Time to change the channel on Malaysia’s soap opera

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(Feb 26): Mahathir Mohamad has been in public life longer than Malaysia has existed as a nation. His greatest service to the country was his return to leadership in 2018, with the stated intention of undoing the damage wrought by his successors in the decade-and-a-half since he’d left office.

The nonagenarian prime minister, who first came to power in the same year as Ronald Reagan, would now do well to declare victory and go home. All economies, governments and companies require renewal to prosper. A long period of political instability can only hamper Malaysia's response to the coronavirus as well as efforts to steer between its biggest trading partner, China, and largest source of foreign-direct investment, the US.

This approach has the added advantage of being what the prime minister pledged he would do all along. Mahathir said upon his resumption of power that he would serve only a fraction of the parliament's five-year term before handing over to rival-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim. Given the approach of his 93rd birthday at the time, many observers took Mahathir at his word. Anwar said it was a two-year deal. That time runs out in May.

The crockery is already being broken. In the past few days, Mahathir handed in his notice to Malaysia’s monarchy, his party exited the governing coalition and some rebels from Anwar’s own bloc did the same. The irony is that having submitted his resignation  Monday, few observers consider it real. It’s almost a pretend resignation — serious sounding, but driven as much by procedure as anything else. Speculation abounds that the famously tenacious Mahathir is only maneuvering to assemble a fresh majority, through which to prolong his rule or as a means of denying Anwar the top job.

That would be entirely in character for a guy who has seen off more than his share of challenges since first entering the premier’s office in 1981. It would also condemn Malaysia to a rerun of a damaging tussle between the two men that wracked the country in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis, when I was Kuala Lumpur bureau chief for Bloomberg News. That fight hindered the response to the economic upheaval. Anwar was fired as finance minister, jailed on charges of sodomy and beaten in prison; Anwar and many others believed his real crime was to threaten Mahathir.

Malaysian politics has felt like a soap opera ever since. The most gifted politician of his generation, Anwar spent years in prison, including for a second sodomy conviction under one of Mahathir’s successors, Najib Razak, all the while transforming himself from Mahathir’s one-time heir-apparent to the Malaysia’s most prominent opposition leader.

But for a while, all seemed forgiven if not forgotten: Anwar was released from prison after Mahathir's victory in 2018 and seemed to quietly bide his time.

That detente, now strained to breaking point, was merely one of a number of uneasy alliances propping up the coalition elected in 2018. Unlike his previous 22 years as prime minister, Mahathir this time wasn't master of his domain. His party was a minority inside a bloc whose raison-d’etre was to oust Barisan Nasional, the group Mahathir led during his first incarnation. He claimed that BN had become corrupt and vowed to crush it. The then-opposition embraced him because he could deliver vital votes from the country’s Malay-Muslim majority.

No alternative bloc has emerged to demonstrate command of a parliamentary majority. Mahathir will act as interim leader. Fresh elections are possible, as is a new power-sharing arrangement between Mahathir and remnants of BN, perhaps combined with an Islamist party. Where that would leave former prime minister Najib Razak, now on trial for graft stemming from the 1MDB scandal, is anyone's guess. Najib says he is innocent. Popular antipathy toward him, however, was a driving force behind the election upset that ended BN’s decades of rule. It’s also entirely possible that the government could be reconstituted largely as it was until last weekend.  

Malaysia could be spared much of this saga if Mahathir just does what he said he would do — relinquish control. He was a far-from-perfect leader, but in his second political coming, it looked like multi-party politics would be given a chance to prosper in substance at the national level, not just exist in form. It's not too late for Mahathir to bequeath his country this potential bounty.

Giving Anwar his turn won't return Malaysia to the salad days of 10% economic expansion. Nobody in the region grows like they did during the “tiger” era; you have to go to a museum to see that term. It was an epoch defined, first, by a wave of Japanese investment, next by the liberalization of capital flows after the Cold War, and then by the emergence of supply chains linked to China. China’s own rise and recent push-back from the West have diminished that formula for prosperity.  

Mahathir’s career achievements are considerable. He was the first commoner to become prime minister; his predecessors descended from aristocrats or political dynasties. The scale of his ambitions ensured that Malaysia, for a time, was a player, even if the go-for-broke ethos also produced boondoggles like the world’s tallest this and longest that.   

An orderly changing of the guard would show a maturity that has largely eluded Malaysia’s politics. Here is a chance to show fatherhood to the nation.