Malaysia’s political analysts are sensing that the country is hurtling back to a period of intense political theatrics – usually a sign that its relentless ‘Game of Thrones’-style battle for power is nearing a new crescendo. A semblance of peace has been in place since last September when the current Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, struck a deal of sorts with the opposition, led by veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, to ensure the country’s post-Covid-19 recovery was not encumbered by politicking. But there are signs that this tenuous state of peace may be about to end. One indication is the decision by two senior political heavyweights and long-time rivals, the scandal-haunted ex-prime minister Najib Razak and Anwar, to stage a debate on May 12. It is the first time that both men, in politics for decades, have agreed to such public discourse with each another. Malaysia 1MDB scandal: a guide to the key figures from Roger Ng’s trial Previously infamous for saying that “debate is not our culture”, Najib changed his tune earlier this month after his insistent call for the government to bail out Sapura Energy, a tanking oil and gas company, was challenged by the opposition. “Game on. I agree to debate with Anwar. Let’s rock,” said 68-year-old Najib on Facebook. The debate will see both politicians argue their case on whether Sapura Energy needs a bailout, followed by a general discussion on Malaysia’s economic, political and governance future. While the date, venue, and moderator has been set, scepticism still lingers given the former prime minister’s own track record of evading past debates including one with his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad in 2015, dubbed ‘Nothing to Hide’ on the topic of 1MDB, which was then merely political gossip. In this round, Najib was originally challenged by Anwar ally Rafizi Ramli – a former chartered accountant and manager at the country’s oil company Petronas – who was fact-checking the former prime minister’s claims about Sapura Energy, when he issued the challenge. Najib, apparently not humbled by his corruption conviction in 2020, said it was beneath him to debate Rafizi and challenged Anwar instead. The opposition leader, an eloquent orator, promptly accepted. Behind the excitement of the spectacle as touted by political players, many Malaysians wonder whether such a debate, if it happens, would achieve anything beyond providing further opportunity for two already very visible politicians to advance their popularity. “What good would the Anwar vs Najib debate do for the country or the people? Absolutely nothing,” said writer Amir Hafizi, while admitting he would find it entertaining to see the two figures verbally sparring. Others, such as Twitter user ‘Silly Chili’ anticipated that such a debate would comprise one side defending himself while the other bombards him with further accusations of incompetence, perceived or otherwise. “I’d rather see a debate between Rafizi, Khairy, Nurul, Anthony or Syed on how they plan to improve Malaysia and move on from this 1980s relic politics,” he said, referring to the group of prominent younger politicians. Hundreds of Rohingya escape detention in Malaysia, 6 die on highway At the heart of such unwillingness to see the two parties debating is the proposed topic: whether the government should intervene to help cash-strapped Sapura Energy, which is in debt to the tune of 10.5 billion ringgit (US$2.5 billion). While Anwar, as the head of the opposition camp, has the status to debate and move the issue forward, political watcher Azmi Hassan questions whether Najib, who is now just a government backbencher without ties to Sapura Energy, is the right person to be debating on behalf of the government. “Despite being adamant that Sapura should be bailed out, can Najib convince the government to bail it out? I don’t think so,” Azmi conjectured. Agreeing that such a debate would be little more than a self-serving endeavour for Najib, whose popularity “would benefit from it either way”, Azmi conceded that it might be a useful way to showcase the company’s troubles for those who want to know more. Then there’s the elephant in the room: Najib Razak’s criminal involvement in the 1MDB scandal that landed him with a 12-year jail sentence and condemned Malaysia’s taxpayers to servicing a massive debt of 38.8 billion ringgit (US$9 billion) well into 2039. What gives him the right to recommend bailing out another allegedly mismanaged government-linked company? Among Najib’s eyebrow-raising claims is the belief that Sapura Energy is capable of repaying its debts if allowed to continue operating. A further echo of his claims that 1MDB was solvent despite evidence to the contrary. Analyst Oh Ei Sun, a former Najib aide, quipped that perhaps the ex-prime minister is precisely the right person to talk about the topic, given his experience. “One might also argue that he would know the ins and outs, or bolts and nuts of such modus operandi, perhaps more than anyone else, with the exception of Jho Low,” said Oh, who has been openly critical of his former boss. Will Roger Ng’s US conviction in 1MDB trial finally dent Najib’s popularity? While the debate is about what the Malaysian government should do, it has distanced itself from the discussion, with Communications Minister Annuar Musa saying that it’s just a personal debate between two people. “Right now it’s a challenge match between two individuals and coincidentally they have no locus standi in government,” said Annuar, who dismissed reports that the government will air the debate on television. A different view is taken by Malaysian political observer James Chin in Australia, who is of the opinion that the government might eventually step in, but with the police shutting it down as the matter being debated is still under investigation. “The government does not want this to become another 1MDB scandal,” Chin said. The 1MDB scandal, which was prominently featured in the campaign trails of the previous federal election in 2018, ultimately led to the ousting of Najib Razak after nine years in power, and the fall of Barisan Nasional after six decades of uninterrupted rule.