The lack of a transition plan casts doubt on the prime ministerâs intentions.
ByÂ Philip HeijmansÂ andÂ Anisah Shukry (Bloomberg)
A power struggle, a sex scandal and slow progress to implement sweeping economic reforms: Despite a new government in Malaysia, some things havenât changed much.
Little more than a year after Mahathir Mohamad engineered the countryâs first transfer of power in six decades, some of the same problems that have long beset Malaysia are popping up again. At the center of it all is the question of when Mahathir will hand over power to one-time political nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the biggest party in the ruling alliance.
âThe time is not very specific,â Mahathir said at the Bloomberg Asean Business Summit in Bangkok on Friday when asked about the time frame for handing over power to Anwar. âI made a promise knowing my relationship with him was not always that good,â he added in the interview with Bloomberg Televisionâs Haslinda Amin. âBut the fact is I made a promise and I stick to my promise.â
Last year the two leaders papered over their rivalry to oust former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who faces charges related to a corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB. But uncertainty continues to loom as Mahathir hangs on to power, distracting the coalition from tackling rampant corruption, decades-long affirmative action policies and a slowing economy.
The latest commotion came last week with the distribution of sex videos from unidentified WhatsApp accounts allegedly featuring Malaysian Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, Anwarâs deputy in the ruling Peopleâs Justice Party who is also seen as his rival for prime minister. The party has two factionsâone backing Anwar and one backing Azminâthat are constantly fighting, according to a ranking official within the coalition who asked not to be identified.
Azmin has denied the allegations and is cooperating in a police probe to determine who is responsible. Mahathir has said the videos were evidence of âdirtyâ politics, telling reporters earlier this month: âIf you cannot compete with someone, donât do something like this.â
âIn general, Malaysian politics has a Game of Thrones sort of plot to it that has been going on for the past 20 to 30 years,â said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a senior lawmaker in the party who is aligned with Anwar. âThe concern is of course that these things start as nothing, but then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and it can snowball.â
âA leopard never changes its spots. The same goes for Mahathirâ
Representatives of both Anwar and Azmin were contacted several times for commentâneither responded.
For Malaysia itâs a flashback to the 1990s, when Anwar served as Mahathirâs deputy and was seen as his successor. But Mahathir fired Anwar in 1998, and then he spent the next six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy. Anwar went back to jail in 2015 on a subsequent sodomy charge, and received a pardon after last yearâs election.
Azmin similarly is allegedly implicated in videos depicting him and another man engaged in sexual acts, which if true would put him in violation of Malaysiaâs colonial-era sodomy laws. He had been positioning himself as Mahathirâs preferred choice for prime minister, Eurasia Group said in a report on Tuesday.
âI am sure that this has a political agenda, done by certain people who intend to halt my progression in the government as well as in politics,â Azmin told reporters on Tuesday.
While party officials including Anwar have continued to support Mahathir publicly, internal feuds have spilled into the open. Earlier this month, Mahathir appointed Latheefa Beebi Koyaâa known Anwar criticâto head the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
While she is now the first female head of Malaysiaâs anti-graft body, the accomplishment was largely overshadowed by criticism that Mahathir bypassed a parliamentary committee in appointing her. With some ruling coalition members calling for her to resign, Anwar finally came out to support the decision and cool tensions.
Mahathir, who is set to turn 94 in July, said Friday he âunderestimatedâ the challenges of governing Malaysia before his election win. He added that he wanted to continue ruling the country to tackle problems related to public debt, which widened to a five-year high in 2018, but didnât commit to overhauling race-based policies that give preferential treatment to Malays and indigenous groups.
The ruling coalition is âtoo focused on politics rather than reforming institutions,â said Awang Azman Awang Pawi from the University of Malaya. He added that Mahathir isnât much different from his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, when he was criticized for muzzling the media and political opponents.
âA leopard never changes its spots,â Awang said. âThe same goes for Mahathir as he is the same Mahathir as he was before and has never changed. Only without the power he looks humble in his way of politics.â
Mahathir appears in no hurry to go anywhere.
Asked Friday about his biggest regret over the years, the prime minister didnât hesitate: âStepping down.â