Courtroom shock as Mahathir meets Anwar: why Malaysia’s political game just changed

Two of Malaysia’s sworn political enemies met this week to discuss working together to fight authoritarian new security laws. The thawing of relations between the two could overturn decades of political status quo.

By Holly Reeves

Anwar Ibrahim came to court again this week. That is no surprise; it is the latest of many appearances for the imprisoned spiritual leader of the Malaysian reform movement. What has shocked the nation, however, was the man in the stands – former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The two men have a long and chequered history – in fact, Anwar’s road to prison led directly from Mohamad himself. It has been 18 years since the two last met.

The reason behind the encounter is apparently a shared interest in defeating the controversial National Security Council Act (NSC Act) recently pushed through by current Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Mahathir’s lawyer Haniff Khatri Abdulla said, “Mahathir instructed me to liaise with Anwar’s lawyers and see how we can contribute, by way of law, to support the application. We’ll take it from there. If there is any way we and Mahathir can contribute, of course, we will assist Anwar’s team with the application.”

Liberty at stake?

But what could be so monumental as to bridge the gap between the two infamous opposition leaders? Anwar was in court to challenge new legislation introducing the NSC, a panel chaired by the prime minister, which would be able to command security forces in areas deemed to face “security risks.” Once declared under these rules, an area would be subject to restriction for at least six months. However, advocates are concerned about the lack of clarity on just what a security risk is and the governments refusal to consider recommended alterations

Responding to the Act’s critics directly Prime Minister Najib said it was focused purely on the security of the country, “Some accused me of wanting to use the power and Act for personal interest. But the people should remember that each decision made by the government has never been for personal intent.” He continued, “What is important is to protect the people as well as the sovereignty of the country from any threats.”

However, despite Najib’s assurances, the terms of the new rules are particularly strict and come amid a mood of public dissent against the government. Steven Thiru, President of the Malaysian Bar said, “The Act enables the prime minister, either unilaterally or through the NSC, to exercise authoritarian executive powers. These powers are in effect emergency powers, but without the need for a proclamation of an emergency under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution.”

Among the concerns are that, in an area ruled at risk, security forces can search or arrest any person, “found committing, alleged to have committed, or reasonably suspected of having committed any offence under written laws in the security area” without a warrant or further legal process. “The government’s refusal to engage meaningfully with critics of the Act, and its disregard for constitutional safeguards, are ominous,” says Thiru.

A new alliance?

The courtroom meeting between Anwar and Mahathir lasted for around 45 minutes but is almost certainly not a declaration of peace, at least not yet. “This is about the NSC Act. As you know, I have written about the Act in my blog and he is doing the same thing – trying to stop the Act,” said Mahathir, “So I met him and had a long chat with him about what he’s doing.” He was clear that the relationship between the two seems to remain frosty, “I talked to him, that’s it. I endorse his actions against the NSC Act.”

However, the very fact that the two even spoke is significant say leading analysts. Independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian explained, “The fundamental problem for the opposition was that Mahathir and Anwar couldn’t get along,” continuing “Their shaking hands means their interests have converged.”

If this is correct then the game in Malaysia just changed. Najib and his coalition have enjoyed a safe position until now due to their solid appeal to a cross-section of Malaysian society. Meanwhile, opposition groups have struggled to combine their fractured support from ethnic groups and disaffected sections of the population. In combination, Anwar’s appeal to the reformists and Mahathir’s draw for the conservatives could create a whole new support network for political change.

The administration is not worried, says Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi. “This is a political meeting without any sincerity,” which was, “driven by desperate circumstances because (Mahathir) needs the opposition parties to come on board to support him,” he said. Meanwhile, Nurul Izzah Anwar, a member of Parliament and Anwar’s daughter, thought the move was a good start but said, “Institutional reform, the strengthening of the democratic space, revoking the National Security Council Act and other arbitrary laws — these are prerequisites for any agreement or cooperation.”

Could one short meeting, a long time coming, signal the beginning of the end of the dominance of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)? One conversation doesn’t bring a revolution but the meeting of two of Malaysia’s leading political figures cannot be ignored. Najib should do so at is peril.