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Opinion

Coalition squabbles and Malay supremacy led to Mahathir's resignation

Supporters' fear of losing privileges has driven Malaysian government further right

| Malaysia
Mahathir, picutured in April 2018, is the only man who can be the glue for each camp.   © AP

The political turmoil in Malaysia over the past few days, leading to the fall of the prime minister and the collapse of his coalition government, has been unprecedented. But it was not unpredictable.

On Friday night, the presidential council of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, its highest decision-making body, held a rare meeting. The coalition parties had called it to try and force 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to set an exact date for his retirement and the transfer of power to putative heir Anwar Ibrahim.

After a heated discussion, the parties agreed Mahathir should have full flexibility to select his retirement date, which he had previously mentioned would be sometime after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, to be hosted by Malaysia in November this year.

Mahathir's core supporters took this badly, wanting him to serve his full term. It was this simmering unhappiness that set off their scramble on Saturday to depose Pakatan Harapan and create a new coalition where nobody would dare to challenge Mahathir's grip on power.

Mahathir ended up resigning, counterintuitively, to preserve his grip on power.

This crisis has long been waiting to happen, and what sits behind all of this, aside from Mahathir's startling political longevity -- he had already been prime minister between 1981 and 2003 -- is a collision of internal coalition troubles, establishment interests and the politics of Malay supremacy.

The tensions in part come from a badly worded agreement between the Pakatan Harapan parties ahead of their electoral victory and Mahathir's return to office in May 2018.

The agreement was that Mahathir would serve for two years and hand over the prime ministership to Anwar, which would strictly mean May 2020. But once in power, Mahathir said that the mess left behind by Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional coalition was much bigger than he thought and that he "might" need to stay longer to "clean up" Malaysia, in his words.

Anwar and his supporters mounted an underground campaign to force Mahathir to set a date. Their main argument was that if Anwar did not become prime minister in 2020, he would not have enough time to prepare for the next election.

Anwar and his supporters mounted an underground campaign to try to force Mahathir to set a date for his retirement.   © Reuters

None of this helped Pakatan Harapan to work together. For the past two years, there has been a lack of coordination among its four parties, and their inexperience meant they could not manage the government.

Coupled with a civil service that was still largely loyal to the previous regime, the government was widely seen as incompetent and did not meet ordinary people's expectations. Voters in 2018 expected the government to lower the cost of living and revive the economy, something Pakatan Harapan did not do. Gross domestic product grew by 4.3% in 2019, the slowest in 10 years.

While Pakatan Harapan was faltering, UMNO and PAS, the Malay-champion parties in the opposition, formed a political pact explicitly to uphold Malay supremacy and move further to the right.

Their powerful but untrue narrative -- that the Pakatan Harapan government is controlled by the Chinese -- found a ready-made Malay audience worried their privileged position would be under threat. Yet Malays make up almost 60% of the population and the Chinese only a quarter.

Under the previous regime, Malays had access to a whole range of economic and other benefits under the guise of an affirmative action policy. These included easy access to university places, scholarships and business licenses. Many Malays see this policy as their birthright under the Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy, ideology.

This narrative cost Pakatan Harapan three by-elections in a row, which caused panic among the coalition's Malay parties, including Mahathir's own. Mahathir knew that he would have to reconfigure Pakatan Harapan to show it is a Malay-dominated government, with the Chinese party playing a subservient role.

Thus by the time the crisis blew up last Friday, the Malay group in Pakatan Harapan was ready to move. They knew that the crisis provided an opportunity to reset Pakatan Harapan into a coalition more like the old Barisan Nasional model, where the Malay party and Malay interests dominated every layer of government.

Right now, horse trading in Kuala Lumpur is reaching its peak as two sides try to form viable coalitions. In the middle of this rush is Mahathir, the only man who can be the glue for each. Both sides say they want him as their prime minister, so the only difference between these two camps is the degree of Malay supremacy ethos in the new government.

There is no doubt that Malaysia will get a new government soon under Mahathir again but as long as non-Malays are not accepted as full political equals by the Malay political establishment, the system will never be fully stable. The permanent tensions which led the country to this present crisis will remain.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania.

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