Mahathir and the politics of expediency

Mahathir and the politics of expediency

By joining forces with the opposition to oust prime minister Najib Razak for alleged corruption, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is playing a longer game

Two weeks ago, Mahathir Mohamad did something that no one would have dared to predict—he appeared on the same stage with opposition heavyweights, including Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader Lim Kit Siang, and key non-governmental organisation (NGO) personalities.

They were all there to sign a petition drafted by Mahathir, called ‘Save Malaysia Citizens’ Declaration’, seeking the removal of Najib Razak as prime minister of Malaysia for alleged corruption and maladministration.

Many Malaysians were aghast at the gathering; after all, most of the opposition leaders on stage, were at one time or another, detained, harassed or arrested when Mahathir was prime minister. In fact, Mahathir signed many of the detention orders given that he was the home minister as well.

Many civil society organisations cannot comprehend how it is possible for these key opposition leaders, especially DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, who was detained twice under the Internal Security Act, to link up with the main person who was responsible for systematic human rights abuse in Malaysia and who was responsible for racist policies for more than two decades.

One human rights activist and DAP MP wrote:

… in this quest for justice one must not also forget that Dr Mahathir is the root cause of the rot that is affecting every Malaysian today. One cannot deny that his 22 years in power was made possible by the use of draconian laws to jail dissidents and critics.

This view is shared widely in human rights circles not only in Malaysia but among Malaysian watchers as well.

Rural voters

So why did they do it? The simple answer is politics of expediency. The opposition is calculating, wrongly in my view, that getting rid of Najib will lead to the defeat of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the next general election, due in 2018. They think that even if this move fails, using Mahathir to campaign against Najib will significantly weaken UMNO’s hold over rural Malay voters. The rural Malay voters are a key component of the electoral system—it is almost impossible to win an election in Malaysia without winning the rural Malay vote.

Others are hoping that by hooking up with Mahathir, this will be the final nail in Mahathir’s political coffin. UMNO will not allow Mahathir back into UMNO now that he has joined up with Lim Kit Siang and the DAP. After all, Mahathir has been saying consistently for the past 50 years, that the DAP’s ideology of ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ is the greatest threat to Malay supremacy and Islamic dominance in Malaysia.

The opposition is making a mistake here for the simple reason that Mahathir is a master tactician who can outwit the opposition. Mahathir has everything to gain from this arrangement while the opposition has everything to lose. Let me elaborate.

Stealing and misappropriating a few millions here and there is ‘normal’ in Malaysian politics but stealing ‘billions’, as alleged, is something else

Mahathir has only two key items on this political agenda. First, he wants UMNO to stay in power and win the next general election in 2018. Second, he wants his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, placed in line for the prime ministership in the near future.

To ensure that UMNO wins in the next general election, Mahathir needs to get rid of Najib. He knows the allegations of corruption against Najib are so strong that UMNO has already lost the urban vote. The longer Najib stays in power the greater the chance this may affect the rural Malay vote as well. Stealing and misappropriating a few millions here and there is ‘normal’ in Malaysian politics but stealing ‘billions’, as alleged, is something else. The rural Malay ground may not be forgiving for a Malay leader who allegedly siphoned a billion from several government-owned companies in a deal masterminded by a Penang Chinese.

The only way for UMNO to recover is to get rid of Najib and install a new untainted leader. This has worked previously. Abdullah Badawi took over from Mahathir as prime minister in 2003. Then Badawi was universally called ‘Mr Clean’ and he took more than 90 per cent of the seats in parliament in the 2004 general elections largely based on this reputation.

Mahathir also knows that he can get back into UMNO easily by simply saying he was using the opposition to ‘save UMNO’. I guarantee all will be forgiven as long as UMNO stays in power. UMNO members always forgive winners.

Murky picture

When it comes to Mukhriz, the picture gets murkier. Murkhriz was supposed to get Najib’s backing to move up in UMNO. In 2013, Najib appointed him the chief minister of Kedah state, solely on the fact he was Mahathir’s political heir. But one year later, Najib played a key role in blocking Mukhirz’s election bid to be UMNO’s vice-president. This soured relations between Najib and Mahathir.

The relationship broke down completely when Najib removed Mukhriz as chief minister in February this year. With Mukhriz completely out of running for a top UMNO leadership position, Mahathir, with nothing to lose, began the move to bring in the opposition for the People’s Declaration. Mahathir is hoping with large rallies under the People’s Declaration, he can assert enough pressure in UMNO to force a direct confrontation with Najib. When Najib is eventually removed and replaced with a Mahathir ally, Mukhriz will be made either the deputy prime minister or a senior minister to give him a chance for the top job in the next 10 years.

As I mentioned above, the opposition has everything to lose by joining up with Mahathir. The majority of voters in the urban areas, where the opposition core supporters are located, cannot accept this arrangement. This is especially true for the non-Malay communities. For years they have been told by the DAP that Mahathir was the one who cemented the institutional racism against them and treated them as second-class citizens. Now they are told to ‘make nice’ and support Mahathir in his quest to overthrow Najib.

One of DAP’s strongest pillas was its credibility in fighting for the rights of the non-Malays. By supporting Mahathir, the DAP is destroying one of its core pillars and it is plain for all to see that DAP and the rest of the opposition are really no better than UMNO when it comes to political expediency. The opposition’s argument that they signed the declaration as individuals and do not represent their political parties is laughable.

In the eyes of the Malaysian public, you cannot separate Lim Kit Siang from DAP, just as you cannot separate Mahathir from UMNO.


I predict the political contradictions between the main players will derail this great political gamble soon. Once the key signers realise that the people’s declaration is not acceptable to their supporters and it’s all about Mahathir’s political ambition, the politics of expediency will mean a sudden mass exodus and plenty of mea-culpas from the key opposition leaders.

Those who think opposition and NGO leaders in Malaysia care about ethics and principles had better go back to the history books. Malaysian political leaders since independence have been driven largely by politics of expediency and this will not change soon.

James Chin’s most recent publication related to Malaysia (with Joern Dosch) is Malaysia Post Mahathir: A Decade of Change? (2015).

Featured image
Ninety-year-old Mahathir working from his office on the 86th floor of the Petronas Twin Towers which he founded and officially opened in 1999. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Rizan

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