MALAYSIA: ANALYSIS
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Malaysia 1MDB scandal

With a handshake and smile, Malaysia’s old foes Mahathir and Anwar meet for the first time in 18 years

The encounter quickly went viral in politics-obsessed Malaysia where opposition to scandal-tainted current Prime Minister Najib Razak has upended alliances

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 7:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 10:19pm

Once bitter foes, former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad and the one-time protégé he jailed, Anwar Ibrahim, exchanged a previously-unthinkable handshake Monday that illustrated the country’s topsy-turvy politics.

Mahathir sparked a social media frenzy with a show of support at a court appearance by Anwar, who was jailed again last year by Malaysia’s current government following a controversial sodomy conviction, the same charge Mahathir used against him in 1998.

The brief and smiling encounter - images were shared widely online - underlined the current political flux in Malaysia, where opposition to scandal-tainted current Prime Minister Najib Razak has upended alliances.

Their shaking hands means their interests have converged
Independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian

Najib is accused of massive graft in the alleged looting of billions of dollars in state money. He denies the charge and has cracked down in response.

Mahathir, who imposed his will on Malaysia for 22 years as prime minister before retiring in 2003, has led calls for Najib to be toppled and to face justice.

Monday’s meeting capped months in which Anwar and Mahathir have flirted from a distance, reviving memories of their stormy past.

The charismatic Anwar was deputy premier and heir apparent to the autocratic Mahathir until he was sacked in 1998 by his boss over political differences, an episode that continues to reverberate.

Charged with sodomy and corruption, Anwar spent six years in jail.

But he emerged to lead the previously ineffectual political opposition to historically strong electoral showings until he was jailed again in 2015 by Najib’s government.

Mahathir played down Monday’s meeting, saying he was merely showing support for a legal challenge launched by Anwar against a new security law.

Mahathir takes swipe at Najib over Malaysia’s ‘stupid’ Chinese business deal

The law, rammed through last year by Najib’s government, grants Najib draconian security powers.

“I don’t know about friends but I know I talked to him,” Mahathir said with a chuckle when reporters asked after the encounter whether the two were friendly again.

“I met him and had a long chat with him about what he was doing.”

But the encounter quickly went viral in politics-obsessed Malaysia.

“Now I think I have seen everything,” Eric Paulsen of activist group Lawyers for Liberty said in tweeting an image of the handshake.

It remains to be seen whether any real detente between the political heavyweights can be achieved - or can put a dent in Najib.

The formidable opposition alliance that Anwar forged has crumbled amid infighting, especially after his jailing.

Najib, meanwhile, has tightened his grip and used the powerful ruling coalition’s deep pockets and pervasive control to win recent by-elections. The next general election must be held by mid-2018.

However, leading independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian called the handshake “a big deal” and a sign that “Mahathir has come full circle”.

“The fundamental problem for the opposition was that Mahathir and Anwar couldn’t get along,” he said.

“Their shaking hands means their interests have converged.”

Anwar has condemned both of his convictions - on charges of sodomising male aides - as false and politically motivated. Sodomy is illegal in the Muslim-majority country.

Najib denies the corruption allegations against him, but the US Justice Department filed suit in July to seize more than $1 billion in luxury assets which it says were purchased with money stolen from Malaysian state fund 1MDB.

Is Malaysia’s Mahathir gambling his legacy by taking on Najib?

Mahathir is spearheading an effort to form a new political party of anti-Najib figures from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

But his attacks on Najib have garnered mixed reviews, with many accusing him of hypocrisy for tolerating corruption and repressing dissent during his own premiership.