Without doubt the whirlwind of the Malaysian General Election 2018 with the ruling UMNO, Barisan Nasional and the prime minister, Najib Razak swept from power by the 92-year Mahathir Mohamad enters the annals of political science. The landslide victory, shocking, and rapidly changing political equilibrium in Malaysia is baffling even the most experienced analysts. The implications for the upcoming elections in Indonesia and even Singapore is not yet fully comprehended. The collective shock is still settling in.
The South China Morning Post wrote in its 8 May edition, “…Predictions are that an upset in Wednesday’s vote is possible, but a respectable think-tank’s eleventh-hour forecast on Tuesday was that the ruling coalition would prevail, even as it loses the popular vote for the second time…”.
Oops is the collective reaction by everyone. Like in the U.S. presidential elections the respectable think-tanks missed collectively the mark of the predictions who will win. The think-tanks better polish their academic credentials because for the second time they so called experts got it wrong. Or did they?
Malaysia, like Indonesia is anchored on political power pockets indicating the future political direction. In Malaysia it is the critical vote of Sabah and Sarawak, the young voters and the old power alliances of deeply entrenched privileged who benefited from the regime of Mahathir Mohamad determine the outcome.
If we recall in 1998 matters between Anwar and Mahathir came to a head around the time of the quadrennial UMNO General Assembly. The Youth wing of UMNO, headed by Anwar’s associate Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, gave notice that it would initiate a debate on “cronyism and nepotism”.
In 1999, Anwar brought suit against Prime Minister Mahathir for defamation for allegedly uttering accusations of immoral acts and calling Anwar a homosexual at a news conference in Malaysia. What followed is now history.
Sabah and Sarawak, the keys to kingdom?
Only few days before the election the critical vote of Sabah usually assigned to the prime minister election warned about the state no longer supports the BN coalition. This was the faint signal which suggested the wheels are coming off.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak can no longer count on the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo as a “fixed deposit” for his ruling coalition, a senior defector said, just days before the country went to the polls.
The Straits Times quoting Shafie Apdal, “…who leads the opposition push in Sabah, said anger is palpable among Sabah people, who he says have long suffered from poor public infrastructure, porous border security and the lack of job opportunities, despite supporting the ruling coalition for more than 50 years…”
Najib has called Sabah, along with neighboring Sarawak, fixed deposits for consistently voting for his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, thereby allowing the party to retain power for decades despite losing votes in peninsular Malaysia. But the fix was in.
A few days before the polls Saturday (May 5), his party sacked two senior leaders and suspended another, all long-time loyalists of Mahathir, for speaking against Najib and attending opposition events.
Revenge of the victors
In the election night the new re-elected new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said to the full press corps on live TV, “no we are not out for revenge” when quizzed about the future of his former protégé the ousted Najib Razak.
But as so often in politics on Friday (May 11) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad u-turned and announced that the government will carry out investigations on the Attorney-General, the Election Commission (EC) as well as the country’s anti-graft body for corruption.
Another 24 hours later, a rumor circulated the former prime minister wanted to take a vacation in Indonesia which quickly gathered an angry crowd at the airport. But strangely the former prime minister was actually at a meeting resigning the reigns of UMNO.
At the same time in the morning on Saturday 12 May, media reports filed at 0926 am the Immigration director-general Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali told Malay Mail when contacted that neither the former prime minister nor his wife Rosmah have been barred from travelling overseas, contrary to a news report earlier by Malaysiakini.
“No… he is not blacklisted so far,” Mustafar said. By late lunch the situation changed and both the former prime minister and his wife were blacklisted by the immigration offices preventing them to leave.
In his first press conference on Friday (May 11), Mahathir promised “some heads will roll”. He added, “The heads of certain departments must fall. We find that some people are aiding and abetting the former prime minister who was described by the world as ‘kleptocrat’,”
Police on Saturday (May 12) raided a deluxe Kuala Lumpur apartment block at which relatives of ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak had been staying as they searched for sensitive documents the new government fears may be taken out of the country.
Criminal charges are expected with Mahathir known for his vindictive character executing one more power play. Known for his strong-arm, sometimes pugnacious style of rule, marked by an intolerance for dissent did after all manage to lock up his own replacement Anwar Ibrahim so why not Najib.
So much for not seeking revenge.
Mahathir Mohamad: A cynical view
But once the shock, the euphoria and the anticipation of what ugly comes next wears off, let us take stock for a moment. Dr Mahathir Mohamad builds up UMNO, becomes the longest serving prime minister in Malaysia serving 22 years and 107 days, creates the privileged class and squashes all of his political opponents, throws Anwar Ibrahim into prison in which he lingers until now serving times for charges of sodomy.
Reporters and Anwar supporters gathered outside a hospital in Kuala Lumpur where he is recovering from a shoulder surgery. His wife later told reporters he could be freed in days and pardoned by the King within a week.
The 1988 Malaysian constitutional crisis was the result of clashes between Mahathir and the judges. Mahathir’s supporters insisted that it had liberated the Malaysian judiciary from a colonial mindset. But the economy goes bad, minorities are excluded from the political life and everyone was happy to see the end of Mahathir’s reign.
From retirement Mahathir oust his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after only serving 5 years and 154 days for trying to change too many things which his former boss, the old guy did not like. Enter Najib Razak. pedigree politician of Malay political royalty and son of the former prime minister. But the glam fades quickly. Corruption, inefficiency, party politics and shrinking popularity, sees a constant decline of UMNO/BN coalition power. After a dispute with his old mentor having Mahathir Mohamad removed from power controls the old Mahathir goes on the war path against Najib.
Mahathir leaves the party that he lead for the most of his life starts a new gig and rejuvenates the lagging opposition with his presence into a political monster. The now opposition politician Mahathir bends the burned bridges with the imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim, which not to forget, lingers still in jail because of the now reelected Mahathir and after 9 years, 37 days ousts the unpopular Najib Razak over taxes, the 1MDB scandal and just about everything else, in a landslide victory to returning the 92-year old to power.
Despite the kudos to the re-elected prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad for his remarkable political feat many challenges lay ahead. Are we seeing a return of the old Mahathir power grip which brought Malaysia almost to the brink of economic and social disaster? Is one new crony system replacing the old crony system?
And with Anwar expected to be released from prison on Tuesday next week on grounds of ‘miscarried of justice’ what will follow? The irony of the pardon cannot be overstated.
Is Mahathir Mohammad just becoming another power hungry politician who just cannot let go? Or is he paving the way for Anwar to be his successor but keeping him on a long leash? And is he just settling score getting even with the Najib camp to return the Mahathir faithful to power? Are we seeing a return of old Malay-first type of policies Mahathir that created the privileged class that has not benefited Malaysia.
The coveted Finance portfolio was handed to Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Mr Lim told reporters that his priority is to ensure Malaysian jobs and business opportunities are protected. “Our focus will still be helping those who find it hard to make ends meet,” he said. Is populism with a pinch of socialism returning to Malaysia?
Let’s be honest about the previous leadership of the Mahathir regime, not everything was glamour. Political oppression and corruption was ample. But if a second time is a charm, the powerful politician Mahathir Mohamad is without doubt a force to be reckoned with. Mahathir was given an opportunity only a few politicians ever experience.
Mahathir Mohamad has shown to us that age is truly becoming a number only. After all the newly minted prime minister is soon turning 93 years and yes, the biological clock is ticking. So it is to be seen if the new prime minister is a sunrise or sunset government foreshadowing an uncertain, even troubled future.