World News

In Malaysia, the Old Prime Minister Promises a New Order

Posted May 10, 2018 7:04 p.m. EDT
Updated May 10, 2018 7:10 p.m. EDT

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The accounts of corruption are staggering: at least $3.5 billion stolen from a government fund and spent on expensive real estate, jewelry and art, with $731 million ending up in the personal accounts of the prime minister, Najib Razak.

Malaysians were so enraged that they threw out Najib in national elections this week, the first time the governing party has lost power since independence more than 60 years ago.

In his place, voters turned to a familiar face, Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old former prime minister who had teamed up in an unlikely alliance with his political opponents, some of whom he had jailed.

Mahathir was sworn in Thursday as the new prime minister — the world’s oldest elected head of government — promising to fight corruption, prosecute Najib and unite this diverse nation of 31 million people.

“You know the mess the country is in,” Mahathir said at a news conference Thursday morning, “and we need to attend to this mess as soon as possible.”

“The rule of law will be fully implemented,” he said later at the conference. “And if the law says that Najib has done something wrong, then he will have to face the consequence.”

The ouster of the governing party is striking in a region where autocratic government, arbitrary killings, imprisonment and media crackdowns have become common.

From President Rodrigo Duterte’s killing of drug users in the Philippines, to the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s campaign to crush Cambodia’s media and opposition, it has been a tough period for democracy and human rights throughout Southeast Asia.

Yet how Malaysia’s new leaders will govern together is a big question. Many of the members of Mahathir’s broad coalition have little in common with him beyond their outrage over the towering list of corruption accusations against Najib, and the governing party’s stifling grip on power.

“There is a lot of work to be done to undo the years of unbridled power,” said Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the nonprofit Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, based in Kuala Lumpur.

Gabriel added that she expected the new government to properly investigate Najib and the missing money, and to begin cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department, which is investigating the theft of Malaysian government money and its laundering through U.S. financial institutions, and other foreign inquiries.

“But for now, the power has been returned to the Malaysian people, as we have ushered in a two-party system,” Gabriel said.

Malaysia has three main ethnic groups — Indians, Chinese and Malays, who are largely Muslim and make up the majority of the population. Since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957, it has been led by the United Malays National Organization, known as UMNO, which has long promoted the idea of providing special advantages to Malays, like setting aside places in universities for Malay students.

Najib’s father and uncle were early party leaders. Like Najib, both his uncle and uncle served as prime minister. So did Mahathir, who was a mentor to Najib and helped him become prime minister.

“The biggest mistake that I have made in my life is choosing Najib,” Mahathir told voters last week.

Until Wednesday, the party and its broader coalition, the National Front, had never lost its parliamentary majority.

As prime minister and UMNO’s leader from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir repeatedly won the support of the Malay majority but also gained a reputation as a builder who established modern-day Malaysia.

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which for a time were the world’s tallest buildings, came to symbolize his effort to put Malaysia on the global map.

In Wednesday’s vote, he recaptured some of the ethnic Malay support he once enjoyed while uniting his former opponents in their common quest to end what they saw as Najib’s corrupt rule. But up to the last moment it was in doubt whether his victory at the polls would hold.

Under the Malaysian Constitution, the monarch — a mostly ceremonial and rotating role — is empowered to swear in new prime ministers. Hours after the election results were made official early Thursday, the king, Sultan Muhammad V, still had not moved to do so.

In his news conference at noon Thursday, Mahathir said the king should put him in office by 5 p.m.

“Any delay will mean that we have no government, and when you say you have no government, you have no law, you have no constitution,” Mahathir said. “You don’t have all the institutions which are created to give form to the government of this country.”

The ceremony to swear him in did not take place until after 9:30 p.m., following several hours of discussion among the king, Mahathir, other party leaders and several constitutional lawyers advising Mahathir.

At his Thursday news conference, Mahathir pledged to seek a royal pardon for another onetime protégé, former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving his second prison sentence after being convicted on sodomy charges and is scheduled to be released in June. Both of Anwar’s convictions were widely seen as politically motivated.

Anwar’s supporters hope he can someday become prime minister himself. But he must have a royal pardon before he can run for office again — a process that takes many months and requires the king’s approval.

Anwar was once Mahathir’s deputy prime minister, but the two had a falling out, and Anwar was sent to prison by a court widely seen as carrying out Mahathir’s wishes. He was imprisoned again three years ago.

For now, Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is expected to be deputy prime minister, the second-highest post in the new government.

James Chin, a Malaysian who is the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said Mahathir was elected as a “transitional figure” to rebuild the country’s government and pave the way for Anwar to succeed him.

“His role is to put the institutions back in place, and he is supposed to keep the seat warm for Anwar Ibrahim,” Chin said. Mahathir has also said he would clear the way for the criminal prosecution of Najib, who has been embroiled for years in a scandal involving billions of dollars that disappeared from a government investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, that he once led.

The U.S. Justice Department concluded that $3.5 billion from the fund was laundered through financial institutions in the United States, citing the “astonishing greed” of individuals involved in the fraud.

Among the items the money was spent on were a $27.3 million diamond necklace for Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, as well as a luxury yacht and expensive real estate.

At his news conference, Mahathir also addressed China’s extensive influence and investment in Malaysia. He said that his government would need to study the agreements made by Najib and that he was concerned about the size of Malaysia’s debt to China.

But Mahathir said that he was not opposed to China’s so-called Belt and Road program to build infrastructure projects abroad, and that he had personally written to China’s president, Xi Jinping, to encourage the construction of rail lines.

“As for the Belt and Road program, we have no problem with that, excepting of course we would not like to see too many warships in the area,” he said. “Warships attract other warships.”

Sophie Lemière, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who is writing a book about Mahathir, said the election gave him the chance to correct the mistakes of his earlier tenure as prime minister, when he earned a reputation as an autocrat.

Now, in his encore as prime minister, he can create a kinder legacy for himself as an advocate of democracy, justice and human rights, Lemière said.

“Adopting this vernacular and these new concepts is a way to rewrite history and rewrite his 22 years of power,” she said. “He can say: ‘I was never a dictator. Do you know any dictator who gets elected again?'”