The authoritarian who dragged his country up the economic ladder has now turned on his successor, and is forging alliances with men he once put in jail, writes Raymond Whitaker
Mahathir Mohamad may have been out of office for more than a decade, but Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister still bestrides his country’s political scene. When he came to London University to explain why he wants to unseat his successor, Najib Razak, organisers had to switch the meeting to a bigger hall, which was still packed.
Despite a shuddering cough, the 91-year-old Mahathir remained on his feet for the best part of an hour and a half, mainly devoted to a question and answer session in which he was characteristically outspoken. ‘You have turned up not because of me, but because of what is happening in Malaysia,’ he told his audience, mostly Malaysian students. ‘The abuse of power is unprecedented.’
The former premier plunged with alacrity into the issue that has preoccupied Malaysian politics for over a year, the scandal surrounding the state development fund 1MDB, set up by Najib. Eyebrows were first raised in 2015, when the fund missed payments on some of its $11 billion in debt, but what made international headlines was the move by the United States in July this year to seize more than $1billion in assets, including luxury real estate and a private jet.
According to the US government, some $3.5 billion was ‘misappropriated’ from 1MDB, and ‘the Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale’. Though Najib was not named in legal papers, he was identifiable as ‘Malaysian Official 1’, and the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly $700 million from 1MDB could be traced to his personal bank accounts. The Malaysian PM has denied doing anything wrong, but his predecessor said in London: ‘The present PM believes cash is king, that it will get him whatever he wants.’
The main burden of Mahathir’s attack, however, was that Najib was crushing all opposition in Malaysia, including the newly-formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, of which the 91-year-old is chairman. The Prime Minister has pushed through a national security law which drastically increases the powers of his office, bringing the media, the police and the judiciary under his control, according to Mahathir. ‘You can be arrested without warrant or charge, and there is no investigation of deaths in custody,’ he said. ‘People fear being “disappeared”… [They] feel scared and helpless.’
A questioner pointed out that Mahathir had been accused of many of the same things during his 22 years in power, from 1981 to 2003. As the New York Times crisply put it in a recent report, he ‘detained opponents, fired top judges, controlled the news media, clipped the power of Malay royalty, fired one deputy and pushed another to resign’. In London the old authoritarian denied ‘interfering’ with the judiciary or exceeding his powers, adding: ‘Did I steal money? My two successors investigated me and couldn’t find a thing.’
It is true that Mahathir has never been implicated in corruption, but vengefulness is another matter, as his former deputy and anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim, can testify. He and Mahathir fell out spectacularly, both over how Malaysia should handle the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and over Anwar’s opposition to ‘cronyism’ in the governing UMNO party, which has dominated Malaysian politics since independence in 1957. Probably correctly, Mahathir saw this as not just a thirst for reform, but an attempt to move him aside. His deputy swiftly found himself not only out of office, but in jail.
Though the charges of sodomy and corruption against Anwar were widely condemned as political, he was not freed until 2004, when he promptly became the focus of opposition to the ruling coalition. In 2008 he returned to Parliament in a by-election as official opposition leader, but Mahathir’s successors feel equally threatened by Anwar, the most charismatic politician in Malaysia, and he is now back in jail on fresh sodomy charges.
The beleaguered opposition leader has a new ally, however: Mahathir Mohamad. Though Anwar’s sentence runs until 2020, in September he was briefly allowed out of jail for a court appearance, and who should appear at the court building but his old nemesis. In their first meeting for 18 years, the two talked cordially for half an hour, signalling their joint desire to topple Najib. Mahathir has also joined forces with Lim Kit Siang, the veteran leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), whom he once had detained when Prime Minister.
Apart from their joint desire to see the back of the current Prime Minister, however, the opposition is united on little else. Mahathir disappointed much of his London audience when he told them that full membership of his Bersatu party would be open only to the Malay majority, perpetuating the race-based politics that have characterised Malaysia since independence.
Positive discrimination has been enjoyed by bumiputeras (sons of the soil) since 1969, when Malays, who form two thirds of the population, rioted in resentment at the greater wealth of the Chinese and Indian minorities, roughly a quarter and 7 per cent of the population respectively. With UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation) cast as the protector of Malays, its hold on power has been virtually unassailable. Whoever leads the party has automatically become Prime Minister, six times in succession, making internal UMNO elections as important as general elections. Which is why Najib has seen to it that the next UMNO polls, which should have been held by the end of this year, have been postponed to late 2018, after the next general election.
By making his party what one critic called ‘a photocopy of UMNO’, Mahathir is hoping to reassure Malay voters. But the DAP and Anwar’s Keadilan (People’s Justice) party both advocate reform of the bumiputera system, and an increasing proportion of voters agree that it has bred complacency, nepotism and corruption. In 2008 the UMNO-led coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), lost its two-thirds majority for the first time, bringing the resignation of Abdullah Badawi, Najib’s predecessor; in 2013 the opposition coalition actually won more votes than BN, but 44 fewer seats, prompting allegations of vote-rigging.
In his time, Mahathir brooked no opposition as he sought to transform Malaysia from a sleepy producer of tin, palm oil and rubber into a rapidly-industrialising nation. According to the World Bank, real GDP growth per head has averaged more than 3.6 per cent since 1980, rising to $11,700 in 2013. Two thirds of the country’s exports are manufactured goods, roughly half consisting of semiconductors and other electronic and electrical goods. The ultimate symbol of Malaysia’s progress was the production of its own car, the Proton, which was exported to Britain and other developed nations.
But the Proton enterprise, of which Mahathir became chairman after leaving office, now illustrates how the former Prime Minister’s Vision 2020 – a programme to make Malaysia a fully developed nation by the end of this decade – has stalled. Once the car maker had 50 per cent of its home market. Now it is 15 per cent, and overseas sales have all but dried up. An export-dependent economy is suffering as the effects of the 2007-08 financial crisis linger on, and major customers, notably China, lose momentum.
It is not just external factors that have kept Malaysia in the middle-income bracket, preventing it from making the leap to a modern, knowledge-based economy. Prime Minister Najib himself has acknowledged major shortcomings in the country’s education system, for example. But the authoritarian political system is increasingly coming to be seen as one of the most important obstacles, even by Mahathir.
At London University the former premier said that the country needed outside help to unseat Najib, and the ramifications of the 1MDB scandal could force UMNO to act. Apart from the legal action in the US, Singapore has ordered a Swiss merchant bank to close and fined two other banks for breaches of anti-money laundering controls, connected to 1MDB. Switzerland is also pursuing criminal charges.
Whether or not Najib is pushed out, however, the situation is replete with irony. When he was Prime Minister, Mahathir railed against foreign ‘interference’; now he is courting it. And if his successor manages to cling on, it will be in no small part due to the precedent Mahathir set in gathering ever more power to himself.