After nearly 75 years in public life, the political career of Mahathir Mohamed appears to be drawing to a close at age 96. As he becomes less relevant amid the country’s current fevered political maneuvering, it is time to look at what the last four years, with 20 months as prime minister once again, did for his legacy.
Most acknowledged Mahathir had made mistakes, particularly in allowing endemic corruption and cronyism in an attempt to create a Malay entrepreneurial class, and in the sacking and imprisonment, in what many regarded as a legal farce, of his protégé, Anwar Ibrahim. But most were willing to gloss over his shortcomings, as it was believed his time had passed. Seemingly in his dotage, Mahathir enjoyed almost universal acclaim at public events.
He has always been a controversial figure. His style has always been to crash through, or crash, both outcomes occurring during his career. No other person has influenced the direction and shape of Malaysia, for good or ill. In the mid to late 1990s, there was a prevailing feeling that Malaysia, an Asian Tiger, had found its place in the world. The Penang bridge, North-South Highway, a new airport, a Formula One racetrack, and a new administrative capital, Putra Jaya was constructed. Malaysia had a proclaimed, if not flawed national car, Proton. The KLCC twin towers, then the highest buildings in the world, became the icon of the success story.
Many had expected him in political retirement after his first 22 years in power to move onto the international stage and use his support from non-aligned countries to either run for the Commonwealth or United Nations Secretary-General positions. However, first he became fixated on what he regarded as the poor performance of his hand-picked successor Badawi, sniping both publicly and behind the scenes to play a major role in Badawi’s political demise.
In 2009, now a kingmaker, Mahathir selected Najib Razak to take over. What he got into the bargain was a polished, soft-spoken crook who with his grasping wife Rosmah Mansor perpetrated an unprecedented raid on the public purse through the sovereign wealth entity 1Malaysia Development Bhd, resulting in the biggest losses through public corruption and mismanagement in the country’s history.
But perhaps Najib’s bigger sin, in Mahathir’s eyes, was to not follow closely enough the dictum of Ketuanan Melayu, the concept of Malay primacy. Najib first hinted that Malaysia should modify the New Economic Policy, the third rail of Malaysian politics, but hastily backed away. After Najib detoured away from Mahathir’s advice too often, the former prime minister turned on him as he had on Badawi.
But, unable to counter Najib’s fountains of cash to keep the United Malays National Organization backbenchers loyal in a party that had dominated politics for 70 years, Mahathir reached out to the opposition, which now was led by his alienated protégé, Anwar. The aim was to topple Najib electorally, with Mahathir and a number of ex-UMNO stalwarts forming the tiny splinter party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and joining his arch nemesis Pakatan Harapan. Bersatu would become the tail that wagged the Pakatan Harapan dog, on the promise that he would lead the coalition for two years, then step down in favor of Anwar, soon to be liberated from another stint in prison via another rigged trial.
Most at the time saw Mahathir as a repented man set upon righting the wrongs of his past. His promise to become an interim prime minister and hand power over to Anwar was seen as humility, from a changed man. There were very few warnings otherwise from the pundit gallery in Malaysia.
Pakatan Harapan, after Mahathir’s steadfast anti-Najib campaign, unexpectedly won the 2018 election on the promise of fundamental political and governing reform. There was shock and pandemonium. People came onto the streets celebrating an event many saw just as important as Malaya’s independence from Britain back in 1957. Malaysia was once more seen as a land with hope, a new Malaysia.
There were at first some worries that Najib and UMNO wouldn’t hand over power peacefully, and some consternation over the delay in swearing in Mahathir as prime minister. A few days later Anwar was pardoned and released from jail, being seen as a symbolic event confirming it was time for reform.
This set the scene for an exonerated Mahathir to right what was wrong, and reform the country, under what appeared to be a massive electoral mandate.
The Great Betrayal