Allies, alliances and turncoats
Tasneem Tayeb
At 92, Mahathir Mohamad, the world’s oldest serving president, came into the limelight recently, but for all the wrong reasons. On February 22, without any prior notice, Mahathir suddenly tendered his resignation as the prime minister of the country, less than two years into his tenure. It has been reported in multiple media outlets that Mahathir has resigned because he was under pressure from his own new party Bersatu—which he formed after resigning from United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)—to allow UMNO to be a part of his political coalition Pakhtan Harapan or as its translated in English, Alliance of Hope. This was not acceptable to Mahathir and for good reasons.
Mahathir Mohamad quit UMNO in February 2016, after a long association with the party spanning decades and which empowered him to be the prime minister of Malaysia between 1981 and 2003. Why? Because Mahathir could not support the party’s backing for the actions of the then prime minister Najib Razak, who was embroiled in the 1Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal: he has been accused of embezzling RM 2.6 billion from 1MDB, a state fund.
Mahathir made sure Najib Razak was ousted from power and made accountable for his deeds. The charismatic leader formed his own party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party or (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia) in short Bersatu, along with another former UMNO party man Muhyiddin Yassin, then formed the coalition Pakhtan Harapan and won a sweeping election victory in 2018, dethroning the long reign of UMNO, which single-handedly ruled over Malaysia ever since its independence.
But to do so, Mahathir had to form an alliance of sorts with his long-time protegee-turned-rival Anwar Ibrahim, who Mahathir had ousted from office in 1998 and later was charged with and jailed. There was a catch in making the alliance though: Anwar was made Mahathir’s successor with the condition that the latter would hand over power to him in the future. And this arrangement of convenience was Mahathir’s undoing.
While Anwar joined hands with Mahathir to push Najib and UMNO out of power, he along with his sympathisers were soon wondering when Mahathir would announce the shift of power. But that day never came.
And then there were other rifts within Pakhtan Harapan—the coalition of four political parties. Mahathir was determined to implement his “New Malaysia” agenda, that surfaced so prominently in his election campaign that saw his surprising return to power.
As reported by Bloomberg, one of the major discords surfaced when Mahathir suggested Maju Group, a local Malaysian conglomerate, take over PLUS Malaysia Bhd., the highway operator of Malaysia, which was being handled by the finance ministry of the country. The idea was that Maju Group would get government contracts for road maintenance, but in return would scrap toll fees. Things, however, didn’t pan out as expected as all bids for PLUS had to be rejected in the face of growing internal opposition.
And of course, there were whispers in the grapevine about Mahathir planning to announce his son Mukhriz, the Chief Minister of Kedah, to be his successor. This resulted in increased discontent; the infighting within the coalition culminated in the betrayal of Mahathir by Muhyiddin Yassin, who welcomed UMNO into the Pakhtan Harapan coalition after Mahathir resigned as chairman of Bersatu and geared up enough support to be sworn in as the next prime minister of Malaysia.
But this move has got many worried. First of all, unlike Mahathir, Muhyiddin is known to have strong pull towards his Malay identity—according to a report by the New York Times, he once controversially labelled himself as, “‘Malay first’ and Malaysian second”.
This strong purist tendency of Muhyiddin raises questions about whether he is fit to be the leader of a nation that is so diverse in its ethnic mosaic.
Similarly, the ethnic Chinese community and other minority groups also fear the UMNO’s allies.
Then there are fears among the people about Pakhtan Harapna joining hands with UMNO, severely tainted by the corruption allegations against its leaders. According to the same report by the New York Times, this alliance of convenience has stoked fears of retribution among the reformists and whistle-blowers who had opposed and exposed Najib’s financial shenanigans.
In the face of all this, perhaps what everyone fears most is Malaysia plunging into a spiralling political chaos in the context of an already struggling economy. According to a Reuters report, “Malaysia’s economic growth slowed to the weakest in a decade in the fourth quarter of 2019” and in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, trade and investment are going to be affected, adding to the economic woes of the country.
The sustainability of this coalition of turncoats is also under question, especially because it was Najib who had ousted Muhyiddin from the previous UMNO cabinet, because the latter had raised concerns about Najib’s alleged plundering of national funds.
But in a world of intrigue and changing allegiance; a world that is driven by the lust for power, anything can happen. This new arrangement might last long. Or this can dissolve in a few months. Even Mahathir might make a strong comeback when the Malaysian parliament convenes on May 18. It was initailly scheduled to convene on March 9, 2020, but has been postponed for two months, thanks to Muhyiddin.
But Malaysia’s national interests—its growth, its diversity and its values—should not fall victim to the political machinations of power-hungry individuals.