In Malaysia’s 2018 General Election, the country’s 92-year-old former long-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad staged a remarkable political comeback to return as the country’s new Prime Minister. Dr Mahathir’s opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH, “Alliance of Hope”) confounded the expectations of political analysts and convincingly defeated Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN, “National Front”). The BN had ruled Malaysia for the “six decades since independence from Britain,” so its defeat to the fledgling PH came as a shock to many observers. As this article will show, Dr Mahathir’s election victory should be understood as being less about Mahathir and more about the Malaysian electorate’s anger with Najib and his government.
Indeed, Dr Mahathir came out from retirement specifically with the goal of removing Najib from office. As he has publicly acknowledged, he felt responsible for having placed Najib into high office in the first place: “The biggest mistake that I have made in my life is choosing Najib. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to fix this mistake so I am trying my best.” This was not just campaign rhetoric. As James Chin recounts, during his first stint as Prime Minister, Mahathir made key choices which created the conditions of possibility for the emergence of Najib Razak’s scandal-ridden tenure as Prime Minister. The key moment which triggered the subsequent events was Mahathir’s decision to politically destroy Anwar Ibrahim, whom he had hitherto been grooming to be his successor:
“Anwar was picked by Mahathir in the 1980s as one of his potential successors. With Mahathir’s backing, within a decade of joining the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Anwar became Malaysia’s deputy prime minister. When Anwar decided he could no longer wait for Mahathir to step down, he mounted a covert attempt to force Mahathir out. Mahathir struck back by sacking Anwar in 1998 and accusing him of homosexuality. Anwar was subsequently sent to prison for corruption and sodomy, a serious offence in Muslim-majority Malaysia. Mahathir went on to become Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, in power for a record 22 years. Mahathir’s power was such that Anwar was not released from prison until 2004, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister. Behind the scenes Mahathir’s political muscle remained intact — he first picked his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and then, in 2009, engineered the ousting of Badawi and the elevation of Najib Razak.”
The 1MDB Scandal
The major source of Dr Mahathir’s and the Malaysian public’s anger against Najib stems from the 1MDB scandal, involving the theft of almost USD 4.5 billion from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund. Najib was implicated in the embezzlement when “The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2015 that about $700 million in 1MDB funds flowed into his personal account. US Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuits later showed he received transfers of more than $1 billion from 1MDB.” 1MDB had been founded by Najib in 2009 with the help of Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian financier. The DOJ investigation revealed that the stolen USD 4.5 billion had been “diverted to offshore bank accounts and shell companies, many of which were linked to Low and some of his associates. The siphoned funds were allegedly used to buy luxury assets and real estate for Low and his associates.” In civil lawsuits issued by the DOJ to recover the stolen money, “a person described … as ‘Malaysian Official 1’ was said to have received more than $1 billion in 1MDB funds, some of which was used to buy jewelry for the person’s wife. US and Malaysian sources have said ‘Malaysian Official 1’ refers to Najib.”
The revelations from the DOJ about Rosmah Mansor, Najib’s wife, particularly incensed Malaysia’s political and grassroots opposition, as she was infamous for her ostentatious displays of wealth. Rosmah’s conspicuous consumption included “diamonds and Hermès bags,” and “she reportedly boasts one of the biggest Birkin collections on the planet, including a bejeweled crocodile skin design costing in excess of $200,000.” Rosmah had also reportedly “racked up at least $6 million in credit card charges in less than seven years, with shopping sprees at Saks Fifth Avenue and Harrods among her purse-busting blowouts.”
Following the subsequent wave of negative news reports and antigovernment demonstrations, the actions taken by Najib to protect his position as Prime Minister exacerbated the scandal and tainted his government. As Tom Wright and Bradley Hope recount: “Three years ago, as the attorney general prepared an arrest warrant for the prime minister in connection with the scandal, Mr. Najib fired him, along with a number of cabinet ministers … In addition to firing the attorney general, Mr. Najib mothballed a 1MDB investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which had recommended his arrest for corruption. He installed a new attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, who said the money that landed in the prime minister’s accounts was a gift from Saudi Arabia that had later been returned. The U.S. Justice Department, which said in lawsuits in July 2016 that at least $4.5 billion had gone missing from 1MDB, rejected that explanation, saying the $681 million originated with the fund.”
While some political analysts argued that the details of the 1MDB scandal were too complicated for the issue to “resonate” with voters, others noted that the figure of 1MDB had become a powerful signifier of Najib’s corruption. As Ross Tapsell explains: “Everyone, even in the Malay heartland, knew about Najib’s corruption and 1MDB, even though it was not at all reported in mainstream media. Kuala Lumpur officials often say that ‘1MDB doesn’t resonate,’ and certainly most people don’t understand all its complexities, but at the end of the day, there were enough stories about it on Facebook and WhatsApp that many people believed that Najib was indeed corrupt.”
The Assassination of Altantuya Shaariibuu
The 1MDB scandal was not the only scandal that tainted Najib and his government. Another scandal which likewise generated “hot rumours and speculation in Malaysia’s social media” focused on the Mongolian socialite Altantuya Shaariibuu, “who was murdered by two of Mr Najib’s bodyguards” in 2006, when Najib was Defence Minister. Shaariibuu, who was romantically involved with “a Malaysian official linked to Mr Najib,” had “demanded $US500,000 to remain silent” about the “illegal kickbacks” received by her lover in a USD 2 billion deal by Malaysia to “purchase of two French-Spanish built submarines.” According to court testimony: “Ms Shaariibuu was dragged from a car, knocked unconscious and shot twice in the head … She had begged for the life of her unborn baby and then her body was wrapped in C4 explosives and blown up, ensuring the fetus was destroyed, along with the identity of the father.”
While Najib himself was not linked to the murder during the trial and conviction of his bodyguards, Sirul Azhar Umar, one of the hitmen, eventually escaped custody in Malaysia and fled to Australia. Following the loss of his appeal against his conviction in the Malaysian courts, Sirul was arrested by the Australian police and detained for overstaying his visa. As he faces the death penalty if he is repatriated to Malaysia, Sirul currently has the legal option in Australia of confirming that he was not the actual mastermind of the murder, and hence that he is eligible for a protection visa. Back when Najib was Prime Minister, Sirul had been encouraged by visiting officials from Malaysia to keep his silence. As Sirul himself stated to the press during his incarceration in Australia, he sees himself as a “scapegoat” who committed the murder “under orders,” while “the important people with motive (to murder Altantuya) are still free.” If Sirul reveals that the murder was in fact “a state-sponsored killing … Najib could find himself in a very precarious situation.” Experts believe PM Mahathir “will be looking to commute Sirul’s sentence and get him back to Malaysia.”
Given the severity of these scandals, it is not surprising that Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong drew a connection between Dr Mahathir’s decision to return to politics and the famous vow made by Singapore’s late long-time Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew: “Watching Mahathir fight Malaysian GE14 reminds me of Lee Kuan Yew who famously said, ‘Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.’”
It was not just the scandals which turned the Malaysian voters away from Najib and the BN. Grassroots activists have also noted the great unpopularity of Najib’s policies like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which contributed to the swing of rural Malay voters away from the BN to Dr Mahathir’s PH. This is significant given the “very strong patron-client relationships” the BN had hitherto enjoyed with the Malay heartland, keeping “its constituents flush with farm subsidies, scholarships, eyeglasses, and television decoders and promised much more.” The turn of these formerly loyal voters away from the BN indicates the scale of the groundswell of anger against Najib’s government.
Political analysts hoping to understand this groundswell of anger see Najib’s introduction of the 6% GST as a major factor. While the tax had helped Najib’s government to reduce the budget deficit “over time to 3 percent of gross domestic product,” while allowing the government to maintain its goal of keeping “debt under 55 percent of GDP,” on the ground the GST caused great hardship for the common people, forcing them “to choose between things as simple as gas and food.” Dr Mahathir’s election campaign pledge to cancel the GST and “replace it with a sales tax” was a key factor that swayed the voters. Apart from the cancellation of the GST, Dr Mahathir and the PH had also pledged to “reintroduce fuel subsidies and raise minimum wages, as well as review large-scale projects … that are not in favor or do not benefit Malaysia.”
As PM Mahathir explained: “Certain heads must fall. We find that some people aided and abetted a prime minister the world describes as kleptocrat.”
Disrespect shown by the BN government against Dr Mahathir during the election campaign was another source of public anger. As Mariam Mokhtar notes, “the Election Commission’s censorship of Mahathir’s picture from posters and billboards” led to “a large spike in support for Mahathir and PH, particularly from the Malay community.” Despite Dr Mahathir’s draconian actions against his political opponents during his first stint as Prime Minister — especially his jailing of Anwar Ibrahim — he is still recalled as the leader who had guided Malaysia to become one of Southeast Asia’s Tiger Cub economies, and who had helped raise the standard of living of the ordinary people. The Petronas Twin Towers — themselves a synecdoche of Malaysia’s economic rise — remain a stunning visual reminder of Dr Mahathir’s contributions to the Malaysian nation, and their symbolic potency prompted Najib to launch in 2016 the construction of the Merdeka PNB118 Tower which, when completed, will be 178 meters taller than the Petronas Towers. Little wonder then that the PH benefitted from Dr Mahathir’s star power as “the only one who is able to reach Malay Muslim voters,” and who was able “to draw huge crowds of thousands of people night after night as the election approached.”
The Election and Its Aftermath
The scale of the voters’ anger against Najib’s BN government can be seen in the fact that the PH won in spite of gerrymandering and tactical moves made by Najib to weaken the opposition and suppress voter turnout. As Krithika Varagur recounts: “Najib only dissolved the parliament to call an election on April 7, giving candidates just four weeks to prepare … He took the additional, widely criticized step of holding elections on a Wednesday, hoping to decrease voter turnout.” As it turned out, these moves were foiled by none other than the voters themselves: “Overseas Malaysians’ votes were flown in by fellow citizens; millions of people commuted home in cars, planes, and boats for election day; and young Malaysians broadcast a nonstop stream of information about voting fraud and potential means of disenfranchisement on social media.”
Having understood the disgruntled voters’ sentiments, Dr Mahathir acted quickly once he was sworn into office, and issued a travel ban on Najib and his wife. As PM Mahathir explained: “We had to act quickly because we don't want to be saddled with the problem of extradition from other countries.” Following a failed attempt by Najib and his wife to leave for Indonesia, the Malaysian police have since cordoned off Najib’s private residence. The police have also cordoned off the office of Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, who as we saw earlier, had protected Najib from the 1MDB corruption probe. PM Mahathir cited Apandi as one of the officials from Najib’s regime his new government will probe for corruption. Other targets include “Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).” As PM Mahathir explained: “Certain heads must fall. We find that some people aided and abetted a prime minister the world describes as kleptocrat.”
Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali has since been instructed to take a leave of absence while the corruption investigation is conducted against him. The Malaysian Solicitor-General will temporarily replace him during this period. In the meantime, Dzulkifli Ahmad, the Chief Commissioner of MACC has resigned, while Abdul Razak Idris, the former Investigations and Intelligence Director of MACC, has “lodged two reports with the MACC — alleging that Najib had used his position for gratification and that he owns unexplained properties,” so as to ensure “swift action” by MACC against Najib. He is also considering filing a third complaint that “Najib was suspected on his own, or with the help of civil servants, of having tried to stop the 1MBD investigations,” as well as “of halting a probe into a retirement fund.”
PM Mahathir has also made efforts at redressing some of the actions he had made during his first stint as Prime Minister. He has arranged for Anwar Ibrahim to receive a full royal pardon, which will “pave the way for him to return to politics and potentially become prime minister.” PM Mahathir also announced his selection of the former banker and outgoing Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng for the position of Finance Minister. Like Anwar, Lim had suffered political persecution during Mahathir’s first stint as Prime Minister, having been imprisoned “during a political crackdown in October 1987 … and again in 1998 under the Sedition Act.”
In the southern state of Johor, the ascension of the PH government has raised questions about the future of Chinese investments in the country, in particular Forest City, the controversial USD 100 billion real estate mega-development which is being built on four reclaimed islands in the Straits of Johor. Not only have the land reclamation works damaged local fisheries, the influx of foreign real estate investors, especially from mainland China, has driven up local property prices and contributed to a rise in the cost of living. Dr Mahathir himself intervened in 2017 when he warned that “the Chinese buyers would eventually become citizens and thus alter Johor’s demographics and voting patterns.” While some political analysts at the time argued that “Mahathir’s race-tinged criticism of the Forest City project … didn’t go down well with voters in Malaysia, especially with some Chinese voters,” it turned out that the PH did win Johor after all. Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the former Deputy Prime Minister and current Chairman of the PH in Johor, has stated that the new PH state government of Johor will “look into (not only) Forest City but also other development projects in Johor” and decide if reviews are needed.
Another Chinese project that Dr Mahathir criticized during his election campaign was the East Coast Rail Link, “Malaysia's largest single railway project, connecting Kuala Lumpur to the Thai border via Kuantan on the east coast,” a project which experts estimate will incur public debt of up to RM 55 billion (USD 13.7 billion). Given the extensive reports in the global news media of the massive debt incurred by the Sri Lankan government for the construction of Hambantota port, and that government’s subsequent 99-year lease of the port to China “in exchange for debt relief,” governments around the region — including the government of Myanmar, which is considering USD 10 billion in financing from China for a similar project at Kyaukpyu port—have grown wary of falling into a similar “debt-trap.” PM Mahathir has hence stated that his government is “entitled to study [the terms of the projects] and if necessary … will renegotiate the terms.”
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