The Voice: Mahathir Mohamad

By: By Daniel Besant for Southeast Asia Globe - Posted on: June 22, 2015 | Current Affairs

Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister, has been turning up the heat on the current PM. But will this be enough to cause Najib Razak’s downfall?

There is no shortage of stories concerning protégés that turn on their masters. A quick glance at the plots for Hollywood fare from Trading Places to Star Wars is testament to that. However, it is not often that the roles are reversed and the master turns on their pupil.

Mahathir Mohamad
Mahathir Mohamad was born in 1925 in Alor Setar, in what was then British colonial Malaya. He worked as a doctor before moving into politics with the UMNO party, first becoming
a member of parliament in 1964. He was elected prime minister in 1981, serving for 22 years and winning five consecutive elections. He has been credited with growing the economy and praised as an activist for developing nations, although he has been criticised for clamping down on civil liberties during his time in office. Illustration by Victor Blanco

But that is exactly what is happening in Malaysia, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad taking aim at the current leader, Najib Razak.

In April, 89-year-old Mahathir wrote a post on his blog in which he exhorted the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the party he once led and a partner in Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN) – to “wake up to the fact that UMNO and BN will lose if Najib leads UMNO” until the next general election. He has also been openly questioning Najib’s leadership abilities, particularly in relation to 1Malaysia Development, a state-owned development corporation currently $11 billion in debt.

Mahathir even has form when it comes to toppling prime ministers. He was behind the oustings of Tunku Rahman and Abdullah Badawi, and he still commands great respect in UMNO and across Malaysian society, particularly in rural areas. The combination of his characteristic outspokenness and his reputation as the longest-serving and most-transformative Malaysian prime minister “affords him a great deal of space to air his views in the national media, which by extension influences the political climate”, said Nile Bowie, a political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur.

The nearly nonagenarian former PM is proud of his legacy and is keen to see his policies followed. With both Badawi and Najib having followed their own agendas, it is not inconceivable that such perceived snubs have spurred his attacks.

According to Greg Lopez, a research fellow at Murdoch University’s Asia Research Centre, Mahathir is stuck in the past, and his nose has been put out of joint by the fact that he has been unable to secure the top spot for his son. “He is a believer in dynastic succession,” said Lopez.

However strong the attacks, they will not necessarily cause Najib’s downfall. The rank and file of UMNO still toe the party line and back their leader, although “behind the scenes there are various reports that figures in UMNO are quite conflicted over Najib when speaking off the record”, according to Bowie.

He added that Najib has, however, been able to weave a web of influence, creating a landscape of stakeholders who stand to lose if he is given the push, which is why there is not as much internal dissent as one would expect “given the sorry state of things under Najib’s tenure”.

What has been most damaging to Najib is Mahathir also calling the prime minister out over his opulence. Mahathir has a reputation for being frugal that he is happy to foster. “It was enough for me to have one plate of mee [noodles], not many plates of mee,” he recently said.

Stories of high spending follow Najib. His wife is notorious for her extravagance and his stepson has been fingered over the purchase of luxury apartments. Mahathir has also raised questions over Najib’s alleged involvement in the murder of Mongolian model Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa, an issue that Bowie said has “previously been the domain of inflammatory accusations from the opposition”.

According to Lopez, though, all this is just sabre rattling by Mahathir. “If he had any real power, he would have removed Najib already,” he said.

With or without Mahathir’s regular attacks, Najib’s days are numbered, according to James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. “Talk is that Najib will be out before the end of this year,” he said. “Palace coup after July.” 

Keep reading:

“We are seeing the rise of political Islam” – After this week’s break-up of Malaysia’s three-party opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, Southeast Asia Globe spoke with James Chin, director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania, Australia, about the future of Malaysian politics