After all the analysing done by pundits on Malaysia’s political dynamics in the post-Mahathir period, the country has now come to the strange point of being in a potential pre-Mahathir period.
There is now the more-than-theoretical possibility that 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad will return to lead the country, should the opposition coalition win the coming general election. Though unlikely, the chances of that happening are not exactly slim.
In many ways, Malaysia has been locked in a period of transition for two decades. One could say this was triggered by the Reformasi movement in 1998 when the country’s two top leaders fell out with each other, and behind that, by the socio-economic travails ignited by the Asian Financial Crisis; or one could claim that it began with Mahathir’s retirement in October 2003, or that it started with the surprising results of the 2008 elections when the ragtag opposition managed on election night to win five of the 13 states.
Behind these unending trends lies the fact that a new generation of young leaders – some inspired by the 1998 protests but most thrust into the limelight in 2008 – have been waiting impatiently to take over but are still playing merely a supporting role, not only because the old leaders are still active but also because of the solidity of the discursive and economic domination of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition over the rural population in particular.
Then there was the advent of the internet news media, a prominent milestone of which was the founding of the Malaysiakini news website in 1999. This was followed a decade later by The Malaysia Insider (brought to its knees by political pressure in 2016 and since resurrected as The Malaysian Insight) and by other websites. Social media also appeared after the turn of the century to act as an effective new tool for political activism.
Where the opposition parties are concerned, we have seen its major coalitions evolve from the Barisan Alternatif in 1999 to Pakatan Rakyat in April 2008 to Pakatan Harapan in 2015, which since then has evolved to include two newly formed Malay-based parties: Parti Amanah Negara (splintered from the Islamist Parti Agama SeMalaysia (PAS) and Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (consisting of Umno dissidents).
The dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) has in the meantime gone through its own transformation, taking more and more conservative racial and religious stances the more its defences crumble, which they did in 2008 and 2013. Abdullah Badawi’s huge popularity in 2004 dissipated surprisingly quickly, and his replacement, Najib Razak, the present prime minister, went from being much more popular than his party at the time of his rise to power to being a big burden to its reputation today.
Transitions that go on and on are of course not really transitions any more. Instead, they define the new normal, if for no other reason, then surely by virtue of the fact that the status quo has over time managed to dig itself in. Malaysian politics in the 21st century is now best described as a state of trench warfare.
How, or if, this will end any time soon is the big question.
The return of Mahathir in politics should thus be of the greatest interest to Malaysianists. What are the dangers that Mahathir, a man who has been at the heart of Malaysian politics since the 1960s, sees in the Najib administration which brought this nonagenarian out of retirement so fully that he would form a new party, bring it into the fold of the opposition coalition, and manoeuvre himself into the chair of this body? Why does he eat humble pie the way he has done, and approach Anwar Ibrahim, the man he so mercilessly sacked in 1998 and put in jail, for rapprochement? Why has he been traversing and criss-crossing the country, with his faithful and aged wife in tow, whipping up dissent against Najib, the son of the man who brought him in from the cold in 1972.
Few know more than him how Umno politics and Malaysian governance have relied on dubious processes covering corruption, political patronage, vote manipulation, mass media control, and draconian laws. What is different now?
The fact that he calls his new party a “Pribumi” party, highlighting the fact that it is a Malay-based party, is key to understanding what the situation in Malaysia is today, at least to his mind. Bersatu is also a race-based party that immediately and paradoxically wishes to go into coalition with Pakatan Harapan, whose expressed concerns are about good governance and not racial one-upmanship, and in which the Democratic Action Party (DAP), long dubbed by Umno as an anti-Malay Chinese-chauvinist party, is a founding partner.
Within that nascent coalition are three de facto Malay-based parties, the other two being Amanah, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat. For the coming elections, these are arrayed alongside the DAP against Umno, the major Malay-based party, surrounded by its weaker or neutered Barisan Nasional allies, and tentatively supported by the Islamist PAS.
No wonder there is talk about a pending Malay voter tsunami against the federal government in the coming elections. The time seems to have come when the Malay community has to deal with the long-term negative consequences of Umno’s Malay-centrism on Malaysian nation building. The economic burdens on the lower classes are heavy, while national economic figures remain positive, and Umno governs in the face of four Malay parties in opposition to it. (No doubt, PAS seems more willing to put in its lot with Umno than with the others).
One big definite change over the last few decades has been the emergence of a large enough educated urban Malay middle class whose members appreciate the social stability and cultural pride that only good governance can bring instead of acting out of highly augmented fear of economic and political irrelevance as a community.
The Bumiputra policy was never supposed to be a goal in itself. In fact, the success of Malay-centric nation building requires Malaysian nation building to remain successful. It is here, I believe, that Mahathir’s dilemma lies. Malay-centrism alone will get the Malays nowhere. As a slogan, Malay-centrism rings hollow if the country becomes ever more divided, the poorer classes become ever poorer, and nothing in its present trajectory promises stronger reasons for national pride in the immediate future.
Reforming Malay politics into a shape that accepts the multiculturalism that so clearly marks Malaysian society and that recognises the challenges the digital age poses seems to be the goal, for Mahathir and many others. There is real fear that Malay-centrism a la Umno has lost the plot, and acting in denial of this fact, is dragging the Malay community – and the country as well – into a political black hole.
Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. The think tank is funded by the state government of Penang, one of three states in Malaysia administered by the opposition, including one under PAS