SINGAPORE – Malaysia’s two-time former premier Mahathir Mohamad will be 98 years old in July, but neither his age nor diminishing influence has diminished his political maneuvering.
The nonagenarian former leader has been in opposition to every prime minister that succeeded him, and it is little surprise he views the incumbent – his former protégé – as unfit to rule.
In recent months, Mahathir has labeled Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim as “oppressive” and accused his government of politically marginalizing the ethnic Malay majority.
Mahathir also claims Anwar has pressured venue owners to cancel events promoting his “Malay People’s Proclamation”, a document in which the ex-premier lambasts corrupt Malay leaders and urges Malays to unite to “save” their race.
Most bitterly, Mahathir filed a US$32.4 million defamation lawsuit against Anwar this month after the latter implied that he had amassed personal wealth during his tenure as Malaysia’s longest-ruling premier from 1981 to 2003.
Anwar has brushed aside a demand to apologize over the remark and reportedly claimed his predecessor’s wealth is an “open secret.”
Shunning calls to retire and serve as an elder statesman, Mahathir is now attempting to court Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), an ultra-conservative Islamist party that was politically trampled under his first 22-year tenure, to build a united front against Anwar, who established a “unity” coalition government after a November election that transformed the political landscape.
PAS, for one, stunned observers by winning 43 seats at the polls, the highest number of any party, in what has been dubbed as the “green wave” after the color of its party flag.
Mahathir, meanwhile, suffered a crushing electoral defeat, coming in fourth out of five candidates in his bid to defend the Langkawi parliamentary seat in his stronghold home state of Kedah.
Despite having been re-elected as prime minister just four years ago, Mahathir only managed to win less than 10% of the vote in a seat where he was the incumbent, marking his first electoral loss since 1969. It was also an emphatic defeat for his newly-formed Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) coalition, which saw all of its 168 candidates forfeit their electoral deposits.
Among the casualties were 58-year-old Mukhriz Mahathir, the former premier’s second eldest son and president of Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang), a party he and Mahathir founded in 2020 after their dismissal from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), another party they co-founded in 2016 that now leads Malaysia’s main opposition bloc, Perikatan Nasional (PN), alongside PAS.
A schism within Pejuang emerged following their defeat, with Mahathir and others quitting the party in early February as he felt it had “strayed from its path” by withdrawing from the GTA coalition under his son’s leadership. While Mahathir vowed to continue his political struggle via GTA, Mukhriz applied for Pejuang to join PN, though the party’s application was tersely rejected.
Ties between Mahathir and Bersatu co-founder Muhyiddin Yassin, who is PN’s chairman and a former premier, have been fraught since 2020 when Mahathir resigned from his second stint as prime minister after being outmaneuvered by the latter in a political coup. Mahathir had labeled Muhyiddin a “traitor” after expelling him and his loyalists from Bersatu after taking power.
Analysts nonetheless see Mahathir’s latest seemingly erratic political maneuvers as a bid to garner backing from PN’s leadership in likely recognition that his influence is moot without a major party platform. While his pro-Malay pressure campaign has earned a prominent endorsement from PAS, it remains unclear whether Mahathir’s camp will be welcomed back into the PN fold.
After leaving Pejuang, Mahathir joined one of GTA’s smaller component parties, Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra), in February as an adviser. Led by right-wing firebrand Ibrahim Ali, the little-known four-year-old party has never had electoral success. Mahathir then announced his exit from the GTA coalition on May 12, saying it was not moving forward and non-functional.
This was initially puzzling as Mahathir had only weeks earlier stated GTA would be his primary political vehicle. He now says participation in active politics is no longer on his mind as his focus has shifted to promoting his “Malay People’s Proclamation” campaign, opining that Malays from other political parties would not be comfortable supporting his movement if he was still part of GTA.
“Mahathir had to leave GTA because he’s trying to get the support of PN, the bigger coalition. Obviously, if he doesn’t leave GTA, they won’t come on board. Those guys are not going to support him if he’s promoting GTA, so in a sense, he doesn’t have any choice but to leave GTA,” said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.
Mahathir’s 12-point proclamation claims that ethnic Malays, who compromise nearly 70% of the population, have never controlled the economy and that “the only power they possessed, political power, has also slipped out of their hands.” The document further states that the Malay race has to be “revived” and “saved” by putting aside political differences and uniting.
While not directly naming the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) he ruled under for 22 years and defeated at the ballot box in 2018, the proclamation states that “the Malay party built on the foundation of religion, race and nation has been turned into a party to enrich oneself,” in an apparent reference to UMNO leaders that have been implicated in corruption.
Despite facing numerous corruption charges, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was controversially appointed as Anwar’s deputy last December after he played a crucial role in brokering the “unity” government coalition. Mahathir has, in turn, accused the government of not being sincere in its anti-corruption campaign, claiming that the dragnet is focused only on opposition politicians.
Among those who have endorsed Mahathir’s proclamation is PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, a one-time strident critic of Mahathir, and other senior PAS leaders. Three Bersatu leaders including the party’s deputy president, information chief and a supreme council member have also signed, along with Mahathir’s son Mukhriz and the Kedah branch of Pejuang’s leadership council.
“Mahathir is shrewd in detecting the directions of political winds. It must have appeared to him that GTA, with its motleys of tired figures, did not quite gain any traction with the Malay base, while the proclamation campaign caught wind, even blowing from the otherwise rival PAS direction,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).
Mahathir has seemingly also changed his tune on PAS, implying that non-Malays should not fear the “green wave” showing increasing voter support for PN. Non-Malays achieved “a lot of progress” under 60 years of Malay-majority government rule, he tweeted last month adding, “Don’t try to scare them with Malay rule by painting them green,” without addressing anyone directly.
Many non-Malays and ethnic minorities in Malaysia regard PAS’ rising support with unease, fearing the ultra-conservative party, which advocates for a strict interpretation of Islamic law, may eventually come to power and introduce extreme methods of legal punishment and stricter religious restrictions that would infringe on the rights and freedoms of other non-Muslim communities.
Chin sees Mahathir’s overtures as an “indirect admission that he lost the ideological battle” with PAS. “Mahathir’s real philosophy is actually to make the Malays more capitalist so they can compete” with the entrepreneurial ethnic Chinese minority, but national politics had, in fact, “actually moved closer towards Islamic space than toward the Malay nationalism space.”
“Both Mahathir and Hadi are supremely confident of the long-term viability of their respective political platforms that in their view could prevail over all others, friends and foes alike,” Oh told Asia Times. “In the short run… they could team up for the common cause of overthrowing Anwar, and afterward which side could end up swallowing the other remains to be seen.”
Meanwhile, the bitter decades-long feud between Anwar and Mahathir is set to enter the courtroom with defamation hearings set to begin on May 31.
While Mahathir has challenged the premier to “show proof” that he enriched himself and maintains no wrongdoing, Anwar has repeatedly challenged the two-time former premier to reveal all his personal and family assets.
Anwar defiantly raised the issue at a public event earlier this month. While not directly naming his long-time nemesis, he invoked the Malay word “pejuang”, which translates to warrior, saying that in order to become one, allegedly ill-gotten wealth must be given “back to the Malays.”
“Your assets are worth billions and your children have planes, ships, bank accounts abroad. Sell it all, bring it back, and give it to the Malays – that is when you will truly be a pejuang,” he said.
Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie