Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to the crowds during a rally in a September 15, 1999 file photo. AFP PHOTO/Shamshahrin Shamsudin

On the evening of May 16 at the very time that Anwar Ibrahim addressed a rally at which he was the main attraction, not too far away a team of police and investigators were conducting a raid to search for evidence related the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal at the main residence of Najib Razak, the ex-prime minister who just days ago saw his Barisan Nasional coalition badly defeated in the polls.

Having been issued a royal pardon and freed from detention a few hours before the aforementioned rally, Malaysians saw Anwar Ibrahim, triumphantly cheered on by thousands, ostensibly return to public life – though not in any formal capacity yet.

The fact that the occasion was poignantly – and simultaneously – mirrored by the unfolding drama surrounding the ungraceful decline of Najib Razak symbolized yet another in a series of ironies that have come to dot the various chapters in Malaysian politics since the initial falling out between Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.

Twenty years later, it still seems surreal to many Malaysians that Mahathir, at 92, not only came out of retirement to run for office again, but did so in order to challenge another one of his own protégés in Najib Razak. That Mahathir did this in partnership with some of his most ardent opponents including some he had targeted, imprisoned, and suppressed for years is all the more astounding.

Among these newfound coalition partners, of course, is the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which since independence has existed in the political wilderness as the perennial opposition to Barisan Nasional. Of course, that all changed on May 9.

To bury the decades of animosity and mistrust between Mahathir and the DAP would have been shocking enough. The additional irony of Dr Wan Azizah (Anwar Ibrahim’s wife) bringing along her Parti Keadilan Rakyat to join in the coalition with Mahathir certainly turned heads across the political establishment and among the Malaysian electorate.

Both experts and casual observers were left wondering: Could this really be possible given that Mahathir will inevitably be seen as the one responsible for putting the brakes on Anwar’s political ascendency 20 years ago?

To be sure, this newfound alliance that spearheaded the “Malaysian tsunami” and ushered in a new governing coalition for the first time in the country’s history was in no small part due to the maladies that had come to be embodied in Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) made apparent through the deeply embedded aloofness that resonated from the party’s almost complete manipulation and abuse of the institutions of the state.

While UMNO and the state institutions shaped by it have for decades been accused of being ridden with corruption, cronyism and abuse, Najib’s almost decade-long regime seemingly multiplied these maladies

While UMNO and the state institutions shaped by it have for decades been accused of being ridden with corruption, cronyism and abuse, Najib’s almost decade-long regime seemingly multiplied these maladies, while brazenly and blatantly taking such practices to levels unseen and unheard of previously.

The fact that state institutions such as the Attorney General’s Office, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), the judiciary branch, the leadership of the Election Commission, the government-controlled media, and large cross-sections of the senior appointed leadership within the civil service had come to be seen as highly politicized and in essence beholden to Najib and UMNO was emblematic of the extent to which political expediency, nepotism, abuse and misappropriation of public resources and self-interest prevailed and overshadowed all other considerations.

The still unfolding 1MDB financial scandal and its numerous and likely yet to be uncovered secrets all but reflect the manifestation of the corrosion of institutions of the state and to function less as an extension of UMNO and foremost in the broader interest of the public.

Is it then any surprise that shortly after being sworn in a prime minister, Mahathir began almost immediately to isolate the incumbent attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, who has since been put on leave. Unlike the attorney general, who has yet to resign, MACC chief Dzulkifli Ahmad saw the writing on the wall and tendered his resignation.

Serigar Abdullah, who had served as treasurer general and also chairman of 1MDB, has been reassigned duties and transferred out of the Finance Ministry.  In addition, there have been calls for the Chief Justice Mohd Raus Yusof to step down.

On one level, reshuffling of leadership and political appointments is to be expected with a new administration, especially with a change in government. However, there is little doubt that what is transpiring here is also the new government’s intention, among other things, to rebuild public and investor confidence, while trying to get to the bottom of what is seen as a massive financial crisis caused by Najib Razak and his close associates.

While the removal of many of those viewed as beholden to Najib and tainted by the 1MDB scandal may be imperative, Mahathir and his allies have much to attend to as they patch together their cabinet and get into the day-to-day chore of governing.

To be sure, as the euphoria of capturing Putrajaya wears off, Mahathir and his comrades have a herculean challenge – not just of cleaning up the aftermath of the 1MDB scandal, but perhaps more critically, of rebuilding public confidence in the just application of the rule of law and functioning of institutions of the state.

If the newly ushered-in government is to have any credibility, remedying the institutions of the state so that laws are not used as instruments for silencing alternative voices and for political suppression is going to be critical.

Malaysia may have crossed a major threshold in having experienced a peaceful transfer of power. It is now imperative that the new government aspires to foster a culture of open and genuine discourse that is befitting a democracy.

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Sunil Kukreja

Dr Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. His areas of academic expertise include multicultural studies, social and cultural change, and the political economy of South and Southeast Asia. Professor Kukreja has published widely in academic journals and edited several books.

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