By Alicia Conway
Since he returned to power in May, Malaysian prime minister and former strongman Mahathir Mohamad has tried to cast himself as an unlikely reformer. At the recent UN General Assembly in New York, Mahathir spoke at length about the importance of strengthening democracy around the world. Last week, Mahathir announced a broad package of reforms intended to kick new life into the faltering Malaysian economy. Despite his 93 years, at first blush, Mahathir has fully resettled into the machinations of power he had left in 2003.
Mahathir seems to have lost none of his political skill and energy during his 15-year hiatus from politics. However, hopes that he is able—or willing—to bring a fresh, positive momentum to Malaysian politics, society and economy are likely to end in disappointment.
On the contrary, Mahathir’s casual anti-Semitism in a BBC interview earlier this month indicated that he has already returned to his old, tried and tested way of governing the country—which centres around suppressing criticism of his regime and settling personal scores. As such, the reality of Mahathir’s administration is starkly different to the ideals he espoused at the UN— and remarkably similar to the state of affairs he once left behind. Malaysian democracy is on shaky ground as Mahathir re-joins the ranks of the strongmen that have come to dominate the international stage in recent years.
Back to the roots
Ironically, Mahathir is doing his best to portray himself as a fighter against the corruption of the previous administration headed by ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, though his zeal may have more to do with his personal vendetta against Najib than a sudden determination to root out graft. In fact, the corruption in question, most famously relating to the 1MDB scandal, is the natural successor to the cronyism embedded in the system that Mahathir installed during his previous tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.
Just eight weeks after losing the election to Mahathir this spring, Najib was accused of three counts of criminal breach of trust and a fourth for abuse of power, with his ties to the deeply-indebted 1MDB investment fund at the root of it all. Najib is alleged to have received approximately $700 million from a subsidiary of 1MDB. Mahathir quickly proclaimed that he had an “almost perfect case” against Najib.
To further sharpen this case, in early September Mahathir had Najib’s lawyer, Muhammed Shafee, also arrested and charged with money laundering, a move which Najib argued is an attempt to prevent him from having a fair trial. He further insists that the money in question was a donation from the Saudi government and that he had no idea that funds were being diverted away from 1MDB.
While it’s unlikely that Najib was totally removed from 1MDB, evidence suggests that Najib was not closely involved in the fund’s daily operations, despite Mahathir’s insistence that Najib was “totally responsible” for the scandal. That honour, according to Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is reserved for high-flying financier Jho Low. Allegedly the real mastermind behind the 1MDB racket, he is suspected of having stolen over $5 billion from the 1MDB fund over several years. While reportedly hiding out in China, he has attempted to contact Mahathir’s “right-hand man”, former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, to try and negotiate an immunity deal that would allow him to return to Malaysia.
The judiciary as a weapon
With Low on the run, Malaysian prosecutors are focusing on Najib instead. The former prime minister insists that the charges against him are politically motivated, manufactured by Mahathir to cement his grasp on power. Mahathir’s chequered history suggests that Najib’s concerns may not be too far off base. After all, such bullish tactics had served him well during his previous stint as PM, when his twenty-two-year rule was defined by cracking down on human rights activists, the political opposition and the free press.
Mahathir compounded this crackdown by sacking a number of Supreme Court judges in a “judicial winter” that has left Malaysia’s judiciary scarred to this day. The premier furthermore has a torrid track record of abusing his power to censor and imprison his rivals, most notably with the man currently touted as his successor, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was once Mahathir’s protégé, but fell afoul of his old boss after criticising his administration for perceived nepotism and corruption. Swiftly thereafter, Anwar found himself expelled from the party, charged with sodomy and imprisoned for 15 years, 6 of which were in solitary confinement.
The persecution of Anwar has since been revealed to have been entirely trumped up, complete with witnesses admitting they testified under duress. Anwar was finally granted a pardon in May, thanks to Mahathir’s intercession, who quipped: “In the past it was said that I put him in prison. Now I have freed him”. At the time Anwar was imprisoned, he had the harshest possible criticism for his former mentor, telling Time magazine that Mahathir “is drunk with power, and has lost all sense of rationality and sanity […] in his desperate attempt to cling to power, he has no qualms about using all instruments of government to serve his ends”.
Since Mahathir secured Anwar’s freedom in return for his support in the May elections, however, a remarkable reconciliation has taken place between the pair—Anwar’s wife is the current deputy prime minister and Anwar himself is expected to take the national reins in two years’ time.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Mahathir’s current rule will engender no major changes compared to his previous terms. His words at the UN notwithstanding, Malaysia is unlikely to improve its human rights and democratic record under its sixth Mahathir administration.
If Anwar is indeed confirmed as prime minister in two years’ time, as promised by Mahathir, he will have to craft positive policies and tackle issues like corruption at the source. While tightening the screws on Najib has certainly eliminated a political rival for both Mahathir and Anwar, it won’t do much to change Malaysian society for the better.
Alicia Conway is a junior policy researcher based in London, focused on institutional development in the ASEAN region.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius