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17 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

How a 92-year-old led a people’s revolt to overthrow Malaysia’s ruling party

New-old prime minister Mahathir Mohamad came out of retirement expressly to stop Najib Razak, his former protégé, from wrecking the country. 

By Preeti Jha

The world’s longest-ruling coalition had never been more frightened of its own people. As it sought to stay in office, Malaysia’s government, led by the scandal-afflicted Najib Razak, promised lucrative cash handouts, redrew constituency boundaries and rushed through a bill to quash “fake news”. But the state machinery was ultimately overpowered by Malaysia’s voters, who ousted the Barisan Nasional (BN) regime that had ruled the country for 61 years.

It was a resounding cry for democracy in Southeast Asia. Yet the 9 May election was also a contest between long-standing elites. In a region where “strongmen” are busy dismantling hard-won freedoms, it was no small irony that the triumphant opposition alliance was led by the former autocrat Mahathir Mohamad, previously head of the BN, who at 92 has become the world’s oldest elected leader.

By reuniting with formerly jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, his 70-year-old former deputy, Malaysia’s new-old prime minister assumed the highest office in an extraordinary political saga.

Few had predicted the historic win by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). “You still have to pinch yourself,” said Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the website Malaysiakini, a rare independent voice in Malaysia’s tightly controlled media. The site was temporarily blocked by the state regulator at around 10pm on polling day as it became clear that the BN had lost crucial seats. “We were worried,” said Gan at his office in the industrial outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. “We thought that they [BN] would organise a fightback.”

Such fears are well-founded in Malaysia, where a vibrant civil society and opposition have long fought electoral manipulation, censorship and the suppression of civil liberties by an authoritarian state. Uncertainty over the results lingered for hours after Mahathir declared victory.

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But such concerns were displaced swiftly by the question of whether Najib, accused of misappropriating state funds in one of the largest-ever global financial frauds, would now face prosecution. “We are not seeking revenge,” Mahathir told journalists. But to cheers from supporters, he added: “If the law says Najib has done something wrong he will have to face the consequences.”

The nonagenarian, whose 22-year rule transformed Malaysia from an isolated backwater into a modern state, came out of retirement expressly to stop Najib, his former protégé, from wrecking the country. US investigators allege that Najib’s associates stole $4.5bn from the state development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), between 2009 and 2014, with as much as $700m deposited in the politician’s bank account. Najib, 64, has denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by a domestic probe, but investigations continue in several other countries.

The scale of the scandal is credited with forging the most unlikely of political reunions. In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar over political differences, after which the latter was jailed for abuse of power and sodomy – charges he denied. Gay sex is criminalised in Muslim-majority Malaysia but convictions are rare and the case was condemned as politically motivated. Anwar was imprisoned again in 2015, this time during Najib’s rule, for a sodomy conviction also regarded as politically motivated as the opposition grew in strength. Now, in a remarkable denouement, Mahathir has promised to transfer the premiership to Anwar, who has been released from prison. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, is the new deputy prime minister.

In a bustling banana leaf restaurant in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the still-inked index fingers of voters can be seen. Like millions of people across the country, Joel Paul is enjoying a late-announced public holiday after waiting until dawn for a result few anticipated in their lifetimes. The new government must now “question openly the corruption”, the businessman said. He remains suspicious of Mahathir, who as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 undermined many of the laws and institutions that he has now vowed to reform. But the weight of corruption allegations against Najib ultimately determined his vote.

Chin-Huat Wong, a political scientist at the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think tank, cited the economy as the “driving force” behind the result. For voters, inflation and the unpopular Goods and Services Tax were not offset by the cash handouts promised by Najib. “Over time, the elites became too self-serving,” he said. “The emergence of Mahathir, who stands for Malay nationalism, then removed the Malays’ fear of regime change.”

The swing of the Malay majority to the opposition was crucial to its victory. By forming the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, and joining a multi-racial alliance supported by the country’s sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, Mahathir led a winning coalition.

Wong Chen, a former corporate lawyer and now a fast-rising MP in Anwar’s centre-left People’s Justice Party, is hopeful that the result will herald a new liberal era for Malaysia. He is unconcerned by the return of Mahathir, the autocrat turned reformer. “Just look at the numbers,” he said in reference to his own party, the largest in the victorious coalition. The mood was jubilant at a small celebration he threw for his campaign team on the night Mahathir was finally sworn in as prime minister. They sang “A Whole New World” – a popular song from Disney’s Aladdin, but one that also symbolised their hopes for a new Malaysia.

Back at the office of Malaysiakini, Gan hopes Malaysia has taken a small step towards becoming “a normal country” that is “not obsessed with race and religion”. For now, he takes pride in an assertion of inclusive nationalism. “We have shown the world that while the silent majority has spoken, it’s a different kind of silent majority as compared to Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK. This is a silent majority that we can be proud of.” 

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This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war