Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is the kind of leader who comes along in a country only once in a generation. Having an Indian father in a country politically dominated by the Malay ethnic group, he rose to become the leader of country for 22 years by becoming the leader of the Malay ultra-nationalist party, the United Malay National Organization- UMNO. That is no mean feat in a country where being Malaysian without being Malay are two different things.
After stepping down as Prime Minister in 2003, after a stint of 22 years, he handed over power to his proteges. Many of these proteges felt like, “Hey, Mahathir is now an old man. We can afford to ignore him.” And so they did, with disastrous consequences to their political career.
I can remember then Prime Minister Badawi having spats with ex PM Mahathir. But it was immediate-past PM Najib Razak that really ruffled Mahathir’s feathers. He felt Mahathir at ninety something was closer to the grave than to power. So he boldly poured scorn on him.
But Mahathir, a man who led Malaysia to produce its national car, the Proton – a man whose policies made Malaysia one of the vaunted Asian economic tigers in the 1990s, is not a man to be taken lightly.
Noticing that the government had an overwhelming control of the media, Chedet, as Mahathir is nicknamed started a blog. This gave him an uncommon connection to the youth, many of whom were very young if born when he was Prime Minister.
In the eyes of these youth, he ceased to be the authoritarian and strongman they’d heard of. He instead became the kindly old uncle. The one that speaks their language and feels the disgust they feel about the blossoming corruption in government.
At the same time, the people in power laughed and scorned this ‘old man who has refused to act his age’. To them, all they needed to do was to appeal to Malay nationalism anytime the country comes close to elections, and they’ll be sure to win.
“After all,” they told themselves, “Was it not the same kind of appeal that kept Mr Mahathir in power for two decades when he was with them?”
What they failed to see was that it was something more than appeal to ethnic sentiments that kept Mahathir in power that long. The man brought a new wave of industrialization and prosperity to Malaysia.
Malaysia became a country that could join the space race, etc. These former proteges instead allowed corruption and impunity become the order of the day. That is, until they swallowed a $3.5 billion bone of corruption, and the bone got stuck in their throats, refusing to go down.
Ignoring his former proteges, Mahathir ran for office and upset the apple cart. For the first time since independence a non UMNO party is in government.
The Mahathir Restoration
Mr Mahathir has promised a crackdown on corruption, which is likely to affect his former colleagues if it would be effective.
But it won’t be so easy. The people Mahathir will go after are people who have been in power for long. They are masterful politicians in their own right. They would be looking for opportunities to fan the embers of nationalism in a bid to trap him. If he takes a liberal stance toward non Malay ethnic groups he is painted as anti Malay to the Malay majority. And if he decides to avoid that fate by becoming more conservative, he loses goodwill among the minorities whose support mattered so much in bringing him back to power. What a balancing a act he’ll have to perform.
Some of his opponents would no doubt attempt to sniff out any acts of corruption from Mahathir’s earlier rule. Mahathir will have to have a backbone of steel in the months ahead.
Promise To Handover To Anwar Ibrahim
Mahathir has also promised to handover to his old enemy Anwar Ibrahim within two years.
Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy to Mahathir, had a swift fall from grace and power, and was imprisoned for charges he described as politically motivated when he attempted to challenge Mahathir. Where Mahathir had earlier been expected to handover to Ibrahim, he handed over to other lesser known proteges who ended up scorning him.
But in the later years Mahathir grew close to Ibrahim, and has said he regrets imprisoning him and together they plotted his political comeback.
Mahathir has won now and Anwar is expected to receive a Royal pardon at his behest. The prayer in Anwar Ibrahim’s camp at this time should be that Mahathir doesn’t suddenly change his mind about handing over. Remember Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Power can be addictive. And also, there may be that niggling fear in Mahathir that Anwar Ibrahim may remember his past imprisonments with a bitter heart, and may try to give his old friend-then-enemy-then-friend-again his own dose of political retribution.
But then again, Mahathir may just be an old man who realised he did something very wrong and just wants to clear his conscience, no matter what it may cost him. Time shall tell. For now, we say congrats to Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, two survivors in Malaysian politics.