Mahathir’s week of machinations: How they covered it

HE_Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, Prime Minister of MalaysiaPhoto: Chatham House

A look at how the media responded to the biggest story of the week.

By John Pennington

Malaysian politics was thrown into turmoil this week when Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir resigned, leaving the country without a leader and facing the prospect of a snap general election less than two years after he the public unexpectedly swept him back into power.

As it stands, with nobody able to command a majority, having met all 222 MPs, the King has asked parliament to vote in a new PM on March 2nd.

As the dust settles on a tumultuous week, there are plenty of questions about who is to blame for the breakdown of the ruling coalition, what happens next and what the potential impact could be.

In Malaysia, the debate surrounding the whys and the who next rages

A common theme emerged from the press within Malaysia: this is Mahathir’s fault and he must go. “How did we go from dancing in the streets in joyous celebration over the rebirth of our democracy to facing the possibility of a new kind of dictatorship?” asked Dennis Ignatius, a former ambassador, writing in Free Malaysia Today. “He plotted against his coalition and is now distancing himself from the plot after it went awry”.

The Sarawak Report went even further, calling accusing Mahathir of “dysfunctional behaviour” and suggesting “an icon of Malaysia seems to have all but lost the plot.”

“Many believe the old man cunningly planned this from the start”, it said, pointing out that “if he had he ought to have had a better plan.” The piece concluded, “it is time to pass on the baton”.

However, Mahathir has shown time and again how resilient he is. Writing in Channel News Asia, James Chin predicted that he might yet be Malaysia’s best bet. “He may be outspoken, even testy at times, but this is a man Malaysian leaders and society trust to lead Malaysia, even if it involves unconventional means that run counter to the system,” he wrote.

Malaysia’s constitution has come under increasing scrutiny

Meanwhile, New Straits Times highlighted that although the recent events are unprecedented, they are not unconstitutional or illegal. “Legitimate ‘horse trading deals’ are being done all the time,” said political analyst K.K. Tan.

“Many people do not seem to understand that the key element of our democratic system is the supremacy of Parliament, that a majority of MPs can at any time, form a new government, as long as the country’s constitution and Head of State (in our case, the King) allow for it. It is fully legitimate and democratic,” he argued.

The King has won admirers for how he handled the situation. His decision to meet with every MP was unprecedented. “This action by the King is highly commendable,” Tan added. “He is demonstrating clearly to the Rakyat that he would act within the spirit of the Constitution on his appointment of a new prime minister or in calling for a snap election”.

Elsewhere, thoughts turned to what this means for Malaysia’s future

Writing in Malaysiakini, Ding-Jo Ann expressed concern that the crisis will further set back democratic reforms in the country. Progress has been slow since Mahathir returned to power, but she remains hopeful. “No matter who our next prime minister is, and whether a unity government, Harapan 2.0, or backdoor government is put in place, we must ensure that the reform agenda continues,” she wrote.

Coverage from outside Malaysia centred on the impact of the crisis, particularly with economies in the region already feeling the knock-on effects of coronavirus. Amid falling growth in Malaysia, The Bangkok Post reported that immediately following the crisis, the stock market slipped to its lowest level in eight years before rebounding. The ringgit also took an initial hit.

Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar Ibrahim and Mohamad Mahathir had agreed to share the term as Prime Minister, with the latter taking the first two years. Anwar’s allies in the ruling coalition control 92 of the 222-seat Malaysian Parliament, 20 seats shy of a majority.
Photo: Firdaus Latif

Channel News Asia spoke to economists who agreed that although the crisis is not helpful, it will not lead to disaster. “The current political disruption has sent a shockwave, and it will cloud the outlook,” said Lee Heng Guie, executive director of the Socio-Economic Research Centre, a think tank. “But we cannot say outright that this will break the country’s economic back.”

What about relations between Malaysia and its neighbours?

The Jakarta Post reported that President Joko Widodo had wished Malaysia well. “[Indonesia] is hoping for the best for Malaysia and for relations of the neighbouring countries to continue on good terms,” it quoted Presidential spokesman Fadjroel Rachman as saying.

In Cambodia, The Khmer Times ran a piece from Huang Rihan, a research fellow at the Charhar Institute, exploring the impact of the crisis on Sino-Malay relations.

“Regardless of who the prime minister is, relations between China and Malaysia will stay on course,” he said.  “As China’s strategic partner, Malaysia was among the first countries to support and participate in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”.

It is, of course, still too early to see how this political upheaval will play out and what impact it will have. An election seems likely. The renewed uncertainty will shock the economy, particularly if a new leader or coalition takes power.

Mahathir’s resignation came as a surprise, but his return in 2018 showed how unpredictable Malaysian politics can be. What the country, its economy, and the region now require is a swift and decisive end to the crisis. Then, whoever takes control in the next parliament can get on with moving the country forward.