Malaysia’s Geriatric Palace Intrigues Are Causing Political Turmoil

Anwar Ibrahim may be the most outmaneuvered man in Malaysia. The trials of his political life have been Job-like, from multiple sodomy accusations to police assaults to nearly a decade spent in jail. In 2018 he seemed, momentarily, to have been rewarded for his forbearance, when his party coalition with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won a surprise election victory, overturning the National Front that had ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957. Anwar “won” from jail, through a baroque setup by which he was supposed to eventually succeed the then 92-year-old Mahathir after two years, in a transition whose specifics were never explained. But he would eventually get his day in the sun … right?

Wrong. After a series of hushed, closed-door meetings, backdoor plots, and obtuse power plays over the past five days, the Malaysian government is now in chaos, and it seems like Anwar may let power slip through his fingers again. Mahathir resigned as prime minister at 1 p.m. on Monday, as well as from his leadership of the Bersatu political party. Meanwhile, Bersatu, which accounts for 26 seats in the lower house of Parliament, announced that it was exiting the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) coalition that won in 2018, depriving it of its parliamentary majority and essentially dissolving the government. The same day, 11 members of Anwar’s party resigned. The clock is ticking for a new ruling coalition to emerge soon. The suddenness and rapid succession of these events have the dramatic flair of late-season scripted television.

“This is a very typical Malaysian way of doing politics,” said James Chin, a political scientist at the University of Tasmania. “They are trying to create a herd mentality so people can start rushing to the presumed forerunner.” Anwar’s People’s Justice Party was the largest component of the Alliance of Hope, having won 47 seats in the 2018 general election. A new coalition needs 112 members of Parliament to form a government, said Chin, but “to prove stability they will need at least 130 people.” On top of that, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, and the king must greenlight a new government. The current king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, interviewed every single member of Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to establish which faction has the majority support, according to the Associated Press. The king also appointed Mahathir as interim prime minister.

On Wednesday, Mahathir delivered a national address and apologized for the recent “political turmoil,” which seemed, at surface level, like an effort to distance himself from the week’s machinations. “If it is possible I will try to establish a government that does not favor any party. Only the interests of the nation will take precedence,” he told the country.

“He is speaking in code,” said Chin. “He is saying: Everyone can come together, but I get to pick and choose who gets to come in. And he is addressing the other MPs as individuals, not as parties. He remains the kingmaker.”

The choice before members of Parliament is essentially whether to back Anwar or Mahathir now, and one of them has been prime minister for a cumulative 24 years, whereas the other has been spectacularly foiled at multiple junctures during that time frame. “The choice,” said Chin, “is not exactly difficult.”

So what set all this off?

“Last Friday, there was an important meeting of the Alliance of Hope leadership and Mahathir’s party was very unhappy with what transpired,” said Chin. Several members of the Bersatu party later told Chin that “they felt strongly bullied by Amanah and the Democratic Action Party,” other parties in the coalition, particularly the Democratic Action Party, which demanded a specific date for Mahathir to step down. “Bersatu felt that you cannot talk to a statesman that way, which triggered talk of acting fast, and sure enough, the ground started moving on Saturday.”

The more deep-seated dynamic underlying these events was one of brewing discontent among Malay Muslims, who make up about 50 percent of Malaysia’s population, said Chin. In September 2019, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a leading national party that claims to represent Malays, and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a conservative, Islamist party popular in rural, peninsular Malaysia, joined forces in a “unity pact” despite their previous rivalry. “They pushed the line that minorities had too much influence and scared voters that the Alliance of Hope will not protect Islam,” said Chin. They pointed to symbolic examples that the new finance minister, chief justice, and attorney general were all non-Malays. “This scared the shit out of Mahathir,” said Chin.

The upheaval has already affected the country’s stock market, which dipped 2.69 percent on Monday, ending a 12-year bull run, the longest in the world. 

Mahathir retains a broad base of support from diverse politicians and sectors of Malaysian society, who hold him in high regard for the economic development he fostered during his previous 22-year leadership and his epic comeback to beat the corrupt former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who allegedly pocketed nearly $700 million in state funds in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

Expert Cited

Related JCI Publications