to read Malaysia's po­lit­i­cal winds. He might be in his 90s, but few would dare un­der­es­ti­mate him in the bat­tle to come. In wait­ing so long to call the elec­tion, Na­jib might also have thrown his op­po­nents a life­line: the time to rec­on­cile their dif­fer­ences and a chance to fo­cus their cam­paign on their vi­sion for the coun­try.

“It's not that UMNO fears Ma­hathir most,” Rafizi said in be­tween pos­ing for selfies with party mem­bers. “It's not that UMNO fears An­war most. UMNO fears unity more than any­thing else, be­cause a united op­po­si­tion that has ironed out all its most con­tentious is­sues means a very fo­cused and united force against them. We won't take the bait to start shoot­ing at each other, be­cause all the guns are now out­side.”

Jailed op­po­si­tion politi­cian An­war Ibrahim (left) and Ma­hathir Mo­hamad (right), the 92-year-old for­mer premier who has been named as the op­po­si­tion coali­tion’s can­di­date. An­war was Ma­hathir’s deputy in the 1990s

Malaysia’s Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak (C) has held onto power de­spite be­ing em­broiled in a ma­jor cor­rup­tion scan­dal

Pakatan sup­port­ers do­nat­ing money to the cause at the op­po­si­tion con­ven­tion

For­mer po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies Wan Az­izahWan Is­mail (L) and Ma­hathir Mo­hamad (R) are now work­ing to­gether for the op­po­si­tion

Se­lan­gor’s chief min­is­ter Azmin Ali ral­lies the crowd at the Pakatan con­ven­tion

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