The relationship between Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim has come full circle as a result of Pakatan Harapan’s election victory over the long ruling Barisan Nasional coalition led by previously domineering party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
This week’s election was the first victory for an opposition party which ousted the UMNO from power, thus ending the de-facto ‘one party rule’ reality that had dominated Malaysian politics since independence. At the helm of the victorious coalition is Mahathir Mohamad who was previously Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003. While still behind bars, his one time acolyte and political deputy Anwar Ibrahim is set for a royal pardon and a full public rehabilitation that will see him re-entering politics as his convictions related to charges of political corruption and engaging in sodomy (a criminal offence in Malaysia) will now be expunged.
Mahathir famously fell out with Anwar beginning in the late 1990s and throughout two decades of Anwar being in and out of prison, Mahathir maintained his opposition to Anwar’s public rehabilitation. However, during this election cycle Anwar’s People’s Justice Party and Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party joined forces in the opposition bloc which also crucially includes the Democratic Action Party, Malaysia’s version of Singapore’s long ruling People’s Action Party which was for decades led by Singapore’s modern founding father Lee Kuan Yew. During the campaign Mahathir vowed that his first order of government would be asking Malaysian head of state Muhammad V of Kelantan for Anwar’s full pardon. The Monarch has now agreed to grant a full pardon.
While it is expected to take time for Anwar to fully regain his rights to participate in politics as these were stripped from him upon his prior convictions, as Mahathir is now 92 years of age, the chances of him once again turning on Anwar are now slim, in spite of media speculation to the contrary. As an elder statesman, it is clear that Mahathir will work to gradually pave the way for a smooth transition to an Anwar Premiership after solidifying his new base within the framework of the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
While the soap opera qualities of Mahathir and Anwar’s ally to enemy and back to ally relationship continue to dominate headlines, the real revolutionary quality of this week’s election is that after decades of being the primary opposition party in Malaysia, the Democratic Action Party now forms an integral part of the governing coalition.
As the party most committed to ending the traditional UMNO policy of affirmative action measures to favour the political, economic and social position of ethnic Malays over that of minorities, including the ethnic Chinese minority, there is now a real chance that Malaysia will now permanently abandon policies whose legacy served to retard economic and social progress in Malaysia during the 1960s and 1970s.
Of the many groundbreaking reforms of Mahathir during his last lengthy tenure as Premier while still a member of UMNO, his most important domestic policy was easing the affirmative action implicit in the New Economic Policy of 1971. This when coupled with his economic reforms led to an unprecedented period of growth in the Malaysian economy during the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, with the Democratic Action Party in government, there stands a real chance to change Malaysia from a country pivoting between strong affirmative action measures like the New Economic Policy and the earlier pro-multiracial reforms of Mahathir’s previous period of rule, into a country that embraces a permanent multiracial Singapore style settlement in which all racial groups are given equal access to all socio-economic and political opportunities while both negative and so-called positive discrimination measures give way to a future based on total equality for all citizens.
Irrespective of when (some would still say if) Mahathir gives way to Anwar, the consistent force behind the power of the new governing coalition will be Democratic Action Party leader Tan Kok Wai. Like his long serving predecessor Lim Kit Siang, Tan Kok Wai will help to guide the most overtly pro-multiracial party in Malaysia but this time he will have his voice and those of his deputies heard from within the seat of power rather than the opposition.
Now, not only will the presence of the Democratic Action party help to shape the country’s new trajectory in terms of domestic policies, but the party can also help to ensure a pragmatic policy of neutrality in terms of conflicts between the global superpowers. This will necessarily mean that while Malaysia can, should and likely will further develop a policy of ‘trade with all’, it can also work to decrease geopolitical tensions with conflicting superpowers, especially regarding US antagonism of China in the South China Sea and in ASEAN more widely.
During his previous time in power Mahathir was known for being highly critical of US policy in Asia and in particular, he won praise throughout the developing countries of the wider Muslim world for frequently shaming the US policy of hostility towards Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
In an ideal situation, Mahathir’s ideological opposition to US hegemony can form a new alliance with the pragmatic Singapore style neutrality of the Democratic Action Party. In such a scenario, Malaysia will be able to expand its economic relationship with fellow ASEAN members and with China, while remaining out of the fray of the wider Sino-US conflicts in the region.
While Mahathir has in the past been criticised for taking a line against China which was almost as harsh as that which he took against the US, the reality is that the new coalition will necessarily temper any such individualistic tendencies and push the government, whether led by Mahathir or Anwar closer to a direction of win-win multipolarity. Here again, one must not underestimate the influence of the Democratic Action Party in shaping improved Malaysia-Singapore relations, improved Sino-Malasyian relations and creating an atmosphere in which Malaysia is able to trade with the US while retaining independence from US designs on the region.
Far from just being an ideal situation, this is the new reality of Malaysian politics where an old experienced leader has teamed up with a multipolar minded and multiracial minded party to help form the core of a new political programme for all Malaysians.