At one o’clock local time on the 24th of February, Malaysia’s 95-year-old Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, shocked the world by announcing his resignation. The two-time Prime Minister is the single most powerful post-independence political figure in Malaysian history, and his resignation has thrown the country’s political future into turmoil as all sides struggle to react to the news.
Not only was Mahathir Prime Minister from 1998-2003, but he was also a founding member of the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO); a component of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that led the government from independence in 1957 until it was finally superseded in 2018 by the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Not incidentally, Pakatan is led by Mahathir’s long-time Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was ousted from UMNO in 1998 after a falling out with Mahathir. Anwar’s subsequent journey through the political wilderness is itself an amazing story of persecution, incarceration, and a determined return to power, which may have something to do with Mahathir’s surprise move yesterday.
The drama between Anwar and Mahathir goes back to the then-Deputy Prime Minister’s rising ambitions in the late 1990s. Having risen to prominence partly due to his stringent Islamic politics, Anwar’s increasing popularity among the majority Malay voters began to strain the relationship with his boss. When the Asian Financial Crisis rocked the emerging economies of Southeast Asia, Mahathir took a controversially unconventional approach. He pegged Malaysia’s currency, the Ringgit, to the US Dollar and severely restricted its fungibility on world markets. Though the move was ultimately the right one for Malaysia’s economy, Anwar’s vocal opposition to it finally destroyed his relationship with Mahathir.
Sensing that Anwar was using his criticism not just to fight Mahathir’s currency policy but to build a political coalition against him, Mahathir reacted with surprising fury. He ousted Anwar from his position and from UMNO, charged him with sodomy – a move designed to hurt his standing with Malays – and jailed him under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA is a successor to similar laws enacted during British rule and conceived as powerful but necessary tools for fighting a longstanding and very effective Communist insurgency. The ISA’s use as a political tool against Anwar cast a shadow over Malaysian governance until 2012 when the ISA was repealed and replaced by two other laws ostensibly written with greater accountability in mind.
Mahathir finally felt prepared to retire from politics in 2003 once Anwar was safely in prison. However, Mahathir did not go quitely into a post-political life. Through his influence in UMNO, Mahathir first maneuvered to place Badawi — and unlikely candidate — in the Prime Minister’s post before later turning against him in favor of Mohammad Najib bin Razak, scion of a political family and son of the country’s second Prime Minister. Aside from these maneuvers, there were constant declarations from Mahathir himself opining on all manner of subjects. His statements had a tremendous impact on UMNO’s leadership in particular, constraining their freedom of action and bending the party to his will despite his status as a private citizen.
Najib, a compelling politician in his own right, began to exert himself more independently than Mahathir was comfortable with. Public disagreements between the two occasionally caused concern within UMNO, especially as Anwar’s leadership of a series of opposition coalitions began to erode BN’s dominance of Malaysian politics even as he served a second prison term for new charges of sodomy starting in 2015. When emerging details about the massive 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal began to implicate Najib himself, Mahathir again intervened boldly.
Translated from Malay, “Bersatu” means “united” and was the short name Mahathir selected for an entirely new political party he would use to take on Najib. Though the party drew some prominent defectors from UMNO, it appeared to have the narrow political goal of saving Malaysia from Najib’s corruption by replacing him with Mahathir. To accomplish this, he made a pact with Pakatan, presenting Anwar as the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy and promising to pardon him if they successfully contested the 2018 general election. With pressure mounting from 1MDB, Pakatan managed to win a substantial majority in the parliament. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, BN was no longer in power. Mahathir assumed duties as the country’s seventh Prime Minister on the 10th of May 2018. Anwar was pardoned and released on the 16th and Najib was arrested for corruption in July.
Though their victory seemed complete, there were cracks. As part of the deal with Pakatan, Mahathir was supposed to serve temporarily until some undefined milestone would signal the ascendance of Anwar to the post of Prime Minister. Though both men talked openly about this inevitable transition and their personal reconciliation at the time, Mahathir’s remaining in the position for nearly two years may have exacerbated distrust between them going back to 1998. These well-known animosities have led to speculation that Mahathir’s resignation today may have had more to do with holding onto power than relinquishing it. According to the popular Malaysian newspaper, The Star, a “well-placed source within Bersatu” alleged that Mahathir’s resignation was the result of an internal split over whether to remain in the Pakatan coalition. Leaving the coalition would have likely forced the King to allow Anwar to form a new government, a move Mahathir ostensibly opposed.
Malaysian politics is now at a crossroads. With Bersatu officially out of Pakatan, nearly a dozen Bersatu officials have resigned along with Mahathir. Though this would typically be a strong signal Anwar will finally achieve his dream of becoming Malaysia’s Prime Minister, the King this afternoon announced Mahathir would continue as “interim Prime Minister” until a new one can be chosen. This is an odd decision considering Anwar remains the leader of the largest party in Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister (Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) is a legitimate politician in her own right. What happens next will be an intense interaction between the King, Anwar, Mahathir, and various factions within Bersatu and Pakatan.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.