On 24 February 2020, less than two years after returning to the position, Mahathir Mohamad resigned as Malaysia’s seventh Prime Minister, collapsing the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government that he led. His decision surprised his partners in PH as well as all Malaysians. It started a week-long episode of high drama, during which Mahathir also ended up serving as interim prime minister by the appointment of the King.
Despite resigning, Mahathir was not really planning to leave the prime ministership. Instead, on 26 February, by his own admission, seeing as there was too much politicking in the country, he felt it was best that he returned as prime minister to lead a unity government which did not favour any political parties. Yet, he announced his resignation as the chairman of the party he founded, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party, PPBM). Disagreeing with Mahathir’s proposal, his coalition partners, who until then were supporting his return, decided to nominate Anwar Ibrahim in his place. Anwar, who before this episode was expecting to succeed Mahathir in a power transition fraught with controversy, took on the latter in a race to show the King that he had the majority support in parliament to become Malaysia’s eighth prime minister.
Soon after, the situation changed. Mahathir became embroiled in an internal party power struggle, as he announced his agreement to return as PPBM chairman on 27 February, having initially been asked to reconsider his resignation to the party. However, two days later, Muhyiddin Yassin, the president of PPBM, announced the party’s acceptance of Mahathir’s resignation, and his stepping in the position prior to the appointment of a new chairman. Muhyiddin was also nominated as PPBM’s prime minister candidate. In response, PH announced that Mahathir, still a PPBM member, had returned to the coalition to become its prime minister candidate. By then, PPBM was split into, on the one side, the Mahathir-PH camp, and on the other, a camp that was open to the formation of a new coalition to rule over Malaysia’s next government.
Eventually, in the evening of 29 February, Malaysian media reported that the King was satisfied that Muhyiddin had the majority in Malaysia’s Westminster-style parliament. Mahathir made a last-ditch attempt to prove that he had the support of the majority of the members of parliament. However, Muhyiddin was sworn in as Prime Minister on 1 March with the backing of the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) coalition, which had governed Malaysia since the country’s 1957 independence until it was ousted by PH in the fourteenth general election (GE14) in 2018. BN’s support included its lynchpin, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party Mahathir himself led for 22 years during his first stint as prime minister, and the party which Muhyiddin and most of the members of PPBM belonged to prior to GE14. Also in this new coalition, returning to federal power for the first time since a short stint as a BN member from 1974-77, is the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS). After only twenty-months, PH’s reign then came to an abrupt end. Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance, PN) coalition, as it has come to be known, has brought together forces from the right of Malaysia’s politics in a way that the country has not seen before.
Mahathir’s high-stakes gamble was the death knell for the PH government, allowing for PN’s eventual capture of power. However, prior to that, dissatisfaction towards PH’s policies was already dwindling the fragile support it had among Malaysia’s ethnic Malay-Muslim voters. In a country defined by communal politics, not only do the Malay-Muslims form the majority of the electorate, their votes also sat outside the government in this period, with around 70 per cent shared between BN and PAS. Add to that is the group’s considerable representation among the rural and urban poor of Malaysia.
Because of its deep investment in Mahathir’s role to win power in GE14, PH was not able to articulate a policy framework to draw the support that it badly needed among the Malay-Muslims. This failure opened the doors for Malay-Muslim resentment to be articulated by right-wing Malay political elites. Even Najib Razak, the BN prime minister Mahathir ousted in GE14, enjoyed a surge in popularity during the latter months of PH’s rule by riding on this wave of discontent, despite being on trial for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.
For the most part, to address the Malay-Muslim unhappiness, just like they did in the run up to GE14, PH parties depended on Mahathir. One of his solutions was to encourage defections from UMNO to PPBM. Apart from increasing the number of PPBM MPs, this had no real impact in addressing PH’s withering support, as was shown by the series of by-election defeats it suffered. Along the way, Mahathir’s provocative rhetoric, such as telling the Malays that they were not working hard enough to catch up with other races in the economy, meant that PH had its work cut out.
Fatally, PH’s analysis of this situation centred mainly on locating and highlighting UMNO’s hands in inflaming the Malay-Muslim sentiments, a factor which was obvious for everyone to see given UMNO’s brand of politics. Little attention was paid to how class was also a factor in this development. Another reason for the general unhappiness with the PH government was a series of broken promises, many of which were manifesto pledges to alleviate the economic hardship of Malaysia’s poor and working class. In place of those unfulfilled promises were policies and ideas that paid tribute to Mahathir’s neoliberal legacy, which were seen to favour the interests of big businesses and crony capitalists. So, alongside the sale and privatisation of state assets, and the appointment of a multinational insurance firm to administer the government’s healthcare programme for the poor, for example, were warnings of cuts to public spending, subsidies and government assistance, and a review of the permanence of civil service appointments, among other things. At the same time, Mahathir’s provocations continued and went unchecked. In January 2020, when Mahathir called for Malaysia’s poor to stop being envious of the wealthy and told them that their economic condition was caused by their own lack of productivity, little was done by the PH leaders to assure the people that this was not the view of the government.
As for Muhyiddin’s government, it will be some time until a judgement can be passed on how it performs. Since taking power, he has been thrusted to the forefront of Malaysia’s response to the Covid-19 situation. While misgivings over the way he took power are abound, at the moment they are drowned by concerns over the pandemic. Nonetheless, moving forward, lessons can be learned from the fiasco that was PH’s spell in government, if another progressive vision were to be imagined by Malaysians. This must be a vision which breaks from the course that has been charted by Mahathir and his politics, and which challenges his neoliberal legacy.