FIFTEEN years after stepping down from the job, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is back with a bang. During his first tenure as premier from 1981 to 2003, he was known for his combative style. Now, Southeast Asia and the world will be hearing more from the outspoken Malaysian leader, age notwithstanding.
The return of Dr Mahathir at 93, long past when most leaders decide to call it a day, is almost surreal. It is also catapulting him to the status of a political legend in Malaysian politics. In so doing, he scored many firsts. No former prime minister had ever made a comeback to dethrone his preferred successor. The sacking of Datuk Seri Najib Razak at the ballot box on May 9 also meant that Dr Mahathir is now the world’s oldest prime minister, and still very much a man in a hurry.
What made this all possible was the stunning political reconciliation between Dr Mahathir and his fiercest nemesis: with his surprising support for the jailed politician Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and Anwar’s reciprocal backing for Dr Mahathir, their remarkable burying of the hatchet led to the opposition’s startling electoral victory.
The ruling juggernaut, the Umno-led coalition, had never been defeated since independence in 1957. The coalition finally lost power at the hands of the country’s most potent political duo: Dr Mahathir-Anwar. In the aftermath, at least three evolving scenarios are worth watching:
SCENARIO 1: A NEW ORDER?
If the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government can last at least two terms, we will see a different political order take hold. The people’s rejection of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and Umno is a new phenomenon in Malaysian politics. Increasingly, the emerging narrative is that of a “New Malaysia”.
What this New Malaysia is, however, has yet to be clearly defined, as it seems to mean different things to different people. The popular view is that it is simply the antithesis of the old era; anything that was bad about the old must not be part of New Malaysia. Even Dr Mahathir himself has called for a break from the past: “The New Malaysia should even be an improvement on the period during which I was prime minister for 22 years.” The government should “have to go back to democracy and the rule of law and respect the wishes of the people”, he said.
Two wishes in particular: first is cleaning up the mess left behind by the Najib administration. Reformism will be the order of the day, possibly leading eventually to some form of systemic change.
Dr Mahathir, has become the “New Reformer”, embracing Anwar’s battle-cry of Reformasi.
Second, Dr Mahathir and his team will be under pressure to prove that the new government can fulfil the people’s expectations.
The previously disparate alliance will have to demonstrate that it will not be a photocopy of the old regime.
SCENARIO 2: EXISTENTIAL CRISIS
All that said, the power vehicle the PH alliance overthrew is not to be trifled with. At the core of the dethroned BN coalition is Umno, the linchpin party that won independence from the British. Once thought to be invincible, BN disintegrated as soon as it lost power.
Umno itself is facing an existential crisis. It is under threat of being deregistered for failing to hold internal party elections, in breach of political regulations. In this battle for survival, Umno is going through an internal debate over direction and its own identity.
The future of Umno now depends very much on how far the younger generation will succeed in taking over the leadership and charting a new course. Nevertheless, the introspective search for a new identity is unprecedented, reflecting the country’s new terrain.
The course taken by Umno will partly be influenced, if not defined, by the broader political landscape now dominated by the Dr Mahathir-Anwar leadership 2.0. Collectively, the duo has come to symbolise a political ethos around “post-identity”.
SCENARIO 3: BEYOND THE BORDER
The political shifts do not stop at Malaysia’s border. As one of the most developed economies in Southeast Asia, the country’s political dynamics—especially those that affect its stability and security—will be of importance to its neighbours in the region and beyond.
With neighbouring Singapore, Dr Mahathir also created some ripples when he threw a spanner in the works of a joint high-speed rail project signed by the BN government, though this has been deferred for now. Dr Mahathir also suggested renegotiating the long-standing supply of water from Malaysia’s Johor state, a strategic resource for Singapore.
Dr Mahathir’s biggest challenge is, however, further afield, in Beijing. China is at the heart of some financially troubling mega projects initiated by Najib. Dr Mahathir himself travelled to Beijing in August to re-negotiate with Chinese leaders the China-funded projects in Malaysia, part of a larger goal to cut down on the massive national debt inherited from the previous government.
What is troubling Dr Mahathir is the Chinese model of economic collaboration. At issue is Beijing’s preference for extending loans with high interest rates rather than investing directly in the projects, and for payments to Chinese contractors based on timelines rather than project deliveries.
Another is the Chinese propensity to use their own resources, workforce and expertise for the projects, instead of relying on local firms and creating jobs domestically.
Unlike in the past, the political earthquake in Malaysia this time is clearly reverberating beyond Malaysia’s border. Before he finally calls it a day — again — expect Dr Mahathir to make more waves as he brings his assertive persona to the international stage, perhaps even to the United Nations. It’s in his DNA.
Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow with the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore