In a country where cash is king, soon nothing will happen without bribery, alleges former PM.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looked on Thursday like a man with important calculations to make. Even as he smiled and laughed, he seemed quiet and reflective as he discussed Malaysia’s dramatic political realignment.

“We had a wrong understanding of the level of concern on the part of the people about what is happening,” he said.

A few days earlier, Mahathir had campaigned with the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition in twin by-elections, called after two incumbents died in a helicopter crash. Held in the federal electorates of Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, both by-elections were won with increased margins by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Mahathir was forthright in assessing the mistake he had made: campaigning around the unresolved scandal known as 1MDB, after the state development fund from which RM2.6 billion is widely believed to have passed through Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank account. The campaign failed, and Mahathir has drawn a conclusion that observers will have heard many others draw before: only urban, educated voters care about abstract ethical issues like corruption.

Yet in demographic terms, this should mean that anti-corruption is therefore an easy sell: the nation is nearly 75 per cent urbanised, with high rates of literacy, junior high school participation, and access to information.

Rural voters, however, are disproportionately powerful in Malaysia’s electoral system, and Mahathir, having won five elections, knows this better than anybody else. This is why the by-election results have generated so much hand-wringing. Sungai Besar, for example, hosts a community focused on commodity crops and fishing, while Kuala Kangsar consists of a small-town administrative centre surrounded by an agricultural hinterland.

“People are openly talking about [the corruption] if they understand it, but among others, among the villagers, they do not understand the problem,” Mahathir said. “The educated ones, the leadership of the opposition for example, thought that this 1MDB [was] an issue with the people, but most of the electorate [was] not … able to understand what 1MDB is about.” Mahathir continued, “It is very complicated, and they don’t feel that it affects them.”

Nevertheless, winning minor contests has by no means been Mahathir’s end game. As he pointed out, “this is a by-election, it’s not about setting up a new government.”

Setting up a new government is precisely what Mahathir plans to do, after unseating Najib and choosing his successor. After attending the Bersih demonstration in Kuala Lumpur in August last year, Mahathir resigned from UMNO in February to prepare his next moves. One of these moves has included the Citizen’s Declaration, lately renamed the Save Malaysia movement, whose petition against Najib has attracted more than a million signatures.

Mahathir insists he began this initiative “because lots of people came to see me in this office … practically begging me to do something. I tried. I tried by advising the Prime Minister … that he should not … give money to people for nothing, and things like that,” breaking off with the implication that he gave Najib this advice before the 1MDB scandal broke. “And then came the 1MDB scandal, and at that stage, I had to tell him that I cannot support him anymore.”

Nor does he support Najib’s by-election analysis: that voters reject Mahathir’s “lies” and his “unworkable coalition of former enemies”, while Chinese voters have broken through the “psychological factor” to appreciate that only Barisan Nasional could ever provide them with “social harmony”. Instead, Mahathir was keen to offer up an alternative reading of the by-election results.

Both by-elections were conducted in seats that were around two-thirds Malay Muslim, with significant Chinese minorities in each constituency. Barisan’s campaign strategies—which Mahathir described as “wholesale corruption”—were largely focused on shoring up Malay Muslim support to counter their opponents in PAS and Amanah.

According to Mahathir, Barisan’s campaign drew from the combined political powers of money and identity.

“People are given money, they are given rice, and they are given electrical appliances: openly. There are pictures taken of these people receiving this,” Mahathir said, suggesting that the 1MDB issue does not damage Najib in these seats because Barisan is in fact sharing the alleged financial spoils around.

“And, in the past, when they gave money, there were people accepting the money but they did not vote,” Mahathir continued, recognising that voter calculations do not always involve delivering seats to candidates who pay. “But this time,” he continued, “they resorted to forcing the people to swear—Muslims to swear [on the Qur’an, before observers]—that they would vote for the government. And of course for Muslims, when they swear like this, they find it difficult not to do what they had undertaken to do.”

As for Chinese voters, “their turnout was much lower than average, meaning to say that they did not participate. They were neither for the government party nor for the opposition party.” For Mahathir, therefore, “the claim that the Chinese have now turned around and supported the government is not actually shown by their unwillingness to vote.”

Asked how he felt watching all this transpire after having personally selected Najib as Prime Minister, Mahathir responded, “As you see I’m not just watching, I’m doing something about it.” And what would he do? How would he counter him? Mahathir laughed and replied, “We are figuring out how to counter him of course. But obviously, we can’t outspend him.”

Obviously not, as Malaysian authorities have admitted that Najib did in fact receive RM2.6 billion, although they insist that the sum was a donation sourced from Saudi Arabia. Even so, “it is believed that he [once] had more than 4 billion,” Mahathir points out. Is he alleging that Najib cannot, because of this cash supply, be removed at an ordinary election?

“Well, theoretically in an election, he could be removed,” Mahathir said, in a tacit reference to the rural electorates where UMNO usually concentrates its energies. “But it’s the use of money—he says cash is king, you see. He has tons of money, I mean he admits he has 2.6 billion ringgit, and 2.6 billion is 2,600 million ringgit. Even if he gives 1 million to each constituency, he will still have enough money left.”

But what of those receiving this money? What is their role in creating the problem Mahathir now believes he must confront?

“[Voters] don’t really mind. Among the intellectuals, people are worried about degenerating moral values and all that. They are continuously concerned, but for [voters], local events and little things that are happening are more important.”

But can voters not identify the expectations that must accompany this type of campaign spending? “[It] doesn’t affect them because the government is still giving them more than before,” Mahathir responded. “You see the collapse of moral values in Malaysia is terrible. In the future we are going to be like those countries where bribery is a part of daily life—you can’t do anything without bribery.”

According to Mahathir, not only are voters implicated in Malaysia’s money politics, so too are Barisan politicians. “He has given to members of parliament. At least two of them admitted it,” Mahathir alleged. “I can’t imagine the other members of parliament did not get what these two got from him. And if it’s not enough, he can always give more.”

Mahathir is well positioned to assess the risks of entering a bidding war. He was right there in UMNO until earlier this year.

Amrita Malhi is a Visiting Fellow in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. Her website is

This article is based on an in-depth interview between Amrita Malhi and Dr Mahathir Mohamad and is the second in a three-part series. Read the first here and the third here.