For once in 61 years of ruling Malaysia, the incumbent coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is feeling the fear. And the threat is coming from an unlikely source: their own former strongman.
A larger-than-life figure in Malaysian politics, Mahathir Mohamad, now 92, has emerged from retirement and entered the fray once more. In 2017, he registered a new political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), adding it to the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. Years ago, no one could have predicted such a turnaround. Now, BN, shrouded in allegations of corruption and abuse of power, quakes in anticipation of going head-to-head with their former leader at the polls on 9 May 2018.
A veteran’s ability… and about face
A former die-hard member of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)—the largest party in the BN coalition—Mahathir has a political career spanning over seven decades, two of which were spent as the Malaysian prime minister. A master strategist when it came to elections, he’s well-versed in every trick of the trade, and had continued to play a role in Malaysian politics even after he stepped down from the premiership in 2003. In fact, he was very much involved in current Prime Minister Najib Razak’s rise to power.
Back then, Mahathir had been confident in Najib’s leadership qualities, believing that his protege was well-suited to continue the policies and programmes implemented during Mahathir’s own tenure. But expectation turned to disappointment and horror as Najib got entangled in a web of corruption scandals, namely related to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Mahathir has now joined forces with his former enemies in an attempt to overthrow Najib; an astonishing crossing of the aisle that’s been met with a range of reactions running the gamut from jubilation to disbelief and scepticism. Mahathir has, unsurprisingly, been ridiculed by his former comrades in BN for throwing his lot in with Anwar, a former deputy he’d previously fallen out with. Anwar is currently in prison following his second sodomy conviction—his first conviction is widely believed to also have been politically motivated… with Mahathir himself pulling the strings.
There have also been serious doubts over the sincerity of Mahathir’s political comeback; it was rumoured that he’s only doing it to ensure the political future of his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, the former Chief Minister of Kedah. Frustration at the opposition’s willingness to join hands with their former nemesis led to an online campaign—#UndiRosak, meaning “spoil your vote”—urging people to spoil their votes in protest of the lack of meaningful political change.
Despite this, Mahathir is still seen as a game-changer as polling day approaches.
Memories of better days
There were also allegations of abuse and corruption during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister, but many Malaysians, especially those above the age of 40, might think back on those years as the “good old days” compared to where Malaysia is now.
During Mahathir’s tenure, Malaysia grew from a near developing country status to the world’s 13th largest economy. When Mahathir became prime minister in 1981, the country’s gross national income per capita was at USD1,930; by the time he stepped down in 2003, it had increased to USD4,160.
Things have not been as rosy in recent years under Najib’s administration. Although the gross national income per capita had continued to rise after Mahathir’s premiership, it dropped sharply from USD11,010 in 2014 to USD9,860 in 2016. The 1MDB scandal has been blamed as a contributing factor to the Malaysian ringgit’s drop in value.
While Mahathir waived personal income tax for Malaysian wage-earners during the economic downturn of 1997–1998, the Najib administration has triggered unhappiness by imposing additional taxes—like the highly-controversial Goods and Services Tax—and cutting back on subsidies for necessities like fuel at a time when citizens are already struggling with the cost of living.
Many Malaysians, especially those above the age of 40, might think back on [Mahathir’s rule] as the “good old days” compared to where Malaysia is now
Furthermore, none of the allegations of misbehaviour in the Mahathir years approached the scale of the 1MDB scandal that has engulfed Najib. Siti Hasmah, Mathahir’s wife, has also been favourably compared to the deeply unpopular Rosman Mansor, wife of the current premier.
Mahathir isn’t the only former UMNO leader to have switched sides: he’s strongly backed by Muhyiddin Yassin and Shafie Apdal, the former deputy president and vice-president of UMNO respectively. Together, this trio have boosted an opposition, giving it a strong chance of toppling the BN regime.
An image makeover
But the fact remains that Mahathir was not a democratic leader during his time in power. While prime minister, he had eroded democratic processes, cracked down on political opponents and imposed constraints on the press. Certain segments of the Malaysian electorate have thus found it difficult to embrace him as the country’s champion for regime change. Aware of this scepticism, the opposition has been quick to emphasise that Mahathir is not the dictator he once was.
According Nurul Izzah, vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Mahathir is a changed man, with a totally different style of politics from his time in UMNO. “We have put the past behind us. Our objective is the same now… to work together for the betterment of the people,” she says. “The people are suffering with the increasing costs of living, while the GST is just too much to bear for most. The government is riddled with scandals and allegations of abuse. This is why we need all the help we can get to put things right.”
“[F]or the man on the street, Najib cannot be an option anymore. The people are suffering and the country is so deep in debt. We never had any of this during Mahathir’s time,” argues PKR vice-president Xavier Jayakumar. “He may have had an iron grip on BN, but what is important is that the people never suffered during his time. Mahathir could have just been quiet and enjoyed his retirement, but he is back for the sake of the people and country.”
But the fact remains that Mahathir was not a democratic leader during his time in power
The narrative is further backed up by heartwarming collaterals, such as a recent short film in which Mahathir chats to young Malay children about his decision to get involved in politics once more in his old age.
“Atok dah tua.. umur dah 90 tahun lebih …jadi masa tak banyak… Tetapi setakat yg boleh, atok akan berusaha… sedaya upaya berkerjasama dengan kawan-kawan untuk pulih semula, negara kita Malaysia…” pic.twitter.com/9T22owqmmX
“I am already old. I am past 90. I don’t have much time left. But within my means, I will try my very best to work together with all my friends to rebuild our nation—Malaysia,” he tells the two young characters. It’s as significant makeover of his public image: once the uncompromising strongman, now the grandfatherly champion of the nation.
A recent survey by the Selangor-based think tank Institut Darul Ehsan found that 61% of 4,920 respondents chose Mahathir as their preferred candidate for prime minister in the upcoming 14th general election, while 39% felt that Najib should remain in the top job.
But even with a heavyweight like Mahathir on board, wresting power from the incumbent will not be easy. Some still believe that Malaysia will be better off under BN. “Najib has done his fair share for the country. And besides, chances for a Pakatan Harapan victory are slim, considering there will no longer be straight fights in most constituencies and voter sentiment would work to the advantage of BN,” says Sivamurugan Pandian, a professor of political sociology at the Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Political analyst Jeniri Amir shares these sentiments, adding that voter perception and opinion of the government has steadily improved because of BN’s commitment to solving bread-and-butter problems like housing, education, employment and the cost of living.
“Despite the presence of Mahathir, I strongly believe Najib will lead the BN to a comfortable win this time. Compared with the last few years, the BN and Najib are now in a more solid position to be re-elected,” he says.
According to Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker, spokesman for the MCA, the main factor behind the upcoming election will be the Malay voters from rural areas, usually seen as long-time BN supporters. “This is in fact the main reason why Mahathir was roped in. The opposition are hoping for a Malay tsunami from these voters. However, even if there is such a thing, it would strongly favour PAS [the Malaysian Islamic Party] and not Pakatan Harapan. We, in the BN are confident the Malay rural voters will not be taken in by Mahathir,” he says.
Despite this professed confidence, the incumbent is still resorting to all kinds of tactics to counter any potential “Mahathir effect”. Despite widespread criticism, the redelineation of the electoral boundaries was pushed through Parliament, heavily skewing the playing field. The introduction of the Anti-Fake News Act—bulldozed through Parliament in a week—has also been seen as an attempt by the ruling coalition to maintain control of the narrative and disincentive dissent.
Giving out gifts and stacks of money during elections is nothing new for the BN and despite the clampdown on news, numerous videos showing BN leaders openly handing out money to voters have gone viral online. In the last few weeks, Najib and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have announced a host of goodies, including pay rises, housing and promotions for civil servants, the police and armed forces.
Despite this professed confidence, the incumbent is still resorting to all kinds of tactics to counter any potential “Mahathir effect”
In some constituencies, opposition candidates have been told that their billboards will have to be taken down and the image of Mahathir—Pakatan Harapan’s candidate for prime minister—removed, in accordance with new rules regarding election campaign materials. The opposition candidate in Ayer Hitam had to watch on 30 April as officers from the Election Commission cut Mahathir’s image out of his billboard, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the massive banner. Malaysiakini also reported that an opposition billboard in Seremban had been taken down, pending the removal of Mahathir’s image.
The coalition might continue insisting that it’s not afraid of Mahathir, but it seems as if they’re leaving nothing to chance. Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister, doesn’t mince his words; he says Najib is the worst-ever UMNO president and prime minister the country has ever seen. “The only thing he will be remembered for is being the prime minister who had billions of ringgit in his account. He is afraid to be honest and admit that UMNO has lost the Malay support and is in fact afraid to face PPBM,” he says.
Waiting on the swing
According to a senior leader from Umno, fence-sitters will play a significant role in determining the outcome of this fierce political battle. He claims that in 2013, 11.05 million people voted—approximately 85% of all registered voters. “This year, we have more than 14 million voters and if 15% of them are fence-sitters, then this could be the group that actually determines the outcome. This group usually waits for the last minute before making a decision and could swing either way,” he says.
“Dr Mahathir is no angel… but he does offer us new hope”
“We do not expect any miracles from Dr Mahathir. What we know for sure is that he is sincere in his cause and wants to make a change for the better. He, along with Muhyiddin and the others have made a significant change and based on the large turnouts at our ceramahs, we believe our chances are good,” says PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
For Malaysians frustrated by the increasing costs of living and other issues like immigration, crime and employment, Mahathir—who led Malaysia at a time of economic growth—is perceived as a beacon of hope. “Dr Mahathir is no angel… but he does offer us new hope,” says Imran Bakhtiar, a voter from the Pagoh constituency. “Many of us are suffering and are fed up hearing of the abuse and scandals linked to Najib. It is surely a time for change and that is what Pakatan Harapan offers us.”
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Patrick Beech is a senior editor and writer in Malaysia.