Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called Thursday on parties in the ruling bloc to stay united or risk turning Malaysia into a “failed state,” as the nation marked the first anniversary of a stunning change in governments.
The four members of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, or Alliance of Hope, had put aside their differences in a historic election a year ago on May 9 to rid Malaysia of what Mahathir described as a kleptocracy, during a televised speech at a celebration rally in the administrative capital Putrajaya.
“Pakatan Harapan was founded as a coalition of four opposing parties. The aim was only one – to topple the Najib Razak-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government,” he said to a round of applause from those gathered at the Putrajaya International Convention Center.
Mahathir recounted how Pakatan faced an uphill battle against the incumbent coalition, whose anchor party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), had led Malaysia throughout the country’s 61-year existence.
Political pundits, academicians and newspaper columnists who deemed the campaign an impossible task did not fully understand the public’s frustration with BN’s corruption, the prime minister said.
“Without fear of threats, pressure and polling day corruption, the people denied Barisan Nasional and gave a big mandate to Pakatan Harapan,” he said.
“But if we cannot put aside our differences, things will get worse, the country will suffer and Malaysia would be in danger of becoming a failed state,” he added.
Pakatan, consisting of the mainly ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the faith-based National Trust Party (Amanah) and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) chaired by Mahathir won 113 of the 222 seats in parliament to take control of the government through its majority.
Since then, the Pakatan government has cracked down against corruption, reopening an investigation into the beleaguered state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The probe led to criminal charges against Najib and others linked to what, the U.S. Justice Department alleged, included the diversion of $4.5 billion (18.3 billion ringgit) in 1MDB-linked money into bank accounts belonging to him, his friends and family. American government officials have described the 1MDB scandal, which reached across the globe, as “kleptocracy at its worst.”
Even as Najib stands trial on seven of 42 charges filed against him, Mahathir said people were becoming bored with hearing about the wrongdoings of the previous government and were hammering the current administration to deliver on election promises.
“The reality is that the wrongdoing of the Barisan Nasional government under Najib is a huge problem that is getting in the way of national recovery and the public’s prosperity,” Mahathir said in Thursday’s speech.
In addition, his government, which made promises in its Book of Hope election manifesto, has faced a barrage of criticism from opponents aligned with Najib for failing to deliver and instead using the former prime minister as a scapegoat.
“The key challenge is to restore the image of this country. We have a lot of people taking potshots at us, including the press and now social media, because they see us as a target,” Mahathir said.
A year into its government, the ruling coalition has brought diversity to its leadership in multiethnic and multi-religious Malaysia. Among the government firsts are a female deputy prime minister, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail; female chief justice, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat; and an attorney general not from ethnic Malay majority, Tommy Thomas.
“We have to do something, and when you do something you expose yourself to criticism – we must take action against miscreants who stole money from the government,” the prime minister said. “Of course, some people are not very happy, because they thought they can get away with their misdeeds.”
Najib: ‘Sad with what is happening with our country’
After a year of appearing in court to face a litany of charges and watching police remove millions in cash, jewelry and designer handbags from properties linked to him, Najib has started to see a rise in popularity. Among those turning back to Najib are disgruntled voters who hoped for the immediate economic solution promised by Pakatan.
On the anniversary of the election that swept him from power, Najib posted a 12-minute video to Facebook where he read a list of Pakatan failures along with what he called slanders thrown at him. The video had more than 100,000 views during its first hour.
“I am sad with what is happening with our country just after one year, but there is a silver lining because the people can make a comparison between Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional,” Najib said.
Interim prime minister
Speaking to reporters before his televised address, Mahathir, 93, talked about remaining in office. But he did not clarify whether he planned to stay on as the nation’s leader for one or two more years.
He had campaigned on stepping down to make way for his successor, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of PKR who was in prison last year but was since pardoned by the king and elected to parliament.
“I think I will be able to make most of the correction in the period of two years and after that the others will have less problem with it,” Mahathir said, adding that he saw himself as an interim prime minister.
Anwar, meanwhile, delivered his own message to mark the coalition’s first year in office. He issued a warning against racism before thanking Mahathir, a former political foe, for rallying the opposition to victory in 2018.
“The problem of race relations in the country appears to be getting worse amid Harapan’s efforts to realize the coveted change and reforms,” he told Malaysiakini news site on Wednesday. “The threat of racist and communal flames should not be taken lightly and brushed aside, and if left unchecked could destroy all the efforts to put the country back on track.”
Mahathir has been under pressure from Malays to protect privileges for them that are enshrined in the constitution.
In November, he backpedaled on a campaign pledge that his government would support a U.N. treaty, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The move came amid a backlash from critics who expressed fears that backing the treaty could undermine those privileges for Malays.
A year on, the Pakatan government is caught in a political and socioeconomic see-saw, Political analyst Oh Ei Sun observed.
“On one end, they have their liberal-core voter base and on the other are the regressive, conservative voters who eluded them in the last general election and whom they are eager to court,” Oh told BenarNews. “Hence you see the frequent flip-flopping of erstwhile liberal-minded policy initiatives.”
Having reached the goal of toppling Najib, Oh said the loose PH coalition could unravel.
“It is possible if they don’t take care of the looming succession crisis between an obviously reluctant Mahathir and a conspicuously assertive Anwar,” he said.