Why is Mahathir still making news?

Photo: udeyismail/CC BY 2.0

Mahathir bin Mohammad once shaped Malaysia’s future. Today he jumps and prances to the media to make headlines – even though his time has long since passed.

By John Pennington, edited by Francesca Ross

Mahathir Mohamad is ready to return to political office if the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition wins Malaysia’s 2018 leadership elections.

The former Prime Minister has huge ambition but few high-profile supporters. He also trails the People’s Justice Party (PKR) representative Anwar Ibrahim, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) president Muhyiddin Yassin in public popularity polls.

He will be 93 at the time of the 2018 elections. Commentators have predicted that the Barisan National coalition will hold on to power. He is not in a good position to sweep back to power.

His keenness to return suggests he has unfinished business and remains hungry for power and influence. Feeding that hunger has made him look like a bitter, desperate, and vengeful old man.

Mahathir has spent much of the last two decades attacking his successors

Mahathir remained part of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) after he left office. He used his influence at that time to express his disappointment with his anointed successor, Abdullah Ahmed Badawai. This led to claims he was compromising Malaysia’s sovereignty and corruption.

Mahathir expected to play a more significant role under current leader Najib Razak but was quickly side-lined. He tried, and failed, to oust Najib three times. His influence to shape events faded and he finally resigned when the party supported Najib in the 1MDB scandal.

The ageing statesman was left angry and disappointed by UMNO’s political direction. He had hoped his son Mukhriz would rise through the ranks and one day lead the country. This is why he forced the removal of Abdullah, openly campaigned against Najib, and then set up his own party – PPBM. He remains party chairman and a key figure in the PH coalition.

Mahathir and the press

Mahathir was no friend of the press while he was the country’s leader. He saw limiting its freedom as one way to ensure stability in the country. Four publications lost their licenses as part of Operation Lalang and newspapers began to self-censor during his tenure. Media outlets were also given advice on which subjects could be covered and how. Mahathir accepted responsibility for this operation in 2014.

Mahathir himself seems to favour a wider range of reporting topics – in particular, him. He started his own blog in 2008 because he felt the media was only painting him in a derogatory manner.

The blog gave him the platform to air his views and continue his vendetta against his successors. It also allowed him to control his message. He has since regularly made provocative statements and involved himself in controversial issues. This means journalists are often keen to publish what the old man says.

Mahathir craves power, attention, and influence

Mahathir wanted those who ruled after him to continue taking Malaysia in the same direction. He hoped his successors would reach out to him for assistance but found himself ignored. He has chosen not to let events run their course, instead he has embarrassingly  done everything he can to effect change.

Mahathir takes advantage of news events to put pressure on Najib and keep his opinions in the headlines. This has been anything from Malaysia’s links with China to the election of Donald Trump. His use of journalists is as much a bid for attention as it is a bid for re-election.

Mahathir polarises opinion across Malaysia. On one side his critics say he is damaging the coalition. On the other, a Malaysiakini poll reported that 69.9% of respondents endorsed Mahathir as PH’s candidate. He clearly does still hold some influence among the public.

Many people have not forgiven Mahathir for the way he cracked down on dissidents to shore up his own power base. In their eyes, he is not worth taking seriously unless he apologises.

Mahathir is a hypocrite and he is damaging his legacy

Mahathir once complained – in 2006 – that the media refused to publish his views for fear of criticising the government. This is ironic when he was largely responsible for early crackdowns on press freedoms.

He fills his interviews with hyperbole – for example, spewing anti-Semitic claims that Jews “rule the world”, asserting that China is “colonising” Malaysia and alleging that 9/11 was staged by the US.

He has accused both Abdullah and Najib of being corrupt, yet he has also been accused of engaging in corrupt practices. He is prepared to meet, shake hands with, and work with former enemies such as Anwar and Lim Kit Siang. For example, Mahathir’s recent handshake and show of unity with Anwar smacked of political opportunism – from both men – given that they have openly clashed.

Mahathir’s desperate bid to become prime minister once again is only newsworthy because PH decision-makers have delayed naming their preferred candidate for the job. Mahathir has used this to press his case, boost his media profile, and continue his attack on the establishment. The longer they delay, the longer Mahathir will be able to sustain this level of attention.

Give the man a platform and he will use it. PH politicians can and must take it away. Their failure to make a nomination is harming their chances of getting into power.

Najib is going nowhere. Mukhriz will never live up to his father’s expectations. Malaysia is moving on. So too, should Mahathir.