Muhyiddin who? Najib's still the real problem in Malaysia: Mahathir

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
PHOTO: Reuters

Malaysia's political crisis has been pitched by commentators as one between elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin — but that is not how the 94-year-old veteran leader sees it.

For Mahathir, the real adversary remains Najib Razak, the former prime minister he trounced in the 2018 polls, only to have the defeated 66-year-old re-emerge as a political force.

In an extensive interview with This Week In Asia, the two-time former prime minister painted a picture of Muhyiddin as a weak acolyte of Najib, whom he believes will do everything he can to avoid jail time for the dozens of corruption charges he is facing over the 1MDB financial scandal.

While recent chatter has focused on whether Mahathir's counter political coup will succeed — given a supposed impasse with his on-off ally Anwar Ibrahim - the nonagenarian stressed it was not Anwar who was in his cross hairs.

Mahathir said Anwar and him "have to be together".

"Without being together, we will not have the kind of clout we need to unseat the government, and the government has a frail majority," he said.

In politics since the 1940s, Mahathir said the upcoming battle could be his toughest yet.

The interview on Thursday came amid a flurry of developments that had some observers concluding that Mahathir and Anwar could by the end of the weekend announce they had gained the support of the majority of the country's 222 MPs — thereby theoretically rendering the government a lame duck. While it is an uphill task, political observers believe it is not impossible as the Muhyiddin administration has a slender majority.

For weeks, the planned move has been in the works but the two leaders have complained that pledges have been fickle, with MPs from Muhyiddin's side giving them support before retracting after being offered plush jobs in government-linked agencies.

By press time, there was no sign of this happening and the Pakatan Harapan alliance said no decision had been made on whether Mahathir or Anwar would be made prime minister if the audacious counter coup succeeded.

Pakatan Harapan, victors of the 2018 election, collapsed in March after Malay nationalist instigators in the alliance such as Muhyiddin and Azmin Ali — now a senior minister — engineered the defection of MPs to the opposition comprising Najib and the losers of the polls.

Their main grievance was that the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a key constituent of Pakatan Harapan backed heavily by the ethnic Chinese minority, was "dominating" the bloc and thus relegating the rights and interests of the Malays.

Mahathir resigned, claiming he no longer had parliament's support, and the king installed Muhyiddin as prime minister.

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The new Perikatan Nasional alliance is heavily dependent on Najib's United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and Muhyiddin has dished out positions in government-linked companies to MPs from the party.

In the interview conducted over Zoom, Mahathir said the elaborate political plot that resulted in Pakatan Harapan losing power was an insurance policy for Najib as the possibility of lengthy jail time looms for the ex-leader. The verdict for the first of his five trials will be delivered on July 28.

"One thing is certain. Najib is not going to work hard to make Muhyiddin the prime minister if he is going to jail," Mahathir said.

"He is not going to leave this man [to become] prime minister, and he goes to jail. He doesn't want to go to jail. If he has a docile prime minister that he can influence, he may escape from going to jail."

Mahathir said Najib was probably hoping to make a political comeback, even as prime minister, if he managed to get out of his legal problems.

He called into question recent discharges given by prosecutors to two people, Najib's stepson Riza Aziz and his former ally Musa Aman, in their respective corruption cases.

In Riza's case, the charges were linked to the 1MDB scandal and prosecutors granted him a discharge not amounting to an acquittal in exchange for a forfeiture of over US$100 million in assets.

Musa, the former chief minister of the state of Sabah, was fully acquitted by prosecutors owing to a lack of prosecution witnesses who had died or left Malaysia.

The powerful politician's acquittal petition was supported by an affidavit by a former attorney general. Muhyiddin's administration and his attorney general, Idrus Harun — a respected former judge - have stressed that these discharges were decisions taken independent of political considerations.

Still, Mahathir speculated that more people "who committed crimes during the time of Najib" could be "set free".

"They will come up with all kinds of reasons … In the case of Najib, [they will say] he was a victim of a scam [by] Jho Low," Mahathir said, naming the fugitive businessman seen by prosecutors as a central figure in the plunder of the 1MDB state fund. Low has strenuously refuted these allegations but has refused to return to Malaysia to face justice.

Said Mahathir: "[They will say] it's Jho Low, not Najib, so we can find him not guilty. Once he is not guilty he will then be eligible to contest, and even become prime minister. At that stage, I think he is not going to support Muhyiddin as prime minister."

Asked whether the public would react adversely if the scenario he painted did pan out, Mahathir struck a somewhat pessimistic note, saying only "mature people" would be aggrieved.

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He said Najib had successfully convinced a large number of the country's Malays that the Pakatan Harapan alliance was "dominated by the Chinese" or "dominated by the DAP".

"He made use of this issue that Pakatan Harapan is not Malay, it is entirely controlled by DAP, but the Malays accepted that," Mahathir said.

"People after some time [forgot] about his crimes and all that, even about his trial, because they feel that this man is championing Malay Muslims so the Malays must support him.

"He has reached the point where he can say, 'yes, I stole money but I am your boss, so it's all right' … because he is a Malay Muslim prime minister although he has stolen money."

Mahathir was coy on whether the counter coup Anwar and he were engineering could succeed. He said wresting power from Muhyiddin - who is believed to have a two-seat parliamentary majority of 114 MPs — would depend heavily on support from the country's two semi-autonomous east Malaysian states, Sabah and Sarawak.

However, negotiations with MPs from these regions had proven tough, Mahathir said, as the lawmakers had been seeking concessions to do with greater autonomy for the states — which he said there was no provision for.

One hope, Mahathir said, was that there might be unrest within Perikatan Nasional because of the use of political appointments to keep loyalists happy.

Not all members of the coalition have got such jobs, however, and there has been some indication of disgruntlement over the allocation of top ministerial portfolios and other highly valued government-linked jobs to individuals in Muhyiddin's inner circle.

"So people are getting less supportive of the government. So we are in a position where we cannot claim that we can overthrow the government but we are working very hard at it."

Mahathir did not discount the possibility of a snap election being called but said the better route was for a floor test in parliament. He had sought to do that during the sitting in May — the first since the March political coup - but Muhyiddin's administration blocked it, claiming it was unsafe to conduct an extended session of parliament because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, it convened a one-hour sitting of the house limited to a single order of business: Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah delivering a ceremonial opening speech.

Some observers concluded that Muhyiddin approved the sitting to ensure the legislature would not be automatically dissolved — it had not been convened since December and the constitution stipulates it must sit at least once every six months.

Elections can happen if the king, whose approval is needed for Pakatan Harapan to retake the government, decides to accept a request from Muhyiddin to dissolve parliament. The kingdoes not have constitutional powers to trigger elections on his own, but can do so if asked by Muhyiddin.

On Friday, reports suggested Muhyiddin was considering doing just that to bring an end to the political crisis. "There is a possibility that some people think that we will have an election to settle everything," Mahathir said. "Unfortunately because of the pandemic an election is going to be difficult and very, very costly. So it's not a good answer. The better way of course is to find out who gets the support of parliament. The person with the majority support then becomes prime minister."

This story was first published in South China Morning Post