Monday May 21, 2018
By Jason Koutsoukis
Mahathir Mohamad has been in a hurry since his shock election win in Malaysia.
than two weeks in power and the 92-year-old Mahathir, who previously
governed from 1981 to 2003, has been busy forming a cabinet, cutting a
goods and services tax rate to zero, starting a review of big-bang
infrastructure projects and government spending, and reinvigorating a
probe into billions allegedly missing from a state fund set up by his
announced plans to replace the attorney-general (who is now on leave),
promised to vet all incoming ministers for propriety, and slapped travel
bans on several key figures, including ousted premier Najib Razak,
whose house has been raided by police and who is due to be questioned
today by the anti-graft agency.
With his coalition partner Anwar Ibrahim freed from jail and
lurking in the wings, Mahathir has a lot to get done before he
potentially hands over the reins in a year or two. Still, rushing so
many things risks Mahathir overstepping, or causing chaos within his
four-party grouping if people don’t feel consulted or involved.
seeking to cut both revenue and spending, he may also find himself
making economic decisions on the fly in a way that companies and
investors -- long accustomed to policy certainty -- find disconcerting.The
pressure is intense. In a closed-door meeting just weeks before polling
day, Mahathir “broke down and cried” when his party was temporarily
banned from campaigning in a dispute over registration papers, said Wan
Saiful Wan Jan, deputy chairman of the party’s policy bureau. “The iron
man of Malaysian politics, he completely lost it.”
“I’d never seen him like that,” Wan Saiful said.
Mahathir’s victory was bittersweet. He ousted a coalition in
power for 61 years, since Malaysia’s independence. But Mahathir himself
had steered that coalition for decades before defecting to the
opposition amid a falling-out with Najib, his one-time protege.
Now the world’s oldest-elected leader is acting as though he doesn’t have a minute to waste.
“It looks like Tun Dr Mahathir would like to take back all
the 1MDB stolen money in 100 days,” said Awang Azman bin Awang Pawi, an
associate professor at the University of Malaya, referring to the scandal surrounding the fund. “It seems too ambitious but that’s the Mahathir way.”
of Mahathir’s haste is aimed at reassuring the public that a coalition
of disparate parties that has never been in power, and was largely held
together by the common goal of unseating Najib, can now govern
There are potentially major policy differences among
them, including over the Bumiputera system that offers educational and
employment advantages to ethnic Malays, and has long been a bedrock for
Malay votes. Over time those divergences might become more apparent.
our conversations in the days since the election, what we keep coming
back to is the urgent need to reward the trust of the people and
actually deliver on our promises -- it’s key to establishing his
legitimacy,” said A. Kadir Jasin, head of communications for Mahathir’s
council of transition advisers.
“He needed to demonstrate, ‘look, we’re doing the right the thing here, the key elements of the economy will be taken care of.’"
reality for Mahathir is that time is not on his side. Not only is he
elderly -- though he keeps fit with regular exercise -- he has promised
at some point to hand power to Anwar, who was freed from jail and
pardoned last week for a sodomy conviction.
“Let’s face it, he’s
92 years old and there simply isn’t a lot time left for him to do
everything he wants to do,” said Joseph Chinyong Liow, dean of the S.
Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Mahathir
himself has said that he will serve, at most, for two years, so it’s no
surprise he’s hitting the ground running.”
Anwar and Mahathir go
way back: Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy premier in the late 1990s until
Mahathir fired him. Anwar later went to jail for abuse of power and
sodomy, charges he denied. The two mended fences a few years back but it
remains an uneasy rapprochement.
round the country and the moment he mentioned 1MDB there would be
uproar, and the moment he mentioned the GST,” Anwar said in an interview
on Friday with Bloomberg Television, when asked why Mahathir was moving
so quickly on those issues.
Liow cautioned Mahathir against triggering a witch hunt against the previous government, even as he goes after Najib over 1MDB.
now knows how deep this iceberg goes,” Liow said. “Purely for the sake
of stability, I would advise the new government to tread very
The new government will also need to explain and cost
out its economic pledges, including the hit to revenue from cutting the
GST rate to zero.
“People are a bit worried about the fiscal
situation,” said Cassey Lee, co-coordinator of the Malaysia program at
the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “How will they handle
that? They might need to calm the markets a bit.”
Wan Saiful said
the biggest risk in moving so quickly is Mahathir starts to walk away
from policy commitments made during the campaign. Already, Mahathir had
to abandon a plan to make himself education minister, to stay in line
with the coalition’s manifesto that top leaders don’t hold more than one
But for now at least, Malaysia’s leader has no
intention of slowing down. Wan Saiful said Mahathir’s tears several
weeks ago reminded him of that.
“This is a very different Mahathir we are seeing, who passionately wants to correct Malaysia’s trajectory."
— With assistance by Andrea Tan, and Haslinda Amin