Mahathir Charisma in Malaysia A Lesson for the Third World Democracy -By Salman Riaz

Cover Story

Mahathir Mohamad. Not only a name, it’s a political brand. The long lasting political history in Malaysia has been changed for this name. The astonishing victory of Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia’s 14th elections has been hailed as a triumph of democracy. It was not only a victory, but it could hardly count as a truly revolutionary one. It is certainly an extraordinary comeback of 92 years old Mahathir. He was prime minister as the head of the BN coalition for 22 years from 1981 until he stepped down in 2003. Under his leadership, Malaysia became one of the Asian tigers – the group of countries which saw their economies expands rapidly in the 1990s. However, he was an authoritarian figure who used controversial security laws to lock up his political opponents. Returning as the head of an opposition coalition, he defeated his former pupil Najib Razak and ended more than six decades of one-party rule in the country. Mahathir sworn in as the world’s oldest prime minister. He has called for an inquiry into the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal which engulfed the previous government.

Overhauling Malaysia’s heavily damaged democratic institutions, however, will be a long-term project that will fall under the responsibility of Mahathir’s successor, Anwar Ibrahim, and the country’s new generation of progressive, young leaders. For now, boundless hope is in the air. Democratic change has finally come to the Southeast Asian country, though, quite paradoxically, through the intervention of a former strongman. Decades from now, Malaysia’s general elections will likely be remembered as a peaceful revolution, which altered the Southeast Asian nation’s history.

The downfall of Najib Razak is as welcome as it is spectacular. Under Najib – whose father Abdul Razak Hussein was Malaysia’s second prime minister – Malaysian officials are alleged to have looted more than $4.5bn in public funds. So the optimistic version of the story runs like this: Mahathir’s victory is a win for people power over corruption. His return will see justice done and corrupt public officials will get their comeuppance. Then he will be succeeded by Anwar, fulfilling a promise he made on the campaign trail. Anwar is a highly capable and reforming politician who will unleash Malaysia’s full economic potential. From this election, the charismatic power of Mahathir is proved and political secrecy of Anwar is substantiated again. The political key is being stirred by Anwar from prison.

The latest twist in Malaysian politics is Hollywood stylist comeback of Anwar Ibrahim. He has been freed from prison after receiving a full pardon from the king. The new premier Mahathir declared that he will seek the release and pardon of Anwar Ibrahim. He has been jailed on charges of homosexuality and corruption from 2015. Mahathir has fulfilled his promise. Perhaps a film documenting the rise and fall and rise again of Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and leader of a movement calling for government reforms would begin in the late 1990s with him entering a courtroom with a black eye, beaten by a police chief.

Father of Modern Malaysia
Mahathir grew up in the rural heartland of Malaysia, then a British colony, witnessing severe food shortages during the 1930s Great Depression. He was a medical doctor before becoming Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in 1981 and kicking off a mission of modernization. Bridges and six-lane highways crisscrossed Malaysia in his development blitz, capped off with a lavish new administrative capital, and the world’s tallest structure when it was built, the 88-storey Petronas twin towers in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. These activities helped win Mahathir the title ‘Father of Modern Malaysia,’ but he was known for his strongarm rule.

Mahathir accused of using security laws to put his political opponents behind bars. His critics say he restricted free speech and persecuted political opponents – none more so than his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was remained in jail on charges of sodomy and corruption. Mahathir has joined hands with Anwar in this campaign and has promised to seek a royal pardon for him. Mahathir was masterly in playing to the feelings of the mainly Muslim ethnic Malay majority. His 1970 book, ‘The Malay Dilemma’, argued that ethnic Malays, whom he called the nation’s rightful owners, were being eclipsed economically by ethnic Chinese.

Mahathir is also credited for turning Malaysia into a manufacturing hub, with a world-class infrastructure and a booming middle class. It’s precisely this commendable legacy that has won him supporters across generations. After stepping down from power in 2003, he quickly turned from a king to a kingmaker, engineering the ascent of his two successors, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak.

Mahathir continued to wield power in UMNO even after he handed over in 2003. He backed Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, as the premier in 2009. But in 2015 he urged Najib to step down over the corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB. In an interview in March, he said he would keep up the battle against Najib even if he lost this election. He said, ‘I will be in my late 90s and physically not as strong. But if I am well enough, I will continue the struggle.’ Mahathir also seems to have accepted he made mistakes in rule, writing in a blog post in January that people and the media never failed to point out he presided over an authoritarian government for 22 years. ‘Looking back now, I realize why, as Prime Minister of Malaysia I was described as a dictator. There were many things I did which were typically dictatorial.’ Mahathir wrote.

Rage against corruption
Malaysian elections reflected a nationwide rejection of corruption and impunity among the entrenched elite. In many ways, the electoral outcome was tantamount to regime change, as the Mahathir-led opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan ended the six-decades-long rule of Barisan Nasional (BN), formerly the Alliance Party. It marked the first interparty transition of power in post-independence Malaysian history. The outgoing prime minister and his associates were desperate to stay in power amid a massive corruption scandal, which could see him and his associates end up in jail.

Najib and his coterie have been accused of looting 4.5 billion US dollars from the state investment fund, also known as 1MDB. As a result, governments around the world, from the United States to France and Singapore, have launched investigations or frozen accounts associated with the 1MDB fund. The Najib administration showed little interest in accountability and reform. Over the past two years, Najib mercilessly purged all critics within the government, including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

In a direct assault on state institutions, the embattled leader went so far as firing the attorney general investigating the 1MDB corruption scandal. After leaked confidential papers alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen funds ended up in his bank accounts, Najib astonishingly claimed that they were just ‘gifts’ from Saudi royal family. But a majority of Malaysian people were sick and tired of painfully watching state institutions decaying under the punishing weight of widespread corruption and outright decadence among the ruling class.

Malaysian police have already raided several times in the apartment of Najib Rajak. On 18 May, police have seized 284 boxes of designer handbags and 72 bags of cash, jewellery and watches belonging to Najib Razak and his wife, as part of an investigation into his role in the 1MDB scandal. The lavish lifestyle of Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, who is notorious for her love of designer handbags and expensive jewellery, has long been a source of contention in Malaysia. The annual salary of the prime minister is only $70,000, whereas one Birkin handbag can cost up to $300,000. It is also a stark contrast to the frugal lifestyle of Mahathir Mohamad, who was recently spotted going about his official duties in sandals costing $4.

Mahathir-Anwar Alliance
For the first time, post-independence Malaysia had a new ruling party. Analysts said this could not have been done without the Mahathir-Anwar combination, describing it as one of the great ironies of Malaysian history. It has basically seen like more than 20 years of bad blood between the two of them. They have a common agenda now- to remove Najib, and rebuild Malaysia. Mahathir has pledged to stay in power only long enough to hand the government over to his former deputy. Many are watching closely to see whether promises will be kept.

Anwar’s return to the political forefront comes at a time when Malaysians are more informed than ever. Social media and a generation of courageous voters have opened up a discourse once aggressively hushed by the government. So after many gripping twists and turns, a victorious Anwar Ibrahim comes back to reclaim his spot in the Malaysian leadership, a dramatic 20-year journey to fulfil his self-professed destiny.

Another furiously
ambitious politician
Anwar is described as a furiously ambitious politician, had risen from being a student leader in the 1970s to becoming the pupil and the right-hand man of Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, in the 1990s. But the partnership turned sour as the Malaysian economy felt the pressure of a growing Southeast Asian financial crisis in 1997. Differences grew and Anwar’s calls for reform threatened the leadership. Anwar basically challenged Mahathir to the leadership position within his party that time. In September 1998, Anwar was sacked.

His dismissal spurred the Reformasi movement, a series of Anwar-led protests against the Mahathir government, in a country where dissent is suppressed. He was eventually convicted of sodomy and corruption and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Anwar was released in 2004 when the sodomy charge was partially overturned. But this was just the beginning of a lengthy judicial process that would see him jailed again in 2015 under the rule of Najib Razak on same charges. But he described it as politically motivated.

Anwar is a man of immense charisma, charm, ambition and tenacity. He is the finest orator of his generation and a great mobiliser. His jail time wins him sympathy and some gravitas for having been persecuted. In 2007, between his jail terms, Anwar started campaigning for people’s justice party, a centrist opposition party formally headed by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. With its reformist stance, it attracted much public support against a government riddled with corruption and cronyism. It also became a key member of a four-party Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance pulled together by Mahathir. It was instrumental in the challenge against the ruling party in election.

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