Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is reasserting the power of the federal government as well as the prime minister’s office as he prepares to use his final opportunity to shape Malaysia’s political and economic future, according to sources in the Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”) coalition that brought the uncompromising leader back to power.
Mr. Mohamad is most lethal when inter-party and inter-coalition infighting distracts his rivals, they said, pointing out that the 93-year-old politician is becoming increasingly discrete about when he will hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim.
Mr. Ibrahim received a royal pardon for his second conviction on sodomy charges the day after Mr. Mohamad regained power. That conviction – like the one Mr. Ibrahim received in 1999 – was widely seen as an attempt to clip the wings of a charismatic politician who was once (and supposedly is now) Mr. Mohamad’s heir apparent.
Although Mr. Mohamad’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BBPM) won less than a fifth of the seats as its main coalition partner, Mr. Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), in last year’s election, the BBPM has been expanding thanks to defections from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the main party in the opposition coalition.
Mr. Ibrahim, meanwhile, is losing control of the PKR as well as the support of his wife, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, according to sources close to Mr. Ibrahim.
Mrs. Wan Azizah – who began her political career as a proxy for her then-jailed husband – will no longer allow him to live at their home, the sources said. Many other senior members of his Mr. Ibrahim’s party – including ministers – have shifted their allegiance to Mr. Mohamad.
Mr. Ibrahim is attempting to force Mr. Mahathir to affirm that he is his successor, but the reality is that he is struggling to remain relevant. In early May, Mr. Ibrahim claimed that Mr. Mahathir had signed a “contract” pledging to hand over power to him within two years of the election their coalition won. Mr. Mahathir, however, has been consistently vague on this issue. Prior to the election he repeatedly stated that he would be a “temporary” prime minister. Now, he is saying he will make way for Mr. Ibrahim after ridding the government of corruption and only with the people’s consent.
An MP close to Mr. Ibrahim told Access Asia that Mr. Ibrahim is pushing Mr. Mahathir to detail an official succession timetable “as soon as possible,” but that scenario is increasingly unlikely as the prime minister’s power increases within the coalition. Moreover, it would be out of character for Mr. Mahathir.
On paper, one other party in the four-party coalition – the ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), which has 42 seats in the 222-seat Lower House – should hold the balance of power between the BBPM and PKR. However, despite being the second-largest party in Parliament, the opposition is attempting to use the DAP to whip up atavistic fears among ethnic-Malay citizens that ethnic-Chinese Malaysians are attempting to control the country’s politics.
Like his wife, Mr. Ibrahim’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, is distancing herself from him; she resigned from her role as PKR vice president last December. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Mrs. Nurul Issah is also publicly critical of Mr. Mohamad’s administration. Although she has pledged not to run in the next national election, she has given no explanation for this decision. This has fuelled speculation. Coalition members questioning who she is most fed up with: Mr. Mohamad or her father? Behind this question coalition members are also asking how long their 93-year-old leader can hang on.
They were buoyed, however, by the 11 May by-election in Borneo’s Sandakan. Although turnout was a mere 54%, coalition member DAP retained its seat with four times as many votes as the candidate from the UMNO-backed party, the United Sabah Party. This followed the ruling coalition’s loss of three successive by-elections. Although UMNO regained ground on peninsular Malaysia, its appeal in East Borneo has been diminished. (Most MPs representing constituencies in Borneo have distanced themselves from UMNO. They are primarily focused on state-level politics but remain conscious of their ability to shift the balance of power between competing coalitions at the federal level.)
Gauging the National Mood
The Pakatan Harapan government and Mr. Mohamad have both seen their approval fall since the 9 May 2018 election, according to voters’ sentiment surveys conducted by the independent Merdeka Center. The ruling coalition’s approval fell to 39% in March from 79% in June of last year, according to the center’s latest survey. Only 46% of the 1, 204 voters polled expressed approval for Mr. Mohamad, down from 83% in June of last year. The survey also found that post-election optimism has dissipated. Almost half of those surveyed, 46%, said Malaysia is heading in the wrong direction. Just one-third, 34%, said the opposite. In June of last year, 64% of respondents said Malaysia was moving in the right direction.
Members of the opposition are claiming that the declining popularity of the new government reflects the ethnic-Malay majority’s fear that their culture and religion has been under threat since Barisan Nasional lost power. They drew tens of thousands of ethnic-Malay citizens to an 8 December 2018 rally in Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka (“Independence”) Square to express opposition to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The Merdeka Center, however, found that economic anxiety, specifically inflation, is the number one concern among voters. The center’s March survey found that 54% of respondents are most worried about the economy, while just 23% are most concerned about the “Preservation of Malay rights [and the] Fair treatment of all races.” This data suggests that an uptick in the economy or an expansion of social welfare assistance could increase ethnic-Malay support for the government. In the last election they favoured the Barisan Nasional.
Still, soothing the anxiety of ethnic ethnic-Malay citizens will not be easy. As the protest over the UN anti-racism convention underscored, ethnicity has very localized, and extremely volatile, meanings in Malaysia. For the ethnic-Malay majority, ethnicity is also near-synonymous with Islam. The Merdeka Center survey found that 93% of ethnic-Malay respondents support a new law to ban hate speech or insults against any religion. Legal remedies, however, already exist. A Facebook user was sentenced to 10 years in prison in early March over posts deemed insulting to Islam. Moreover, in early March the Islamic Affairs Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs set up a unit to monitor communications, including social media, for perceived insults against Islam. The move has been widely regarded as a pragmatic step by Mr. Mohamad to pre-empt opposition charges that his government will fail to safeguard ethnic-Malay “rights.”
UNMO is Still Fumbling
UMNO celebrated its 73rd anniversary on 15 May under the leadership of an acting president from a small state, Mohamad Hasan, a diminished number of MPs, and the fallout from the 1MDB scandal still enveloping it. Acting president Mohamad called on UNMO party leaders to focus on the future and stop lamenting their first loss at the ballot box. However, it will take more than a pep talk to revive the party.
Its only MP from Borneo, Bung Moktar, is on trial for corruption – along with his wife. Its previous leader, former-prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, is also on trial along with his wife. Mr. Najib is a liability. UNMO party members say their strategy is to distance the party from him without publicly criticising him. It is not working.
Mr. Najib will not retreat quietly. His visit to Sandakan ahead of the by-election has been cited as the reason UMNO’s partner lost the by-election there. Moreover, his attempts to critique the new government were so unsuccessful that Prime Minister Mohamad swatted him away with a nickname: “King of Trolls.”
Mr. Najib did not run in UNMO’s leadership election last June, allowing his deputy, Mohd Zahid Hamidi, to be voted in as the party’s new leader. Mr. Mohd subsequently resigned the post to focus on his corruption trial.
National – and international – attention will focus on Mr. Najib’s corruption case, as the trial(s) near. His defence team is clutching at straws. They continue to argue that he was an unsuspecting victim of a conspiracy. Sources close to the prosecution are not surprised. They say there is so much evidence that Mr. Najib cannot deny massive financial crimes occurred under his watch. His former associate Low Taek Jho (Jo Low) – who is accused of being the mastermind of the alleged scam – is wanted by police in three countries and is believed to be in China. Mr. Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, also faces trial, while police say they have found jewellery and other luxury goods purchased by Mr. Low at residences owned by Mr. Najib.
For now Malaysian headlines about the 1MDB scandal and its related corruption trials focus on the sovereign wealth fund, Mr. Najib and his wife. Goldman Sachs is named in the scandal, primarily as part of the government’s efforts to “recover” funds. Malaysians who follow the scandal closely are aware that Goldman Sachs’s services were used, but the financial complexity of the transactions is impenetrable to many. It is also overshadowed by sensational media reports of lavish lifestyles, seized jewellery, condominiums in New York, paintings and yachts. Most people are aware of two consequences of the alleged crimes: 1) the government has incurred debts due to financial wrongdoing; and 2) the government faces financial constraints due to depleted funding.
UMNO’s strategy of attempting to enflame the anxiety of ethnic-Malay voters appears to be failing. It has either become stale or its source is no longer trusted. Micro conflicts, like the clash between Prime Minister Mohamad and the royal house of Johor, could supply UMNO with some ammunition to continue attacking the government, but Mr. Mohamad is himself an expert in attacks. Following the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, he launched a blistering assault on global finance, the International Monetary Fund and George Soros (who he accused of shorting currencies in Southeast Asia). Sources in his party say he is aware that the IMDB scandal provides him with plenty of ammunition for a repeat performance, if necessary.
For now, the prime minister is keen to present his government as one that is focused on the economy, especially complaints about low wages, the rising cost of living and the lack of good jobs. Commitments to build the East Coast rail-line and expand the MRT are expected to improve the economic outlook and boost business confidence in the short term. In the mid-term, the government expects that a rebound in consumer confidence will shore up trust in its economic stewardship.
At the same time, security forces are closely monitoring the country for ISIS, including interrogating repatriated Malaysian nationals who travelled to Syria to fight for the terrorist organization. Security sources say they have seen no indication that Malaysia is anything but a “low target” for ISIS. The country is a recruiting ground for the organization, but Malaysian Muslims, in general, do not want the organization operating in their country. They point to recent arrests of terror suspects in Sarawak, noting that there was no sympathy for the nine men arrested. Malaysian Muslims are more concerned about what is happening in their country than events beyond their borders.