In Malaysia, a political stalwart retires: The Diplomat

Standing at a podium, facing the tower erected in his name, Mahathir is giving what will turn out to be the last campaign speech of his career. Tun Mahathir Mohamad, nicknamed Tun M or Dr. M, is the representative of the conservative Malaysian Pejuang party, which he created in 2020. Addressing the crowd on the night of November 18, on the eve of Malaysia’s 15th general election , the words flow, echoing the chants of a thousand people: “Hidup Tun, hidup Tun!” Long live Tun. Indeed, a long life it has been.

Mahathir was born in 1925, the same year as Malcolm X and that’s just a year before the late Queen Elizabeth II. He grew up in the town of Alor Setar in the northern state of Kedah; His father was a school teacher and his mother was a housewife. A few blocks from Mahathir’s house lived Daim Zainuddin, who would later become his finance minister and closest adviser.

Mahathir witnessed the history of Malaysia, from the Japanese occupation in 1942, independence from Britain in 1957, and Singapore’s secession from the Federation of Malaya in 1965. He shaped the country’s political future and spent 29 years as Minister of the Cabinet (education, deputy prime minister, trade and industry, home affairs, defense and finance), then served 22 years as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. He then capped this off with his incredible comeback as prime minister in 2018, a role he held until the collapse of his government in 2020.

After an extraordinary career and a controversial legacy, Mahathir returned again to the island of Langkawi, the parliamentary constituency he won in 2018. Dr M had been posted to Langkawi as a young doctor in 1956, after joining politics. , and then promoted the development of the island and opened its coasts to tourism and international exhibitions. As Malaysia’s general election campaign began earlier this month, the 97-year-old political titan said he was ready to rise back to the top job, in what could be his 25th cumulative year in power. “Being an MP for Langkawi doesn’t give me enough to run a good government,” he confessed during a conversation ahead of his November 18 speech.

Mahathir spent most of his career in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a party he joined in 1946 and which ruled Malaysia from independence in 1957 until 2018. In 2015, Mahathir resigned from UMNO in protest of its then president, the Prime Minister. Najib Razak, his ex protected. The party was torn apart by revelations of what would soon become the world’s biggest financial scandal and the biggest embezzlement of state funds in Malaysian history. The 1MDB scandal involved a complex fabric of Malaysian leaders, global financiers, con artists and superstars from Kuala Lumpur to Hollywood, from Najib Razak to Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Mahathir’s resignation from UMNO was the first in a long series of departures and firings of UMNO leadership. In 2016, the group of people who had questioned Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal, including Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathirson’s Mukhriz, formed a new party: Parti Pribumi Bersatu, or Bersatu (Together). While Bersatu fiercely represented Malay interests in a multi-religious and multi-cultural context where only 60 percent of the population is Malay-Muslim, Mahathir knew that if he was going to topple UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, he would need to to include non-Malay leaders.

In December of the same year, Mahathir approached the leader of the democratic or Reformasi movement, Anwar Ibrahim, to form an alliance. Anwar, once Mahathir’s favorite-turned-opponent, was no stranger to Mahathir’s power strategies.

In the early 1980s, Mahathir had co-opted Anwar Ibrahim from the ranks of the student Islamist movement in order to neutralize the movement after the Iranian revolution. Anwar was then the leader of Angkatan Beliau Islam Malaysia (ABIM), the largest organization of young Islamists in the country. Mahathir hoped to tame the movement by co-opting Anwar, his token leader, and allowing her to implement Malaysia’s early Islamization policies, an Islamization that has impacted Malaysia to this day. Mahathir never had much sympathy for any ideology that he perceived to be at the other end of the political spectrum, be it Islamism or Communism. And so, by bringing the Islamist agenda under government control as envisioned by Anwar, Mahathir wanted to prevent the Islamist movement from becoming further radicalized, avoid the risk that it would destabilize a multi-religious society, and erase any threat to the government from it.

Under Mahathir’s wing, Anwar rose rapidly to become his deputy in 1993. However, due to differences of opinion between the two men over their handling of the 1998 economic crisis, combined with Anwar’s excessive popularity, Mahathir was fired. to the political prodigy of his government. . In response to Mahathir’s rule, Anwar led a Reformasi movement and soon emerged at the head of the opposition to Mahathir’s rule (after the Islamist movement from which it had sprung). As a result of his audacity, Anwar was soon accused of corruption and sodomy in 1999; He subsequently was sentenced to six years in prison.

Out of the Reformasi movement emerged the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Justice Party, or PKR) led by Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar’s wife. Anwar was released in 2004 and then jailed again under Najib’s rule in 2015. However, in 2016 he agreed to hand over, at least for a moment, leadership of the movement from him to Mahathir to overthrow UMNO. Mahathir’s Bersatu then joined the PKR Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led coalition, which also included the predominantly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the moderate Islamist Amanah party. Mahathir promised Anwar that he would hand over the Malaysian votes (snatched from UMNO) that his party had always felt able to win, secure Anwar’s release from prison upon victory, and then allow Anwar to succeed him as prime minister within a reasonable, though unspecified, time. In January 2018, just months before the 14th general election, Mahathir was announced as the prime ministerial candidate of PH, the very opposition movement he had once suppressed, now united by the common goal of destroying UMNO. , the party he once helped. form.

Mahathir delivers a speech at a small town gathering in Langkawi, Malaysia on November 17, 2022. (Exclusive Copyright of Sophie Lemière)

The Anwar-Mahathir (political) marriage of convenience enjoyed a brief, indeed a very brief, honeymoon. As promised, Anwar was released a week after PH’s historic election victory in May 2018. While Anwar pushed to take the reins of government too soon, Mahathir put up with too much. The dispute between the two leaders contributed to instability within the PH coalition government. Finally, Mahathir resigned. When his government collapsed in January 2020, Mahathir was expelled from his own party, Bersatu. His resignation sent PH back into opposition; and UMNO, the big loser of 2018, returned to power in coalition with the new Bersatu leadership. Four years and four governments later: all the players returned to their starting position in this Shakespearean-inspired political game.

That night in Langkawi, with Mahathir on stage, it seems as if the last four years have been an ellipse in history. The speech sounds very similar to the one Mahathir gave just a day before his historic comeback in 2018. Mahathir attacks UMNO and Najib and rambles on about the 1MDB financial scandal. However, it is now 2022 and Najib is in prison for his role in the scandal and has no role to play in this campaign. Anwar also gets his fair share of attention. Mahathir asks his audience to reject will deny pencuri or “kleptocracy” and also vividly asserts “Saya tolak LGBT”: LGBT rejection. The latter is a direct attack on Anwar Ibrahim, whose reputation had been tarnished by previous sodomy charges, for which he was pardoned by the King. In Mahathir’s rhetoric, voting for PH would pave the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

One might think that such speech was outdated and that with the influx of 1.5 million new voters aged 18-20, this speech would not resonate with the masses. On the contrary, as the results of the elections held the next day show, Malaysia’s young voters are quite conservative. However, their hopes and votes did not materialize in a victory for Pejuang and Mahathir, but for the country’s largest Islamist party, PAS, which won 49 seats in parliament, the highest return in its history. Meanwhile, Pejuang and the GTA coalition of which he was a part were eliminated: all 121 candidates, including Mahathir and his son Mukhriz, not only lost their election, but also their electoral deposit. Akhramsyah Sanusi, Pejuang’s head of research, explains: “We knew from the beginning that it was going to be difficult (…) We saw the possibility that he would lose, but never that much. We think that the oscillation (of voters) would be for the UMNO candidate, not for the PAS”.

I asked Mahathir why he would bet his seat and risk losing rather than simply fold. He explained: “I love my country, I have a duty to prevent its destruction… In politics, he sometimes wins, sometimes he loses. I’m ready for that.” On November 23, just one day before Anwar was to be sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister after decades in opposition, Mahathir issued a statement explaining that he had decided to retire from politics and allow himself more time to write and write. Record the story as you did. it’s.

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Controversial as Mahathir is, he remains an iconic figure in Southeast Asian politics and a longstanding advocate for the development and sovereignty of the Global South. For decades, his voice has been heard, admired, respected and hated around the world. Mahathir walked with the Malaysians from the 20th century to the 21st, and his story will forever be intertwined with that of his homeland. However, as he tells me: “I don’t want a cult of personality. I don’t care about my legacy. I’ll be dead anyway.

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