Mahathir’s rise extraordinary

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Reuters

Mahathir Mohamad’s return to the helm as Malaysia’s prime minister is truly remarkable. To return to active politics after a gap of 10 years is always challenging, but to do so at the age of 92 is an extraordinary achievement. Mahathir led the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to victory in the general election, ousting the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) from power for the first time ever. The BN has been ruling Malaysia for over 60 years. So, this is a historic transition. Incidentally, the United Malay Nationals Organisation, which forms the core of the BN, was founded by Mahathir and it was as its leader that he was voted to power and ruled Malaysia as the prime minister between 1981 and 2003. Corruption allegations involving outgoing prime minister Najib Razaq — he is said to have misappropriated funds from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) — are reported to have stirred Mahathir to return to Malaysia’s political arena. After joining hands with the opposition PH and importantly, his protege-turned-rival Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir led a powerful campaign against the Najib government.

Since his swearing-in, Mahathir has said that his top priority is to fix the country’s “horrid financial problem.” He was, of course, referring to the billions of dollars of losses relating to the 1MDB scandal that is linked to Najib. How will Mahathir deal with Najib? Will the latter end up in jail the way Anwar Ibrahim did? Already Najib has been barred from leaving the country and it does seem that he is under house arrest. Two decades ago, the Mahathir government had no qualms about interfering with the working of the judiciary to ensure that his rival Anwar would be jailed. The latter was convicted and jailed on sodomy charges. Mahathir must ensure that the 1MDB scandal is probed and Najib, if found guilty, should be punished under the law and not through its subversion.

All eyes are on Anwar, who is due to walk out of jail soon. Among the coalition’s pledges, was to make Anwar the prime minister in two years. Will Mahathir enable his protege-turned-rival-turned-ally to take over the reins from him this time around? An important challenge that Mahathir faces is to keep the coalition’s disparate constituents together. On the international level, dealing with China will be his main challenge. During his election campaign, he accused Najib of “selling off” Malaysia to China. He can be expected to review infrastructure contracts signed by Najib with China. When Najib was at the helm, China could count on a “reliable” and more pliant leader in Malaysia. Beijing is likely to find Mahathir to be a tougher partner.

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Mahathir’s rise extraordinary

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