Opinion Asia This Week Malaysia’s Triumvirate of Prime Ministers and a tried, tested and testy successor

Malaysia’s Triumvirate of Prime Ministers and a tried, tested and testy successor

Letter from Kuala Lumpur

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Although Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the Malaysian King enjoys the highest respect and the deep affection of the people it is the prime minister who wields real power and governs the country. Prime ministers of the country act presidentially and are sometimes prone to act as if they are intoxicated with power.

Currently, given the pivotal role of the prime minister in the prime minister-centric country Malaysians are fixated on three personalities- a former prime minister, the incumbent in that office and a so-called prime minister-in-waiting.

The former prime minister, Dato’ Sri Najib Abdul Razak is being prosecuted for various criminal offences involving embezzlement, corruption and abuse of office. Court proceedings involving Najib which began in July 2018 are being followed closely to ensure he gets a fair trial and also out of sheer curiosity at the kind of excesses Najib was capable of.
From court proceedings reported in the press it is clear that he acted autocratically, audaciously, arbitrarily but not necessarily astutely. The prime minister, it would seem, saw himself as not only above the law but acted above logic in a lowly self serving manner.
Najib was in office from early April, 2009 until May 9, 2018 . On May 10 2018 he had to relinquish his post as the political Coalition he had led lost the country’s 14th General Election(GE14). It was a historic event as he was the first Malaysian head of government to be subject to an embarrassing dethronement of this sort. But he managed to retain his own parliamentary seat and continues as a serving member of parliament.

When he is not in court as a defendant, he does go to sittings of the parliament , a chamber he now shares with two erstwhile allies turned nemesis—the current prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

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On that fateful night that Najib feared that his prime ministerial tenure was in danger he called Anwar Ibrahim who was then serving time in prison for alleged offences committed during Najib’s term of office. Full details of that conversation have not been divulged but it was no doubt a Najib initiative realising that PKR, Anwar’s political platform had secured the highest number of parliamentary seats in the Mahathir- led Pakatan Harapan. That friendly telephone chat with Anwar whose political fortune seemed to be in the ascendant may be interpreted as some kind of a desperate peace gesture by Najib.
Nothing came of it.

Prime Ministers in Malaysia have never been known to act in desperation.
The following day Mahathir went on to become prime minister and one of his first acts in office was the initiation of actions to obtain hurriedly a full reprieve from the charges and prison term for Anwar. Barely two months into Mahathir’s prime ministerial tenure, Najib was in the dock. He is likely to remain there for a long time as he has many criminal charges to answer.

Meanwhile just before mid-October 2018 Anwar Ibrahim had contested a by-election in Port Dickson and became a member of parliament. From that date some attention has been focussed on when he would become prime minister.

Dr Mahathir, the prime minister who had first pledged that he would make way for Anwar after a certain period of time has lately reworded his pledge to say that he would make way when Malaysia’s debt situation and economy improve.

There could be a big difference between a time span of two years or so and the time taken to pare down the country’s debt or prim up the economy.

This issue of Mahathir’s handing-over to Anwar has now become a conundrum. Almost everywhere there is talk as to whether Mahathir would really make way for Anwar despite the former’s repeated assurances. There are opinions for and against Mahathir remaining in office. Meanwhile some political heavyweights of the past are cautioning against talking about the transition from Mahathir’s tenure in office. There is no logic to rendering this subject a taboo considering Dr Mahathir’ s advanced age.

It may well turn out that the issue of who succeeds Mahathir eventually will be determined by a whole set of new factors beyond Mahathir’s control.

Dr Mahathir, a medical doctor and a veteran in politics for more than six decades is Malaysia’s most renowned kingmaker as he has been able to orchestrate events since 1969 to influence and sometimes dictate the choice of prime ministers. . He was himself prime minister from July 16, 1981 to October 30, 2003 and is again in that high seat from May 10, 2018.

In Malaysia he has a reputation for worsting every political rival but, with hindsight, most Malaysians will remember that he had almost always nominated the wrong person as his deputy and worse, his successor. Given this trend of falling out with his own nominees he has also never failed to remove his deputies for one reason or another. Both his successors from 2003 have also been removed largely singlehandedly by him. Partly owing to such a durable, daring but dauntless role he enjoys a majestic and mythical position in Malaysia’s political pantheon. Accustomed , or more accurately, addicted to the plaudits and and pleasures of power Mahathir will find it difficult to give up his prime ministership until he can obtain watertight guarantees of continuity of his policies and also the continued preeminence of certain personalities.

My guess is that both these conditions suggest wishful thinking.

The reality is somewhat more prosaic.

Mahathir is no longer the uncontested leader of the Peninsular Malays, an almost unassailable position he had from the mid-1970s. He is the leader of one of the smallest all-Malay parties in the country. This is pertinent as electoral arrangements make it such that the Malay community determines who becomes prime minister.

In GE 14 his Bersatu party won only 13 of the 52 seats contested. In contrast Anwar’s PKR had won 48 seats, the DAP 42 seats, Amanah 11 seats and Warisan 8 seats. Defections from UMNO principally have reinforced Bersatu with additional seats but the numbers are still shy of 30. His main concern at the moment is focused on strengthening his Bersatu party so thar he can reinvent himself as Malaysia’s strongest Malay leader.

In this attempt to strengthen Bersatu’s parliamentary strength he is being viewed uneasily as being desperate to consolidate his position. Partly for this reason Mahathir can only propose a candidate as his successor. Malaysian prime ministers have traditionally acted presidentially but when any prime minister is perceived to act in some desperation then he loses the preeminent stature that he enjoys(recall Najib on May 10 2018 morning).

If he does not nominate Anwar that does not necessarily mean that Anwar will not become the next prime minister. The other larger parties in terms of parliamentary strength could favour Anwar and disregard Mahathir’s wishes.

His known refrain to such a situation is to threaten he will resign but this time round his cohorts may be unimpressed.

Ironically the Opposition consisting of UMNO and PAS is seeking to entrench Mahathir in office. In this regard the Opposition may be under the illusion that with Mahathir as the leader his PH coalition will certainly lose the next General Election. UMNO and PAS seem genuinely concerned that Anwar may revive PH’s flagging fortune. PAS in particular fears Anwar’s capacity to draw support.

While it is still anybody’s guess as to who becomes the next prime minister there are still strong chances for Anwar to succeed Dr Mahathir as the eighth prime minister of Malaysia. If by some chance that does not happen, Anwar, more than Mahathir has to be held responsible.
Anwar’s most recent performance has not exactly been stellar. For some unearthly reason he rather inappropriately commented on a sensational sex video which somewhat implicated his popular deputy, Azmin Ali. Azmin shot back and Anwar’s prospects of becoming the next prime minister almost evaporated overnight. Although Anwar is being rehabilitated with ongoing damage control efforts he is currently not out of the woods. It may take some time and some concession by Azmin to enable him to ride out of the storm.

Mahathir’s own obsession with power and the attempt to treat his successors as protégés, pawns and proxies initially and then dump them does not show statesmanship but insecurity, poor judgment and an inability to accept his inevitable political eclipse or retirement.
Dr Mahathir , the saviour from GE14 does not enjoy the great popularity and the strong position that he had a year ago although he wields considerable authority. Anwar, the strongly promoted prospective successor that he was once is looking somewhat like a waddling weakling. As he remains just a member of parliament and is removed from the corridors of power it is difficult to gauge his exact authority or influence.

Najib, the former prime minister is reportedly enjoying this unravelling scene from the sidelines but is otherwise ensconced in the rude reality of being smartly attired in a bespoke suit, being powerless and smiling slyly from the dock in a court of law. Najib’s control of cyber troopers given his fabled wealth is legendary. Neither Mahathir nor Anwar can match him in that game.

Dato’ M Santhananaban, a retired Malaysian ambassador has 45 years of public service experience .

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