Mahathir vs Najib: New memoirs lift lid on power struggles in Malaysia

Najib Razak (right) and Mahathir Mohamad (left)
PHOTO: Reuters

Malaysian elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad's rivalry with his protege-turned-enemy Najib Razak might have some legs yet in 2022, going by revelations in his recently released book about the country's past two years of political turmoil.

Mahathir, 96, was the focus of some worry in Malaysia earlier in December after he was briefly hospitalised for unspecified reasons.

The two-time prime minister was discharged from the National Heart Institute after undergoing "a series of medical investigations," the hospital said last week.

Sprightly as ever before that episode, he had earlier in the month provoked controversy with the launch of his new memoirs which lifted the lid on his tumultuous second stint as premier from 2018 to 2020.

The country's leader from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir assumed office again following 2018's polls in which the multiracial Pakatan Harapan that he was part of defeated the scandal-tainted Najib and his long-ruling coalition.

But 20 months later, a series of political manoeuvrings saw Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan lose power to an alliance led by Najib's United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

Mahathir, one of the stalwart figures in Umno's 75-year history, quit the party over Najib's alleged involvement in the multibillion dollar plunder of the 1MDB state fund.

The scandal was widely seen as the reason for Najib's 2018 defeat. The 68-year-old is currently facing multiple criminal trials over the case.

In the much-hyped Chasing Hope, The Struggle Continues for a New Malaysia, Mahathir stoutly defends Pakatan Harapan's short-lived tenure in power, despite the deep dysfunction within its constituent parties.

The joint effort to trounce the Umno leviathan "was the right path for Malaysia," Mahathir insisted in the new book, which comes after his 2011 memoir A Doctor in the House.

While he hesitated to write a second autobiography, he did so after friends urged him to do so to chronicle following a retirement that "was more active than most people anticipated," he wrote.

Face-off with Najib

A large part of the book is dedicated to Mahathir's views on why he decided to re-enter frontline politics following his 2003 retirement.

The collateral damage on the country's reputation and politics following revelations of Najib's involvement in the 1MDB scandal was so dire that he felt he had to do something, Mahathir said.

"The scale of Najib's betrayal of the public trust, not to mention my personal faith in him, was unimaginable," he said.

"Clearly, it was the duty of every Malaysian of conscience to get up and do something about it. It was also my personal duty to do something about it."

Mahathir's decision in 2017 to take on Najib in the electoral field meant he had to depart from Umno, in which he wielded significant influence following his earlier 22-year stint in power.

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With over 3.3 million registered members, the party — which admits only Malays and is predicated on Malay nationalism — was the country's main political force from 1957 when Malaysia gained independence until the 2018 election.

Following his exit, Mahathir joined forces with the Pakatan Harapan bloc which at the time was led by another of his long-time rivals, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar was serving a second prison sentence for a sodomy charge that rights groups say had been trumped to keep him away from politics. His first jail term from 1999 to 2004 followed his sacking as Umno's No 2 leader and as Mahathir's deputy prime minister.

"We talked like old friends, although of course we didn't talk about why he was jailed," Mahathir said on his meeting with Anwar in a courtroom in 2016. That encounter paved the way to their subsequent reconciliation.

"I think he, too, realised that the only way to fight Najib was to work together because I had a following.

"His main push was that he wanted to become prime minister and to become prime minister, he had to be released from jail and be pardoned. So, it was worthwhile for him to help me defeat Najib," he said.

Mahathir, with a reputation for being an authoritarian who brooked no dissent in his first term in power, also spoke glowingly about other political personalities who had previously campaigned vigorously against him.

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Among them was the senior lawyer Gobind Singh Deo, the son of the late Karpal Singh — one of Mahathir's most bitter political rivals who had previously served a stint in preventive detention.

The younger Singh was made information minister after Pakatan Harapan's 2018 victory.

In one chapter, Mahathir detailed how it was Gobind who stopped him from storming off from the National Palace after the country's powerful hereditary royals appeared to dither on installing him as prime minister following his coalition's victory.

"It was somewhat ironic that Gobind was the one who stopped me from leaving," Mahathir wrote.

"His father, the late Karpal Singh, was detained under the Internal Security Act during my first administration as prime minister, but not once did Gobind refer to the past and what had happened to his father … I regard Gobind as Gobind, not as the son of Karpal."

'First-mover's advantage'

Mahathir's memoir follows the launch of a separate book by his daughter Marina in November.

The 64-year-old's The Apple and the Tree offers a narrative account of what transpired in Mahathir's inner circle during the Pakatan Harapan years.

She reserved particularly harsh words for certain personalities within the alliance who played a key role in the bloc's February 2020 collapse.

Mass defections at the time caused the coalition to lose parliamentary support, with Umno and other Malay nationalists subsequently taking over power.

Critics have suggested Mahathir and Marina had sought to establish a "first-mover's advantage" in writing the history of Pakatan Harapan's time before others.

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The likes of Anwar and his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail — deputy prime minister during the coalition's stint in power — have so far not launched memoirs detailing their experiences.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, nonetheless, there have been some releases including What's in a Name by Najib's ex-banker brother Nazir.

Another book by former journalist Romen Bose, Final Reckoning: An Insider's view of the Fall of Malaysia's Barisan Nasional, offers a sympathetic portrayal of Najib's undoing and his current legal troubles.

Among high-ranking non-political figures from the Pakatan Harapan era, the former attorney general Tommy Thomas was the first to publish his memoirs, My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, in January.

The book sparked fierce criticism across the political divide over sections that were deemed to be insulting to the country's majority Malays.

Historian Eddin Khoo told This Week in Asia the onus was on readers to be critical when they read the various political memoirs.

"Memoir writing is very personal. As readers you have to take it and grapple with it in a broad sense … as readers we have to be more mature," he said.

Noor Amin Ahmad, an incumbent MP from Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party), said the proliferation of these accounts needed to be appreciated given a dearth of primary sources about contemporary political leaders.

"It allows us to understand their vision, their past, the principles they held, their decision making, influence in deliberation and so forth," said Noor Amin, author of a book about Anwar's childhood.

READ MORE: Former Malaysian PM Mahathir says next election 'last chance to clean up the country'

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.