Former Malaysian prime ministers Mahathir Mohammad and Najib Razak hate each other so much that it is almost impossible for them to reconcile. Mahathir unseated Najib from his PM seat in May 2018 and aggressively campaigned for Najib’s imprisonment for corruption. But Najib will likely kiss the 94-year-old politician’s hand when they cross paths and thank his former political mentor for becoming his savior.
Whatever the verdict on Monday, Najib may feel relieved knowing that the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party he once led, is growing stronger and looks set to regain the power it lost in 2018 — ironically thanks to the squabbling within the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which ended the UMNO-led ruling coalition’s 60-year stranglehold of Malaysian politics.
A survey by Emir Research think tank found last week that 52 percent of respondents would support UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), while 30 percent chose PH and 18 percent were undecided if a snap election was held.
In fact, UMNO has been clawing its way back to power ever since the fragile PH government under Mahathir collapsed in February and Yang Dipertuan Agong appointed Muhyiddin Yassin of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party to replace Mahathir as prime minister. Muhyiddin, who was sacked by UMNO four years ago, named seven UMNO politicians his ministers
For Najib, a fan of Motown music genre and Bruno Mars, the High Court’s verdict will appear as a legal technicality. Life can be much easier for Najib, even if he has to serve a long prison sentence, as long as Mahathir and Anwar cannot come to terms and UMNO restores its past glory.
Leaders of other ASEAN member states can take a lesson from how Malaysian realpolitik unfolds. In Indonesia the New Order has formally been gone, but its influence remains and perhaps has hijacked the reformasi movement.
Mahathir, a prime minister for 22 years until 2003, became an inspiration for many elderly politicians in Indonesia to cling on or fight for power when he lead the movement to oust Najib and send him to justice. But it is Mahathir’s inability to control his political greed and ego that has effectively killed reformasi (reform) in Malaysia.
Najib is facing 40 charges related to the US$4.5 billion corruption scandal involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The case has also dragged his wife Rosmah Mansor and his step son Riza Aziz into the mess. Rosmah, an Hermes bag lover, is reportedly facing 17 charges of money laundering and tax evasion, while Riza is facing five money laundering charges to the tune of $248 million.
When the new coalition that included Najib's scandal-plagued party seized power in February, many started to raise concerns that the change of power could impact Najib's trial. In fact, charges against Riza were dropped in May after he agreed to return $107 million in overseas assets to Malaysia. A month later, corruption and money-laundering charges against a key Najib ally, Musa Aman, were also dropped.
Hopes for sweeping reforms in Malaysia only lasted less than two years. On May 9, 2018, the multi-racial opposition coalition beat the ruling UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition. At that time, people were so enraged by the 1MDB scandal that the Malays, first-class citizens according to the Constitution, put their suspicions and distrust of non-Muslims and non-Malay compatriots behind them to punish the ruling government.
After becoming PM again, Mahathir repeatedly said he would let Anwar realize his long-time quest for the prime ministerial post in two years. It was later clear that Mahathir had lied, as he intended to maintain his grip as long as possible. It was this greed for power that triggered internal conflicts in the government. UMNO genially manipulated the government’s problems and told the Malays they would soon be demoted to second-class citizens, as the Chinese and Indians have started to steadily control the government as well as the economy.
When asked by Asia Times on why he distrusted Anwar, Mahathir replied: “It’s not about distrust. It’s about getting the support of the people. While Anwar used to be very popular, now he has lost quite a bit of the support. I believe these people will not support an attempt to make a comeback […] if he is designated as prime minister.”
The Star columnist Joceline Tan wrote in her column last month about how Mahathir still behaved “like the boss and exuding confidence as though he is just a few more inches or, should we say, a few more MPs [members of parliament] from reclaiming the job he chucked away three months ago”.
After assuming power, Muhyyidin, Najib’s former ally, used COVID-19 as a pretext and did not allow the parliament to convene to consolidate his power.
Anwar has definitely lost his patience with Mahathir, his former mentor and foe. Anwar has refused to meet with Mahathir. There is a running joke about Mahathir’s attitude toward Anwar, who was convicted twice for sodomy. “Why was Mahathir so jealous of Anwar?”
With the Mahathir-Anwar personal feud intensifying, PM Muhyiddin won a nonconfidence vote on July 13 to sack the Lower House speaker by two votes. It is game over for Mahathir — but also for the country’s political and economic reforms.
Muhyiddin may call for a snap election to ensure his government’s stability. Najib will pray for Mahathir to remain strong in his fight against Anwar, as it will keep him safe, albeit at the cost of the nation.
Senior editor at The Jakarta Post