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Mahathir has finally thrown off the national unity cloak he put on before GE14. It never sat comfortably on him anyway. Now we see his true colours; it will disappoint many.

In an interview he gave recently and which was widely reported, he explained why he could not support Anwar even for the post of deputy prime minister. Projecting his own prejudices upon the Malay political landscape, he said Anwar was perceived by the Malays as being “too liberal” – and all because Anwar committed the unpardonable sins of forming a multiracial party and being willing to work with the DAP.

Comparing Anwar to Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Mahathir said when Tengku Razaleigh left UMNO he formed a Malay party, whereas when Anwar left UMNO he formed “a liberal” (i.e. non-Malay) party. Anwar also “wanted to get DAP’s support,” he said. To Mahathir, this amounted to unacceptable, even treasonous behaviour.

There you have it: the two reasons why Mahathir was never very happy with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) construct and why he set about trying to replace PH with a Malay unity government.

Anwar’s unpardonable sin

To Mahathir, Anwar is not fit to be prime minister because he doesn’t subscribe to the Ketuanan Melayu, Malaysia is for Malays ideology. In other countries, tolerance and respect for diversity is considered a virtue; here it is dismissed as a dangerous “liberal” idea that must be stamped out.

Mahathir seems to believe that the Malays are so weak that they will always need a strong leader like him – a Peter the Great of Russia (one of the two men he admires most) – to save them from the Chinese. It is by no means a unique view; the Perlis mufti, for example, opined that Malaysia needs a Saddam Hussein to keep the non-Malays in check.

It seems to make no difference to them that the Malays have never been more secure or that the notion of non-Malays taking over the country is simply preposterous.

Remember too, that Mahathir has never forgiven Anwar, his one-time protégé, for turning against him at the height of the Asian financial crisis. He was so enraged by Anwar’s betrayal that he exacted terrible vengeance.

Apparently, his feelings for Anwar have not changed. Indeed, his dislike of Anwar appears to have only intensified since the latter’s release from prison.  Of course, Mahathir kept insisting publicly that he would honour the deal for Anwar to succeed him but, as we now know, he was just biding his time and waiting for the right moment to move against Anwar.

DAP: Unrequited love

Faulting Anwar for being willing to work with the DAP is also hypocritical given that Mahathir himself joined hands with the DAP in his quest to oust Najib and return to power. Perhaps he feels that only he is strong enough to control the DAP.

In any case, his comments must have come as something of a shock to the DAP leadership.  They were, until recently, his most ardent cheerleaders.  They consistently supported him and waxed eloquent about his leadership. They were so taken in by him that they were begging him to stay on as prime minister even as he was preparing to ditch them.

Of course, it was all unrequited love; Mahathir never cared much for them and neither did he defend them against the barrage of scurrilous slander they had to cope with. Now that he has suffered a setback, he is singing their praises once more just in case he might need their help. If it also drives a wedge between PKR and DAP all the better.

Like Hadi, Mahathir is happy to work with the DAP when it suits him and quick to ditch them once they have outlived their usefulness. Ultimately, PPBM, UMNO and PAS all share the same objective of keeping the DAP (and by extension the non-Malays) from any kind of meaningful participation in government.

Token representation

Their idea of an acceptable multiracial coalition is one in which non-Malays have nothing more than token representation, the kind that MCA and MIC have always been happy to provide. The concept of Malaysia as a genuine multiracial and multireligious polity with shared citizenship is simply anathema to politicians like Mahathir and the rest of the Ketuanan Melayu crowd.

As Mahathir wrote in his seminal book The Malay Dilemma almost 50 years ago, “Malays are the rightful owners of Malaya, and that if citizenship is conferred on races other than the Malays, it is because the Malays consent to this. This consent is conditional.”

In other words, citizenship for non-Malays is conditional on their acceptance of absolute Malay hegemony. Recent statements by Hadi Awang and others that Malaysia is for Malays is simply an echo of what Mahathir has been saying all these years. What they want is a government of Malays, by Malays, for Malays.

An ephemeral unity

Mahathir is down, of course, but he is not out, at least not yet. He is now talking about challenging Muhyiddin for the top PPBM post, warning that he is going to be keeping a close eye on Muhyiddin’s performance and hinting that he might again lead PH against Muhyiddin.

It could well be part of a strategy to force Muhyiddin to reach some kind of accommodation with him that will offer him a face-saving way out and perhaps secure a place for his son going forward. After all, the Malay unity government that we see today is exactly what Mahathir had in mind; Muhyiddin just beat him to it.

In the meantime, Mahathir still has room to manoeuvre. The Perikatan Nasional coalition is, in many ways, more unstable than the one it replaced. Malay unity has always been as ephemeral as the morning dew. If history is anything to go by, Malay leaders are most united when venting their spleen against the DAP, Christians and Jews; much less so when they try to work together. They all have outsized egos and ambitions that make it difficult for them to cooperate with each other for any length of time. It is an environment in which Mahathir thrives best.

What all this means is that we are entering a period of prolonged political instability; anything can happen. Watch and pray.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 14th March 2020]