At a ceramah (campaign rally) in Shah Alam in the early days of Malaysia’s 14th general election (GE14) campaign, incumbent Amanah MP Khalid Samad invoked Dr Mahathir Mohamad, previously the bane of Khalid’s own former party, PAS, but now nonagenarian standard-bearer for opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH). Khalid drew gasps from the crowd as he translated RM1 billion (A$338 million), putting prime minister Najib Razak’s purported graft in context: one could spend RM5,000 (A$1,700) a day for 547 years and not exhaust that sum. Whatever Khalid had thought of Mahathir in the past, he explained, at least Mahathir had kept subsidies in place and national debt in check, despite a smaller national economic pie, and was no kleptocrat.
These elections signal strange times. Mahathir is back, and a hero of ‘reformasi’ — the slogan of the movement to oust him post-1998. In his corner are not just a clutch of recent exiles from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), but also his former Minister of International Trade and Industry, Rafidah Aziz, herself lambasted in years past for shady dealings, as well as former finance minister and UMNO bag-man Daim Zainuddin, who has offered PH his economic know-how. Nor is PH apologetic or cagey about their new-found friends. As Khalid’s narrative suggests, they are all in: Mahathir and his new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) are helping to kick up what the opposition coalition hopes to be a ‘Malay tsunami’ of rural voters, loyal to the man who spearheaded Malaysia’s developmental surge of the 1980s-90s and who has now emerged from comfortable retirement to right his past wrongs. Mahathir and his gang have, in short, been redeemed.
While his past antagonists have not forgotten Mahathir’s past sins, most are prepared to absolve them. Candidates from across opposition parties describe Mahathir’s galvanising effect on the campaign trail. An UMNO strategist in Perak fears Mahathir above all for his ability to woo back Malays who, like himself, grew up idolising the man. A Democratic Action Party (DAP) parliamentary candidate in central Johor concedes that some voters, especially older Chinese, really hate Mahathir. But she can convince even them to accept Mahathir for now, as the veteran leader is PH’s best route to Putrajaya.
Indeed, Mahathir commands greater loyalty in most of that state than party-mate (and recent UMNO deputy prime minister) Muhyiddin Yassin, a Johor native. As Muhyiddin arrived at a middle-of-nowhere ceramah in his home state, adorers nevertheless swarmed him, like he was similarly redeemed. There, he offered a low-key but earnest admission, that his former party has misused Malaysia’s institutions and turned them against the public interest. He promised a cleaner administration, comprising the best people, regardless of age, should an angin kuat (strong wing) blow PH into power.
But the story does not end there. The government side, and Najib especially, has seen its own renovation. Quiescent UMNO investigators and party-controlled mass media have facilitated Najib’s near-miraculous sleight of hand, in sloughing off the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) debacle, a protracted, border-crossing saga of money-laundering, graft, and impossibly complex financial shenanigans. Bloomberg Businessweek rang in the election campaign with a cover profile of Najib, labeling him ‘The Survivor’ for his ability to ride out and will away the scandal.
Peppering the BN campaign — for instance, at Najib’s May Day ceramah in Wangsa Maju, a Malay-majority enclave of Kuala Lumpur — have been conspicuous reminders of BN’s sharing the wealth, through cash-transfer schemes and welfare programs. That night, for instance, Najib pledged to residents of the surrounding low-cost flats that if they don’t forget him, he won’t forget them. After 9 May, he will announce the price at which they may purchase their homes; the bigger the win, the better the price. Najib and wife Rosmah may be unusually wealthy, but so long as all boats rise, why should the rakyat mind?
This state of play calls into question what even a strong win on either side might mean: how much change (beyond ousting Najib) a Mahathir-led PH might press, or how emboldened might a victorious Najib be. Political rebirth for any but the key players seems decreasingly likely, though PH strategists insist even in private that Mahathir has set minimal conditions. Indeed, suggests a DAP candidate in Selangor, coalescing around Mahathir has helped the sometimes-fractious PH smooth over sticking points.
The era of Malaysia's dominant federal government may be over as its leading states push for greater autonomy.
This politics of redemption could prove antithetical to meaningful change, whether it’s PH’s promises of a more equitable, just order, or the BN’s of jobs, infrastructure, and ‘making Malaysia greater’. Mahathir’s party might yet prove kingmaker for PH, but the former PM’s vision hardly extends beyong ousting Najib. Should his party’s vision remain with a (communal) politics akin to (a less-corrupt) UMNO of old, the tougher battles may still lie ahead. But if Najib’s paeans to his own integrity find their mark (or if systemic skew allows a win, regardless), his redemption could deliver the BN a mandate to stay an increasingly anti-democratic course. As the same UMNO strategist notes, GE14 may indeed be the ‘mother of all elections in Malaysia’. We have yet to see what future these polls may birth.