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Malaysian Sandiwara: Who is the Dalang?


The shock resignation of Mahathir Mohamed from the Prime Ministership, from his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (United Malaysian Indigenous Party — PPBM or Bersatu) and its withdrawal from the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) last month, have plunged Malaysia into serious political instability and uncertainty at a time when the country is facing one of the worst crises from the outbreak of Corona-virus, a scourge that has affected practically the entire world and has caught everyone off-guard. This is a time when the country needs a government, which has the legitimacy and support from all sections of its multi-racial society, the kind of support the PH received in the 14th General Election in May 2018. Instead what the country has now is a back-door government, term used by Malaysian scholars and political publics ushered in through intrigues and manipulations. Mahathir’s decision follows a weekend of political wrangling, after it was reported on the night before his resignation on 24th February 2020 that his party was planning to form a new government that would exclude his anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. That night, allies of Mahathir, some renegade members of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), and a slew of other Parliament members, including those from the opposition, UMNO, held talks in the outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The meeting fuelled speculation of an impending collapse of the coalition government, and a political realignment in Malaysia. According to reports, the proposed new government included Mahathir’s party, PPBM, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — the party of scandal-tainted ex-leader Najib Razak, which was ousted at the 2018 polls — and a hard-line Islamist party called Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS). The sequence of events, from the date of Mahathir’s resignation for a week until the country’s Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the King, through his Majesty’s exercise of his constitutional duties appointed Muhyiddin as the new Prime Minister, was quite rapid, signifying alignments and realignments in the typical Malay-style of Sandiwara.

Mahathir – the Dalang

The murky Sandiwara (contrived drama) that has been going on since the third week of February and behind the scene even earlier, the Dalang (Puppeteer in Malay shadow puppet plays), evident from the circumstances had always been Mahathir Mohamad, orchestrating or manipulating the narration of the story, even though he is pretending himself to be a Korban (victim) in a larger komplotan (conspiracy) by Muhyiddin, the new Prime Minister with the help of the discredited opposition Malay nationalist party UMNO  and Islamist party PAS. The 94 year old wily Malaysian Machiavelli, played his cards in a manner as not to appear as someone to be blamed for the betrayal of the peoples’ verdict in the XIV national elections of 2018, but could portray it as a conspiracy by Muhyiddin, the new Prime Minister from his own party Bersatu and Mahathir’s former Home Minister and Azmin Ali, Anwar Ibrahim’s putative deputy from the Parti Keadilan Rayat (PKR – People’s Justice Party). Azmin Ali, it was suggested, schemed to derail the original plan to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim and have Mahathir join the opposition coalition and side-line Anwar and Pakatan Harapan (PH) — a coalition of Mahathir’s own party, PPBM, Democratic Action Party (DAP), PKR, Parti Amanah Negara (National Trust Party, an Islamic party that split from PAS), and some smaller parties from Sabah and Sarawak, that was voted to power in 2018. That resulted in Mahathir’s unexpected resignation as Prime Minister as well as leader of his party. Undoubtedly, Azmin had his own motives to act against Anwar for capturing the leadership of PKR, but knowing wily Mahathir, it is inconceivable that he would allow himself to be used by Azmin to create such a situation and not alert others.

Mahathir, it is believed by many Malaysian analysts, had set the stage ready from the very beginning and his game plan was to cling on to power as long as he could and deprive Anwar Ibrahim to whom he was promised-bound to transfer power within two years as per the electoral arrangements behind the formation of the PH, where the two erstwhile enemies united to throw out the corruption-ridden UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (National Front Coalition) that has ruled the country for six decades in a surprise victory leading to the removal of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak. But tensions had been growing between the two in their PH coalition, as Mahathir resisted setting a specific timetable for keeping his promise to hand power to Anwar. Additionally, PH’s political fortunes have also been waning, with defeat in five recent by-elections, as the promises of fundamental reforms in the political system of the country failed to materialize. At the same time there were also some realignment of the country’s dominant Malay community who began to be apprehensive that their ‘Ketuanan Melayu,’ (Malay special privileges- a discriminatory provision that has helped the Bumiputra Malays to enjoy all the benefits and patronage of the state affecting the quality of governance and depriving the country of its own internal talents) vis-à-vis the two other ethnic communities, the Chinese and the Indians, would disappear if the PH continued to rule the country. Mahathir, being a true Malay in his political orientation, but not in ancestry from a Kerala Muslim father, sensed danger in the event of Anwar, believed to be a reformist, becoming his successor.

Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy when the latter was Prime Minister during his first stint from 1981 to 2003. But Mahathir sacked him in 1998 after they disagreed on how to handle the country’s financial crisis. The tussle between old rivals Mahathir, 94, and Anwar, 72, has shaped Malaysian politics since then, with tensions persisting despite their 2018 alliance to win the elections based on a promise that Mahathir would one day cede power to Anwar. Anwar also had a split with his party mate, Mohamed Azmin Ali, the economic affairs minister, who was among those who joined the meeting on Sunday night. On Monday, Anwar’s PKR announced the expulsion of Azmin as a member leading to Azmin’s announcement that he had quit Anwar’s party, taking with him 10 renegade members of PKR, which until Monday was the dominant partner of the ruling coalition. Mahathir himself feared that if Anwar came into power, those apprehensions might come true.

There are different versions emerging out from commentaries by Malaysian scholars, analysts, facebook posts and Tweeters regarding developments and factors leading to such a crisis throwing the country into a spin. “If you look at events over the last 20 months,” writes a Malaysian commentator, “it is clear that Mahathir bears much of the blame for the present crisis. Given the goodwill the Malaysian electorate had for the Pakatan, Mahathir could have built a strong, stable and workable coalition after GE14. His was the most multiracial coalition that was ever elected to office in Malaysia. There was general consensus too about the kind of policies that should be pursued (the reform agenda),” in order to build a Malaysia Baru (New Malaysia) and a Malaysia for All Malaysians. But obviously Mahathir had other ideas, given his past record of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state with a parallel massive Islamic bureaucracy to promote Islamic agenda at the expense of other racial communities, the Chinese and the Indians. He betrayed the very Coalition (PH) that endorsed him as PM to pursue the reform agenda, and on the understanding that he hands over power to Anwar after 2 years. He failed to keep his part of the bargain.

Mahathir sets the Stage: Plays the Race and Religious card

From the very beginning of his second term after he came back from his retirement Mahathir played the Race and Religious card (2R) to keep going in a desperate and futile attempt to cling to power. Paying no heed to the respective parliamentary strengths of his coalition partners, for example, he appointed a Cabinet dominated by his own party, tiny as it was. Then he brought Mohamed Azmin Ali into the Cabinet despite opposition from Anwar and knowing that there was already a lot of bad blood between the two. “Over the following months, he went out of his way to build Azmin up, gave him a significant national profile, protected him from scandal and quietly acquiesced in his Brutus-like role. He could have put Anwar (who was elected Member of Parliament in a bi-election in Port Dickson in October 2018) in his place at any time but he didn’t,” to quote the same commentator. To strengthen his position vis-à-vis two other coalition partners, PKR and the Chinese-dominated DAP, who had larger numbers in the coalition than Mahathir’s party, he started to openly lure individual UMNO MPs to join his party. He was successful in getting a few only, as UMNO got greedy and started making unrealistic demands, including the appointment of corrupt leaders like Zahid Hamidi and Tengku Adnan as senior ministers in the new government. Mahathir disagreed and abandoned the plan. As he could not succeed in reshaping UMNO to his advantage, he began to explore creating a Malay unity government without political party allegiances, for a unity government cutting across party lines could give Mahathir even greater power than when he was first Malaysia’s prime minister between 1981 and 2003. But that was obviously not acceptable to the warlords of UMNO, and therefore the idea was rejected on 25th February, the day after his resignation, by an alliance of four parties UMNO, MCA, MIC and PAS, which wanted a new election instead.

Muhyiddin, the proxy steps in to form the Back Door Government

Given his declining popularity due to his failure to initiate proposed reforms and transfer power to Anwar, Mahathir could not afford to give in to UMNO’s demand, as he was not sure of receiving the mandate again. Having failed to create a government of his liking, Mahathir contrived to get the nearest thing, a government that may not have him at the helm, but could still exercise some influence on its functioning from behind. In the meantime, in an attempt to end the crisis, the King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah — incidentally, the third “R” (Royalty) in this equation — was already meeting all 222 elected members of parliament. Anwar made a last bid attempt to present himself as the PM with support from Pakatan Harapan, where the PKR still had 39 seats, after 11 renegade party members left the party. His alliance partners (DAP and Amanah) had pledged a further 63 votes, giving him at least 92. He still needed to convince smaller parties to align with him to achieve a majority. A majority in parliament requires at least 112 seats of the 222-seat parliament. That was when Muhyiddin and Azmin Ali stepped into the scene, cobbled together a coalition with UMNO and PAS, the two main Malay political parties, called the Perikatan Nasional, (National Alliance), some form of a national unity government that Mahathir wanted, but without himself being the PM. Even though Mahathir publicly called Muhyiddin a betrayer and traitor, some Malaysian analysts believe that the latter must have had the blessings of the former, for this was the best that he could bargain for under the circumstances, perhaps with an assurance from Muhyiddin and pressuring  the leadership of Bersatu not to appoint any tainted and corrupt leaders from the previous Barisan Nasional regime as the deputy prime minister, obviously referring to UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who has been slapped with record 87 criminal charges

The PPBM-sponsored Malay Dignity Congress last October was the first indication and a precursor of Mahathir’s attempt to bring together UMNO, PAS and PPBM. Unsurprisingly Anwar was not invited to that gathering. From the reports, it appears that Mahathir himself laid out in that gathering the need for greater Malay unity by hinting that their disunity resulted in the loss of Cabinet posts, including that of finance minister, to the DAP. Mahathir began to ramp up a narrative that the Malays were weak, that Islam was under threat, and that the Chinese-led DAP was controlling the government, harping on the need for the Malays to be united (under his leadership, of course) to stave off the rising DAP (i.e. Chinese) challenge to Malay rule. Mahathir’s chicanery behind the back of his larger coalition partners had actually set the stage for the current drama. “Mahathir lost the plot when he participated in the so-called Malay Dignity Congress in early October 2019. He forgot that he was Prime Minster for all Malaysians. It is mind boggling that one tries to claim or reclaim dignity by organizing a meeting and insulting the other two communities who contributed immensely to the country’s development,” said a respected senior Malaysian university professor.

Mahathir’s Legacy

“Had Mahathir been satisfied with only getting rid of Najib Razak in the May 2018 elections and not ‘volunteered” himself to be Malaysia’s seventh Prime Minister, his stocks would have soared and remained “in the stratosphere”. To quote another Malaysian analyst, “He would have been anointed a national hero for having saved Malaysia. Malaysians would also have overlooked if not forgiven him for his role in Najib’s rapid ascent and rapacious greed. Najib was but Mahathir’s political child, his ugly legacy. Najib’s 1MDB mess, together with his unprecedented greed and obscene ostentation, is but a variation on the theme of Mahathir’s many earlier sordid scandals.” Mahathir had already damaged his international reputation by the forays he thus far has launched against the UN, US, India, China, Israel Myanmar, and Singapore. The writer further noted: “Today, barely over a month into his much ballyhooed Vision 2020 dateline when Malaysia should have been celebrating her entry into the elite club of developed nations, Mahathir has thrown the country into an unwanted, unneeded, and very destabilizing political crisis. It was typical Third World variety leadership tussle.”

Composition of Muhyiddin Government

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has postponed the start of the parliamentary session originally scheduled for March 9 by two months, after his rivals claimed to have more support and threatened his fledgling coalition with a confidence vote.  Muhyiddin, who has at long last escaped being a No. 2, has named no deputy prime minister, a first in Malaysia’s political history. The roles of that position are instead being shared by four senior ministers: those for international trade and industry, defense, public works and education. “The new cabinet was designed in such a way to ensure the survivability of not only Prime Minister Muhyiddin, but crucially the continuous existence of Bersatu (if they failed to take over UMNO) ‘after’ the next 15th General Election. And if you look at the position of the chess pieces, some hidden hands had helped Muhyiddin in the entire architecture,” writes an anonymous Malaysian commentator. Mahathir together with Daim Zainuddin, the former’s one time Finance Minister and a close confidant, plus some advisors were behind the whole drama in dislodging PH and installing puppet Muhyiddin. He also declared that the much anticipated vote of confidence will most likely fail and Muhyiddin will survive until the 15th General Election, as if he was giving his seal of approval for the prime minister. Thereafter, Muhyiddin publicly asked Mahathir for endorsement.

 “It has been just a blockbuster movie to hoodwink the voters, whether they were Chinese, Malay or Indians, to a grand scheme to install the desired dynasty on the throne. And based on the chess pieces on the table, Anwar Ibrahim, Najib Razak, Hishammuddin Hussein, Tengku Razaleigh and Khairy Jamaluddin (all potential rivals and Malay strong men) are out of the game, writes the same commentator. Hishammuddin Hussein, the son of Malaysia’s 3rd Prime Minister, Hussein Onn, arguably one of the smartest UMNO warlords, was appointed as Foreign Minister, a relatively unimportant position in Malaysia’s government hierarchy. So is the case of Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of former PM Abdullah Badawi, who was appointed as Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, clearly an irrelevant and useless ministry. In the 32-member Cabinet formed by Muhyiddin, UMNO only got 9 ministers, despite the party being the largest in the newly formed backdoor government. UMNO Secretary-General Annuar Musa was appointed the Federal Territories Minister. Other portfolios allocated to UMNO include the Higher Education Ministry, Energy and Natural Resources, Health, National Unity and Youth and Sports. Besides Senior Minister Ismail Sabri’s portfolio of Defence Ministry, UMNO was given mostly junk ministries.

Ministries like the Women’s Ministry, Home Ministry, Finance Ministry, Rural Development and Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Ministry, all of which are either strategic or important ministries with huge annual budget allocations, are all in the hands of Muhyiddin’s own men, some of whom are related to him.. Either in quality or quantity of ministry allocations, UMNO has been short-changed. Even after Azmin Ali and his supporters (11 MPs) joined Bersatu, Muhyiddin’s party has only 30 MPs. In comparison UMNO-led Barisan Nasional contributed 42 MPs (UMNO’s 39, MCA’s 2 and MIC’s 1). Other component parties of the Perikatan Nasional coalition consist of Islamist party PAS (18 MPs) and Sarawak-based GPS (18 MPs). So UMNO has 30% more MPs than Bersatu. Muhyiddin’s Bersatu has 11 ministers, 20% more than UMNO. Bersatu occupies two of the four Senior Ministers. Azmin Ali, was given International Trade and Industry Ministry while Mohd Radzi Md Jidin (Bersatu supreme council member) was allocated the Education Ministry. Bersatu not only greedily grabbed 2 of 4 Senior Minister posts, PM Muhyiddin has announced that while the four senior ministers he appointed are all “equal”, Azmin Ali will chair Cabinet meetings whenever he is absent. That message was as good as telling UMNO and PAS that the de-facto Deputy PM is Azmin. Even though there are no immediate rumblings within UMNO, or for that matter within PAS, whose President Hadi Awang was also expecting the No. 2 position, i.e., Deputy PM’s position. Undoubtedly disappointments do exist and they might come out in the open any moment and vitiate the political scene any moment sooner or later. Most recently, on 2nd April 2020,  Muhyiddin appointed PAS president, Abdul Hadi Awang as his Special Envoy (with ministerial status) to the Middle East. One wonders what his “special function” is other than “to sell ice to the Eskimo”, as remarked by a Malaysian political analyst.

Challenges before Muhyiddin’s government

More importantly, Muhyiddin has taken over a rather a weak and unstable government at a time when the global economy is at the mercy of Coronavirus. As of 13 April 2020, there are already 4,817 confirmed Covid-19 cases 77 deaths. The numbers will increase as the day passes, putting huge pressure on the government to deal with such a pandemic. Its economic consequences are yet to be assessed. Malaysia’s richest tycoons have already lost an estimated RM30.93 billion since the start of this year, based on their known shareholdings in Bursa Malaysia-listed firms, as pandemic-driven panic selling across global markets sparked an equity rout that has yet to see an end. Muhyiddin also commands a razor-thin 114-majority in a 222-seat Parliament.

Muhyiddin’s Cabinet composition of predominantly Bumiputera (Malay) lawmakers with a poor local ethnic representation, paired with its sheer size (32 ministers and 38 deputies), could cause political and policymaking challenges for his administration in the future. Dissatisfaction could arise among minority ethnic groups if Muhyiddin’s already Malay-majority Cabinet decides to adopt non-inclusive policies. Only 8.6 per cent or six portfolios from the Cabinet were given to those from minority groups, with only two full ministers, namely  Wee Ka Siong (MCA) named transport minister and  M. Saravanan (MIC) as human resources minister, in a country of 60 per cent Bumiputeras (Malays and other indigenous races), 21 per cent Chinese and 6 per cent Indians. This as a source of further dissatisfaction for minorities over the coming quarters. The makeup of Muhyiddin’s Cabinet of mostly Malays would however play into his hands to keep allies united and remain behind him, but its sheer size would pose a challenge during the decision-making process. Muhyiddin could face issues of inter- and intra- party politicking, especially given the fact that his party (Bersatu) are minor players in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition with 30 MPs compared to Umno’s 39 MPs.

Significantly, Muhyiddin has only 3 years before the 15th General Election to prove that his government is better than his predecessor Najib’s and Mahathir’s. Therefore, the demands on him will be much greater in such difficult conditions, and he needs to act quickly to prove that his government is legitimate and stable. He cannot forever run away from facing a confidence vote in the House of Representatives. Malaysia is in for uncertainty for the long haul.

Impact of Mahathir’s resignation on India

Mahathir’s resignation came as a good news to India. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September last year, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir had called Jammu and Kashmir a separate country that according to him was invaded and occupied after India decided to abrogate Article 370 and bringing the state of Jammu and Kashmir directly under the control of the Central administration. In any case, Mahathir’s statement did not receive any support from the international community, except from a Jihadi state, Pakistan; a neo-converter to Jihad, Turkey; and the World’s greatest violator of norms and a rule-based international order, China. Notwithstanding the ranting of an old obsolete man oblivious of the current reality, his statement on Kashmir and subsequently his criticism of the CAA had a very negative effect on its relations with India when under his predecessor, Najib Razak, had witnessed significant progress in relations both politically and economically. Maritime interactions and counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries were increasing significantly following visits by former Prime Minister and his officials. Trade between the two countries also jumped significantly in the last few years reaching to US$20 billion, a target supposed to be reached in 2020 but already achieved in 2018. Malaysia’s exports to India were worth $10.8 billion in the fiscal year through March 31, while imports totalled $6.4 billion, according to Indian government data. All that bonhomie of the last few years has fallen apart due to Mahathir’s acerbic statement. The tension had also affected palm oil trade between the two countries, with Malaysia worried it might lose the market to Indonesia, world’s largest producer of Palm oil. Even under such a scenario, Mahathir had refused to retract his statement, though other ministers in their attempt to control the damage, agreed to buy more sugar from India in return for New Delhi continuing with the imports of palm oil. Now under Muhyiddin relations between the two countries will surely will surely witness a turn around. Early signs of that is evident from the Reuter’s report, quoted in Times of India, dated 16 April 2020 that India has agreed to sell hydroxychloroquine tablets, much sought after by countries all over the world, including the United States, to Malaysia for use in the treatment of Covid-19 patients. As per the Reuters report, Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Kamaluddin Jafar had announced that on 14 April India has given permission to Malaysia to import 89,100 tablets, “We will try to get more hydroxychloroquine tablets from India, which is also subject to stock availability,” said the Malaysian Minister. It seems Malaysia has been using hydroxychloroquine for mild to severe Covid-19 cases along with other drugs since January from the beginning of the outbreak of the disease. Malaysia has the third highest number of infections of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia with more than 5000 cases, 83 of which of which died. Kuala Lumpur has asked for more than 1 million HCQ tablets, but it would not be possible for New Delhi to supply that much even if it wants for its other commitments to countries in Asia and Africa. This turn around in the relations between India and Malaysia has been possible, undoubtedly, due to Mahathir’s exit from the forefront of Malaysian politics.

Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies; Former Professor and Chair in South and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

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1 Comment
  1. Kadirkammar says

    Mahathir acted as if he is a gentleman for all these years, but now only every one realise, he is a racist, religious fanatic moron

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