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Mahathir Going for "3-in-1"

29 May 2015
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Photo credit: Flickr (M Afif) Creative Commons.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir continues to play “shadow puppet politics” from the sidelines as the ruling UNMO faces another crisis of confidence.

In Malaysia, 3-in-1 refers to small sachets of coffee where all the three ingredients (coffee, whitener and sugar) are perfectly balanced. Add hot water and you should have a cup of perfect coffee.

Nowadays, 3-in-1 in Malaysia refers to the open campaign by Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister (PM), to get rid of his hand-picked successor, Najib Tun Razak. If he succeeds, this will be the third PM Mahathir has had a key role in deposing. The first victim was Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first PM. Tunku’s political career was effectively over in 1969 when Mahathir published an open letter to Tunku. The letter blamed Tunku for that year’s May 13th riots in Malaysia, in particular Tunku’s supposedly soft approach to the Chinese community. Although Mahathir was expelled from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) for the letter, within a few months, Tunku lost all his power to his deputy, Abdul Razak, who later became Malaysia’s second PM. Mahathir was also readmitted into UMNO. Razak was also the father of Najib Razak, Malaysia’s current PM.

When Mahathir stepped down in 2003, he handpicked the incoming PM and his deputy. Abdullah Ahmand Badawi was chosen for the top job and Najib became the deputy. By 2007, Mahathir was openly calling for Badawi to resign. Mahathir even resigned from the ruling UMNO party, albeit temporarily, to show how serious he was. His unrelenting attacks on Badawi caused the ruling coalition to lose its two-thirds majority in the 2008 general elections. Badawi resigned and Najib took over in 2009.

Now six years down the road, Mahathir is looking for his third political scalp. He openly calls on Najib to step down; otherwise, in his own words “UMNO will lose the next election”. So why is Mahathir so confident that he can push Najib out.

Firstly, Najib cannot properly explain the financial scandal surrounding 1MDB. 1MDB, a government-owned holding company, is in debt to the tune of RM42 billion and the Malaysian government guarantees part of this debt. The popular suspicion is that Jho Low, a young Chinese tycoon with strong ties to Rosmah, Najib’s wife, siphoned off more than a billion US dollars from 1MDB. Najib has asked for an independent audit of 1MDB’s books but Mahathir cannot wait. Another scandal Mahathir is using against Najib is the Altantuya Shaariibuu affair. In 2006, one of Najib’s bodyguards killed Altantuya, a Mongolian who was trying to blackmail one of Najib’s close friends. The close friend was also the owner of a company that received a multi-million dollar contract from the Malaysian ministry of defence for a submarine deal with France. Najib’s fingerprints are on the deal as he was the defence minister when the deal was inked.

Secondly, Rosmah Mansor, Najib’s wife, is being targeted for her expensive taste in fashion (Birkin bags and jewels) and extravagant lifestyle. In the latest attack on Rosmah, Mahathir claims that the wedding of Najib’s daughter was “the wedding of the century” with the flower arrangements alone costing millions. Rosmah’s son from an earlier marriage is also under scrutiny for his role in the making of the hit-film “Wolf of Wall Street”. There are hints that money from 1MDB ended up as seed funding for the film.

Third, the recently introduced 6% GST has not gone down well with the Malay grassroots. The government’s explanation that some goods will actually become cheaper is widely ridiculed. Many shops have increased their goods and services by more than 6% to compensate for the complex accounting system and the opportunity to make an extra buck.

Can Mahathir succeed?

The chattering class in Kuala Lumpur says Mahathir and his allies are planning a showdown in the second half of this year. They are busy building support among the UMNO grassroots and, more importantly, they are grooming Muhyiddin Yassin to challenge Najib directly during the UMNO party assembly at the end of this year. Thus far Muhyiddin has been coy about his plans. In public events, he supports Najib but at the same time he says Najib must answer Mahathir’s criticism. In Malay wayang-kulit (shadow puppet) politics, he is actually a fence sitter, suggesting that he wants a shot at the top job.

Muhyiddin’s biggest hurdle is his indecisiveness. Mahathir wanted him to challenge Najib last year but he kept dithering until the momentum subsided.

Najib has gone public to say he will “never surrender” to Mahathir. Unlike Badawi, Najib is a master wayang-kulit player in Malay politics. He has carefully rewarded his supporters financially via government contracts and posts. Unlike Badawi, Najib’s people have taken to the social media to attack Mahathir. The only mud that will stick to Mahathir is Mahathir’s own sins – in this case blatant nepotism. Mahathir’s son is Kedah chief minister and there is little doubt that he owes this position to his famous father. He is still in the post despite consensus that he is under-performing. Mahathir’s other son is a billionaire, suggesting to critics that more than business acumen was at play.

There is every reason to believe that the fight between Najib and Mahathir will get nastier in the coming months and some sort of confrontation is inevitable. Who will win? It’s impossible to say. UMNO as a party has strong survival instincts. If by the end of this year UMNO feels that Najib cannot win the next general elections, due in 2018, he’s toast. However, Mahathir is 90 years old this year. So time is on Najib’s side. Then again, it’s always foolish to bet against Mahathir when he is on a mission.

Prof James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.