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Dr Mahathir: Prime Minister of Malaysia (again)

Nanthini Sambanthan

On Thursday the 10th May 2018, Malaysians made history. For the first time since the independence of Malaysia in 1957, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, formerly known as the Alliance, was not the winning party in a general election. The man who accomplished this was none other than the once ‘favourite son’ of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the backbone of BN, who led BN to popular victory in five general elections: the 4th and now 7th Prime Minister (PM) of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir bin Mohammad.

37 years after being first sworn in and 15 years after retiring as PM, Mahathir was sworn in again, this time not as an incumbent, but as the leader of the opposition. His political career is one that has consisted of both spectacular lows and remarkable highs, from being expelled from UMNO to leading the very same party to being the leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and ousting the party that has ruled Malaysia for 61 years. While his first tenure as Prime Minister was considered an ‘age of plenty’ by most Malaysians and he was credited with Malaysia’s transformation into a key economic powerhouse in the region, he was also considered a ‘strongman’ who accumulated power at the expense of key national institutions such as the judiciary and royal family. With his frequent use of the controversial preventative detention law, the Internal Security Act 1960, to silence his critics and political enemies as well as his tight control of the media outlets of the time, he brooked little opposition.

Even after his retirement in 2003, he continued to make his views felt with regards to the actions of his successors, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak, as well as the party they led, especially after Najib was implicated in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. The on-going scandal, in which millions were stolen from a Malaysian government investment fund and funnelled to various parties including Najib, resulted in a crisis of confidence in the country’s leadership and is thought to be a key factor in BN’s humiliating defeat in the 14th General Election (GE14). This scandal also seemed to be the catalyst in Mahathir’s active return to the Malaysian political fray with the announcement of his candidacy for Prime Minister as the Chairman of the PH coalition. According to Mahathir, this return to active politics was due to his desire to fix his “greatest mistake”: facilitating Najib’s rise to power. He characterised it as a job he had to do, in order to prevent Malaysia from being destroyed by the selfish in power. In the course of doing this job, he seems to have embraced the old adage, “[t]he enemy of my enemy is my friend”, as seen by his alliance with the opposition’s PH coalition, which was built upon the Reformasi movement started by Mahathir’s once-time protégé and former Deputy Prime Minister (DPM), the currently jailed Anwar Ibrahim.

The relationship between Ibrahim and Mahathir, once as close as father and son, deteriorated due to differences in opinions between the two, including on Mahathir’s rejection of IMF support during the Asian Financial Crisis and his perceived corruption. This eventually culminated in Anwar’s firing in 1998—with Mahathir claiming he was morally unfit for the position—and arrest on charges of corruption and sodomy. This began the Reformasi movement via his new party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by his wife, Wan Azziah Wan Ismail, former doctor and current DPM under Mahathir. The irony of joining a movement that began as a counter to his actions and policies during his tenure of PM, especially his political and personal persecution of Anwar, was not lost upon Mahathir; he remarked that in order to “get rid” of Najib, he and Anwar had to work together. He has also promised to honour the opposition’s statement that while Mahathir might be Prime Minister, he would serve as a placeholder for Anwar and should they achieve victory in the elections and should Anwar be pardoned for his criminal charges, allow him to stand in a by-election upon release. A promise which was fulfilled, with King Muhammad V agreeing to grant him a royal pardon during a discussion with leaders of PH and the King.

This hotly contested election proved to have its own share of controversies. Having lost their two-thirds majority during the GE12 and then the popular vote during the GE13, the ruling BN coalition seemed to have been been whittled down by Anwar’s Reformasi movement throughout the past two elections. However, they were able to maintain their rule through the support of their main voter base— the rural Malay population, a base that until now seemed unshakeable in their support for BN. Despite the previous ruling coalition’s strategies to maintain their support, which ranged from financial incentives to gerrymandering to playing racial politics, Mahathir was able to deliver the rural Malay support to PH. This proved to be the crucial tipping point for both coalitions. Even following the release of the election results, there seemed to be some uncertainty regarding the position of Prime Minister. During a press conference, former-PM Najib mentioned that although he accepted the “verdict of the people”, since no one party had won a clear majority of parliament seats, the King was the only one who had the right to choose the PM, alluding to the fact that PH had not been formally registered as a coalition despite the election committee accepting them as such.

Nevertheless, 92-year old Dr Mahathir bin Mohammad was sworn into office as the 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia at 9.30pm on Thursday, the 10th May 2018 with Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as his deputy. Not only was this the first time a non-UMNO leader was elected as Prime Minister, it was also the first time a woman had been elected to such a position in Malaysia. With cracks starting to appear in this coalition, a potential investigation into Najib in which he will be subject to the “rule of law”, the review of the recent ‘fake news’ law that was forced through days before the dissolution of parliament as well as the potential re-negotiation of relations with China, challenges will remain. Regardless, the result of the GE14 is undeniably a clear indication of the power of the people and thus, the start of a new era in Malaysia politics.