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Malaysia and the Improbable Win of an Unlikely Alliance

Lai Seng Sin/Reuters
A video clip of the then jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim playing in the background at an anticorruption rally with Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, and Anwar’s one-time nemesis but now political ally, Malaysia’s former prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, October 14, 2017

The flag of Malaysia’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party (PKR), is turquoise-blue with red stripes at both ends. At its center is a stylized white “O.” It symbolizes the black eye of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, who was a rising political star in the 1990s until he criticized the ruling National Front, a right-wing coalition led by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and was shipped off to jail for alleged sodomy. In September 1998, before a show trial, Anwar was beaten up by a police chief. Thereafter, a photo of Anwar’s bruised face became a symbol of opposition to the National Front, which had, in one form or another, been in power since Malaysia achieved full independence in the early 1960s.

Mahathir claimed at the time that Anwar’s black eye was “self-inflicted,” caused by his “pressing a glass over his eyes.” Anwar went to jail for six years, until 2004. Then, incredibly, in 2015 he was jailed again—again for alleged sodomy. Anwar has openly criticized many establishment figures and has long been viewed by those in power as a volatile and threatening figure. He was released from prison, upon receiving a special royal pardon, only this week.

Mahathir had ruled Malaysia with an iron fist, crushing dissenters like Anwar, from 1981 to 2003. In 2018, at the age of ninety-two, he was back, campaigning to become prime minister once more—under the PKR’s turquoise-blue flag. His running-mate was Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who founded the PKR after her husband went to jail. Mahathir’s campaign promise was to obtain a pardon for Anwar if the coalition won, eventually to step down himself and hand over power to his former deputy. This unlikely-seeming team of former rivals buried their differences in the single-minded hope of ousting the spectacularly corrupt administration of Malaysia’s most recent prime minister, Najib Razak—and they did so knowing that they would need all the star power they could get.

Their convoluted alliance was at the heart of Malaysia’s historic general election last week. For the first time in the country’s post-independence history, an opposition coalition succeeded in unseating the National Front. Mahathir led the Pakatan Harapan, or the “Alliance of Hope,” against his own former party. Uniting this alliance was its animus against Najib, a genteel, foreign-educated former protégé of Mahathir’s, who has reportedly stolen almost $700 million from a state fund named 1Malaysia Development Berhad. That scandal, generally known by the initials “1MDB,” along with Najib’s oversight of an unpopular goods and services tax that aimed to simplify tariffs, also angered millions of voters.

Mahathir has referred to his part in supporting Najib’s rise as “the biggest mistake that I have made in my life,” and in 2016, he quit Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), one of the main components of the National Front coalition. Mahathir’s show of remorse, backed by his efforts to make reparation, is something rarely seen in Malaysian public life and high office.

Even so, the opposition’s victory surprised everyone. Postmortems were written for Malaysia’s fourteenth general election months before it happened. The country was so gerrymandered, people assumed, and the National Front’s hold on government so strong, that Najib would easily win re-election, despite his unpopularity and scandals. Instead, turnout was high, reflecting popular discontent: over 12 million Malaysians, or 82 percent of those eligible, cast votes. The Alliance won 121 seats (of 222), giving it a decisive majority in parliament.

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If Najib had won, the increasingly illiberal trend in Malaysian society toward a strongly conservative form of Islam would undoubtedly have continued. In recent decades, Malaysia has received extensive religious investments such as scholarships, mosques, preachers, universities, schools, and textbooks from Saudi Arabia, which has systematically propagated its brand of puritanical Salafi Islam across the Muslim world, as a matter of basic foreign policy. Under Najib, Salafi preachers and ideas gained mainstream platforms; and many members of the Salafi-identified Association of Malaysian Scholars have joined the UMNO outright.

“Najib needed Islamic legitimacy in order to boost his beleaguered image,” Ahmad Farouk Musa, a liberal Islamic scholar based in Kuala Lumpur, told me. “He got this from Malaysia’s Salafi network, many of whose figures have joined UMNO, increasingly defining its religious stances.” Meanwhile, Saudi leaders have also cultivated close personal ties with Najib; some are implicated in the 1MDB scandal, though they claim that a mysterious $681 million deposit to Najib’s personal account last year was a “genuine donation.”

Najib’s election defeat, however, does not mean that the trend of Islamicization in Malaysian society will be checked, since it predates his time in office. Malaysia has long had, for instance, parallel legal systems, with civil law for all citizens and Islamic law for the Muslims (and sharia courts in every state). Many prominent figures have railed against the Saudi investments and the “Arabization” of Malaysia’s religious traditions, including the Sultan of Johor (the constitutional monarch of that state) and Marina Mahathir, Dr. Mahathir’s eldest daughter and a prominent social activist, who has called it “Arab colonialism.” According to Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, a Singapore-based security scholar, Malaysia may be the “weakest link” in Southeast Asia’s resistance to Islamist radicalization “because of the mainstreaming of puritan ideas.”

Lily Rahim, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, agrees that the popular uptake of Salafi ideas has “certainly increased” in the last decade, “encouraged by the UMNO-led government, opposition party PAS, conservative Islamic NGOs, state ulama [clerics] and the Islamic bureaucracy.” The UMNO may have suffered a heavy setback in this year’s election, but the country’s main Islamist party, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), increased its share of the popular vote from 15 percent to 17 percent. (The president of the PAS, Haji Hadi Awang, is himself a Saudi university alumnus.) The PAS quit the Alliance of Hope last year because it wanted to impose hudud, or strict Islamic law, in Kelantan, a rural state that today stages public floggings of criminals.

“The natural alliance now is between UMNO and PAS [against the Hope Alliance],” Tom Pepinsky, a political scientist and Southeast Asia specialist at Cornell University, told me. This would unite the most vocally Malay party and the most vocally Muslim one. “That’s a large majority, essentially all Malay Muslim… and we know that conversations between their leadership have been happening for a while now.” Pepinsky said they would be a force to be reckoned with at the next election, which must take place by May 2023.

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Malaysia has entered a period of uncertainty. No one seemed able to predict what would happen once Najib’s re-election bid was rejected. After all, Malaysia had never before seen a democratic transfer of power.

Thousands gathered outside the State Palace on May 10, a day after the election, waving and wearing PKR flags. Most had had a sleepless night after the polls closed, tracking the results on their screens and watching Mahathir claim victory, but with no official word all night from either Najib’s camp or the Election Commission. Najib finally conceded at around noon, enabling Mahathir to be sworn in by King Muhammad V, the country’s constitutional monarch. Mahathir was driven through the palace gates around 4:30 PM, in formal Malay traditional dress of a stiff black cap and a gold-threaded sarong, for the swearing-in, which was scheduled for 5 PM.

A cloudless afternoon turned to dusk, and then to night. Mahathir was still yet to be sworn in. Some young Malaysians camped out on a hill overlooking the palace while others stocked up on buttery roti canai flatbreads from a nearby café. No one went home. Mahathir had made Thursday a national holiday, and Friday, too. Marina Mahathir unexpectedly joined the crowd at around 8:30 PM. She had declared on Twitter that she was too exhausted to join her father in person, but when the delay became apparent, she turned around her car from the airport—she was on her way to a speaking engagement in Bangladesh—and came to the palace, after all.

“Well, he doesn’t tell us anything,” she told me, talking about her father’s sudden decision to return to political life. “We had a feeling he would run, because a lot of gears were turning these last few months, but he is very much his own man.” She sat on the sidewalk, wearing a loose black vest, slacks, and ballet flats. “Given how long this is going on, I realized I just couldn’t leave the country tonight.”

A minor celebrity in her own right, she was greeted by well-wishers and people asking for photos with her on the lawn of the palace grounds. “Do you think they are discussing something inside?” asked one elderly man, whom she had greeted warmly.

“Discuss what, lah!?” she said, using the common Malay interjection to signal her distaste. The Malay royals are known to dislike Mahathir, and no one expected him to receive an especially warm welcome. Never had an election victory turned out to be so suspenseful. The entire day, with its endless delays, was a puzzle. No one was quite sure of the result, nor could they go to work, so most people just recharged their smartphones, waiting for word in a daze.

Finally, a few minutes after 9:30 PM, Mahathir’s meeting with the king was broadcast.

“It’s on Awani!” Marina told the crowd, and everyone tuned in on their phones to the network that was live-streaming the ceremony. We watched her father meet an incredibly bored-looking king, who slouched through the proceedings, a cell phone visibly bulging in his shirt pocket.

So far, though, Mahathir’s elaborate election strategy has proceeded according to plan. He is firmly in power, and arranged for Anwar to be pardoned right before Ramadan. He also prevented Najib Razak from leaving the country, purportedly so that he can face trial for his alleged corruption.

This is all promising, but there are still several more steps before Anwar can realize Mahathir’s promise of power. To start with, Anwar would need to win a parliamentary seat of his own; the most likely scenario is that his wife will resign from hers, triggering an election in which he will stand in her stead. Mahathir, meanwhile, has given himself a leisurely timeline of two years before he plans to cede his position, by which time he will be ninety-four (he is already the world’s oldest state leader).

Less encouraging is that the stunning electoral upset has done little so far to reverse the erosion of civil liberties in Malaysia—a process that began well before Najib’s administration. During his last term, Mahathir himself behaved like an autocrat, stamping out challenges from opponents through political maneuvering, sacking judges, crushing freedom of assembly, and jailing critics. He also handed out government contracts to cronies and issued antisemitic diatribes. (Although there are hardly any Jews in Malaysia, Mahathir has made ready use of demagogic conspiracy-theory tropes, claiming that Jews “rule the world by proxy.”) This week, in a blow to press freedom, Mahathir announced that he will not repeal Malaysia’s widely criticized “anti-fake news law,” enacted by Najib ahead of the election.

Mahathir has also always aggressively promoted affirmative action for ethnic Malays, who make up more than 50 percent of the population. Back in 1970, he wrote a controversial book, The Malay Dilemma, arguing that the Malay race was naturally nonconfrontational and lazy, and that it was this that led to their subjugation by British colonists and then Chinese businessmen; this racial disadvantage, he proposed, needed the redress of affirmative action in order to preserve Malays’ status as bumiputera, sons of the soil.

Mahathir’s pro-Malay policies have been criticized in the past for causing economic stagnation, encouraging discrimination, and spurring the flight of talented ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians. Although Mahathir abandoned the UMNO, he transferred his allegiance to the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, which has an almost indistinguishable focus on ethnic Malays. It seems unlikely that he will abandon Malaysia’s race-based policies. Anwar, however, has said in an interview since his release that he hopes eventually to reform the race-based affirmative action policies in favor of a “more transparent” system based on merit and socioeconomic class.

Many commentators believe that if civil liberties improve at all under the new administration, it won’t be because of Mahathir but thanks to the people around him. “I’m under no illusions that Mahathir is a liberal democrat, but I do think that he allied himself with opposition parties founded on the premise that civil liberties deserve respect under Malaysian law,” Pepinsky told me. “If he doesn’t uphold at least some of them, he will have a tough time serving his coalition.”

The mood in Malaysia remains optimistic, even as the mundane logistics of power transfer and administration-building take the place of initial jubilation. The election result was an extraordinary proof that Malaysian democracy is not simply theoretical.

Outside the State Palace on May 10, I shared my phone screen with Dennis Ignatius, a former ambassador to Chile and Argentina who is now a newspaper columnist. He wears round glasses and speaks in the clipped tone of someone who spent his early years under British colonial rule. “For a long time, it felt like this whole region has gone dark,” he said. “Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam.” Today, Southeast Asia’s political establishment is packed with authoritarians. “I still can’t believe we managed to change something here.” 

For years, he has been railing against the National Front, corruption, and Saudi investments—albeit with necessarily delicate phrasing—in his columns. Like most other Alliance voters, he never imagined his vote would actually propel them to victory. “I am sixty-seven years old,” he said. “This morning, for the first time ever, I woke up as a man without a mission.”

As for Anwar Ibrahim, he was released from a prison hospital to an ecstatic crowd of admirers on May 16, a day before the first fast of the holy month of Ramadan. He emerged in a natty black suit, and spontaneously canceled the expected news conference because of the boisterous throng of supporters that awaited him.

“I have forgiven him,” he said later, when asked about Najib. “But the issue of injustice toward the people, crimes committed against the people, endemic corruption that has become a culture in this country, that he has to answer for.”

Anwar is seventy years old and has spent the last twenty of them in and out of jail. He has promised to run for parliament within Mahathir’s two-year interregnum, but not immediately. First, he said, he would need some “time and space.”


An earlier version of this essay misspelled the name of a Malaysian TV network; it is Awani, not Amani.