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"Is Mahathir’s Reconciliation with Anwar Possible?", a Commentary by Norshahril Saat

Commentary 2016/56, 7 September 2016

Dr Mahathir Mohamad was referred to as a Malaysian “maverick” for many reasons. During his 22 years reign as Prime Minister, he survived numerous leadership challenges by senior UMNO leaders; led his party to two-thirds majority in every elections; checked the authority of Malay rulers; and propelled Malaysia to become a modern and industrialised economy. In fact, he continues to be a colourful and unpredictable leader after stepping down from power. Since his retirement in 2003, he had left UMNO in 2008; re-joined the party in 2009, and left it again early this year. Now, he is spearheading a new opposition party, Bersatu.

In the latest twist of events, Mahathir appeared in court supporting Anwar Ibrahim, who filed an injunction to stop the controversial National Security Council (NSC) 2016 from being implemented. Human rights watchers and analysts have criticised the law as draconian and possible for abuse, because the government can carry out arrests without warrant, search and confiscate properties, and execute curfews.

Some have interpreted Mahathir’s latest move as a step towards reconciliation with Anwar. In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar as his Deputy Prime Minister for sexual misconduct and corruption, both charges which Anwar denied and deemed as conspiracy to end his political career.  Since the episode, Mahathir never seemed to be able to forgive his protégé. In his memoirs, The Doctor in the House, Mahathir also recounted Anwar’s misdeeds.

But when asked by reporters whether he is now making amends with Anwar, Mahathir did not give a definitive answer. He claimed that he is supporting Anwar Ibrahim’s cause to prevent the NSC from being enforced.

Malaysians greeted Anwar’s and Mahathir’s handshake with both optimism and scepticism. Is this a sign of better things to come for the opposition, which is internally divided? A Mahathir and Anwar reunion could be a blow to UMNO, which is facing an uphill task explaining the 1MDB saga to the masses. This is especially so after Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a cabinet minister, confirmed that Prime Minister Najib Razak is “Malaysian Official Number 1”” as cited by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). Some quarters in Malaysia recalled how the Mahathir and Anwar partnership in the 1990s was the most solid leadership the country ever had. This partnership propelled Malaysia to become one of Asia’s “Tiger Cub Economies.” Many Malaysians reminisced the country’s achievements before the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit the country. Nonetheless, the reunion would not be acceptable for many Malaysians, especially those who struggled to defend and free Anwar Ibrahim during the Reformasi (reformation) movement. For two decades after his removal Anwar had been critical of Mahathir, calling his mentor turned nemesis a “dictator”. Easily forgiving Mahathir would belittle those who have sacrificed their lives and family in the name of reforms.  As it is, Mahathir’s and Anwar’s little handshake only manifests the fluidity of Malaysian politics. There are no permanent friends and enemies in the country’s politics.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia politics.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.