The political destruction of Anwar Ibrahim by his one-time mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, was absorbing theatre. But what does his fall mean for Malaysia's race-based populist democracy? And who will lead the country post-Mahathir?by Philip Bowring / August 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is right and proper to take the side of Anwar Ibrahim, former Malaysian deputy prime minister, in his (so far) unequal struggle with his former mentor, prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. As Mahathir prepares to strengthen his grip on power through an election likely to be held in August, Anwar is facing another set of politically motivated criminal accusations-this time, for sodomy.
The ruling coalition headed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is certain to remain in power. A poor result for UMNO would undermine Mahathir’s position, but is unlikely to topple the man who has moulded Malaysia’s race-based democracy into a unique blend of populist authoritarianism.
A martyr’s crown seems to sit as easily on Anwar’s head as devilish horns do on Mahathir’s. But this does not explain how Anwar came to fall so quickly from heir apparent-a position he had formally held for five years, informally for ten. Anwar has been in the roughhouse of Malaysian politics for long enough to know how vicious it can be. And he has been close enough to Mahathir to know that this is a man who takes no prisoners, makes up the rules as he goes along, and plays for high stakes to ensure personal dominance over the state and, more importantly, UMNO. Anwar had been at Mahathir’s side when he fought off the biggest challenge to his rule, in 1988, when former finance minister Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah almost ousted him from the leadership.
Razaleigh came within a few UMNO delegate votes of toppling Mahathir, despite his association with the biggest of the many banking scandals which have linked business and politics in Malaysia for the past two decades. Ironically, Mahathir is now using a rehabilitated Razaleigh against Anwar’s supporters.
The answer to the puzzle of Anwar’s fall may be that he came to believe his own propaganda-or at least that of his young associates eager for power. Mahathir, on the other hand-unusually for someone who has been in power for 18 years-appears to have had no illusions about himself. He has never courted popularity and thrives on being himself, an outsider willing to take on individuals and institutions. Scruples were not for a man whose mission was to stay in power and modernise Malaysia on his own terms.