The battle to succeed Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is now enjoined in earnest. Its not just a contest between fractious personalities but about who is best placed to defend the Malays against the “existential threat” from the non-Malays. This is, of course, something that has always loomed large in the Malay psyche. Billions of ringgits in contracts, assets and business deals are also at stake. It is quite literally a fight for the ownership of the country itself.
Mahathir, PPBM & Malay supremacy
For many PPBM ministers, the succession issue is very much a fight for political survival; most will almost certainly be culled from the cabinet to make room for Anwar’s team. Understandably, these ministers are actively opposing the scheduled transfer of power out of sheer self-interest, if nothing else.
For Mahathir, the succession issue is also related to his long struggle to ensure Malay supremacy. His public remarks indicate an abiding obsession with the fear that the Malays will somehow be overwhelmed by the non-Malays (particularly the Chinese), something he is determined to prevent.
His comments at the recent Kongress Maruah Melayu (KMM) reflect these concerns. In his keynote address, he appeared to lament Malay dependence on non-Malays within the PH coalition and the concessions that he has felt obliged to make in return for their support. Perhaps he was referring to having had to yield the finance minister’s post to the DAP, something that still rankles Malay supremacists.
It suggests that he is not comfortable with the present power-sharing configuration and wants to see a return to the old days when a single Malay party dominated all aspects of national life. His subtle message to the Malay supremacists who were gathered before him at the congress was clear: don’t complain about the non-Malays becoming too powerful if you won’t unite behind PPBM.
It was also no accident that Anwar Ibrahim, the presumptive heir apparent, was excluded from the congress. Mahathir has long considered Anwar too compromised and too reliant on the DAP to stand up to the non-Malays. As well, being head of a multiracial party, he is seen as not fully committed to the Ketuanan Melayu agenda and thus cannot be relied on to defend “bangsa dan agama.” Hence the reluctance to pass the baton to him.
Having tried and failed to win over a significant number of UMNO and other Malay MPs to his side, Mahathir and other PPBM leaders are now encouraging the idea of a Malay unity government. Whether it comes to pass or not, it is a warning to both PKR and DAP that if they push Mahathir too far, he has a nuclear option at hand.
In the meantime, Malay leaders continue to play up the threat narrative. Malay unity is, after all, premised on all manner of threats to race and religion.
Demonized & betrayed
The DAP leadership, for its part, has wisely tried to avoid taking sides in what is essentially a Malay power struggle. Though they are the second largest voting bloc in Parliament, they are trapped within a cordon sanitaire that has been built around them as a result of years of demonization. Anything they do or say, no matter how well intended, will be used against them.
Their strategy of keeping their heads down and simply focusing on their ministerial responsibilities, however, is not sustainable given the incendiary charges that are being levelled against them even from within the PH coalition. They are in a no-win situation: if they speak out, they’ll risk inflaming the situation even more; if they keep silent they risk angering their base who are already contemptuous of their leadership’s seeming subservience to Mahathir.
The recent arrests (under SOSMA) of two DAP state assemblymen for alleged links to the LTTE terrorist organization were particularly difficult for the DAP leadership to swallow. While they are obliged to publicly respect the legal process, there’s no doubt that they are stunned by the arrest which they see as politically motivated. They have stoically endured demonization as Christian evangelists, communist sympathizers, traitors, Islamophobes and Jewish agents; being accused of terrorist links by a government of which they are a part, a government they worked so hard to support, is for many in the party the ultimate act of betrayal.
Some grassroot leaders are now urging the leadership to quit the coalition as a matter of principle. It is not, however, that simple. Walking away would leave the government entirely in the hands of Ketuanan Melayu ideologues who might well seize the opportunity to bring in a rash of policies that could permanently marginalize the non-Malays. It might come to that but, for now at least, quitting would be premature.
No longer master of his own party
Anwar and his party are not much better off. By skilfully manipulating the ambitions of Azmin Ali, Mahathir has successfully neutered the largest single party in Parliament along with his chief rival. Azmin and his faction – now de facto PPBM members in all but name – are Mahathir’s fifth column within PKR. They defy and undermine Anwar at every turn. Azmin’s recent call for Mahathir to be allowed to finish his full term, in defiance of the PH agreement, is rank duplicity that, in normal circumstances, ought to have led to his immediate dismissal.
But Anwar is no longer the unchallenged master of his own party. With Azmin reportedly controlling at least half the party’s stable of MPs, Anwar’s options are limited. He is too weak to challenge Mahathir, and yet if he does nothing, he will lose anyway.
Interestingly, instead of pandering to the Ketuanan Melayu crowd, Anwar has counter-intuitively chosen to campaign for a more inclusive nation based on tolerance and respect for all communities. At the University of Malaya last week, he made a strong case for a needs-based approach to economic development and was applauded for it by a mostly Malay audience. He has even gone so far as to call for zakat to be used to help the poor irrespective of race or religion.
Whatever else you may say about the man, you have to admire his courage in adopting such positions at a time when other Malay leaders are pushing a more exclusive, more racist narrative. It remains to be seen, however, whether his gamble will pay off.
A house divided
Whether this is all part of a grand scheme, as some have argued, or just a series of random reactions, the succession issue is tearing PH apart. Resentment, suspicion and anger have replaced the sense of unity and hope that was so evident on victory night. As well, the government is paralysed and the reform agenda is on hold. It cannot continue this way for much longer.
Voters too are increasingly angry and frustrated watching the very people they trusted to lead the country into a new day now fighting each other like cocks in a pit. Perhaps we might have to wait for some of these fractious men to pass from the scene before we can start dreaming of better days again.
[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur |1st November 2019]