Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on 2018-05-15
Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V has agreed to pardon Anwar Ibrahim, paving the way for the jailed politician’s entry back into politics, a transitional requirement that would allow him to take over political power, new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday.
Mahathir made the announcement during a news conference after meeting leaders of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) at his office in Kuala Lumpur.
“In the course of our discussion with the king yesterday, he said he is willing to pardon Anwar Ibrahim immediately,” Mahathir said.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s new leadership has taken precautions to prevent Najib Razak, the prime minister defeated in the May 9 election, and his wife from leaving the country, the Wall Street Journal reported late Friday, after reports emerged that the names of the couple were on a private airplane’s manifest that was scheduled to take off from Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Najib had planned to take a short break, then return to Malaysia, an official with his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) told the paper.
Najib has been shadowed for the past three years by corruption allegations tied to the Malaysian state investment fund 1MDB. Mahathir had pledged in the electoral campaign to work to get back for Malaysia billions of dollars allegedly stolen from the fund and to prosecute those who broke the law.
The Journal cited sources close to Prime Minister Mahathir saying steps had been taken to stop Najib and his spouse from going abroad, and these sources had confirmed the details of the flight’s manifest. According to the Reuters news agency, citing two sources and local media reports, the private jet was scheduled to fly to Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport in Jakarta.
Mahathir, 92, emerged triumphant after leading Malaysia’s main opposition bloc to an upset victory on Wednesday by forging an unlikely alliance with Anwar, his former protégé and deputy.
Anwar, 70, was expected to succeed Mahathir but was prosecuted and jailed in 1999 on allegations of corruption and sodomy, which were widely believed to be politically motivated.
In 2015, Anwar was jailed for sodomy for a second time and is due to be released on June 8.
As part of his campaign promise while running as the opposition bloc’s leader, Mahathir agreed to seek the pardon for Anwar and vowed to make way for his former nemesis to replace him as prime minister.
Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, said the actual date of his pardon had not been confirmed.
“It will take time, the documentations, so I cannot tell you now,” she told reporters after visiting her father at the Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. “God willing, we hope for the best.”
Anwar had been recuperating at the hospital after a surgery.
But Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said his release might take place next week, at the earliest, if all went well.
“There are many things that we have to look through,” she told reporters Friday. “But what’s most important is, the king has expressed his willingness to give full pardon to Anwar.”
Mahathir, during the news conference, also announced the formation of his administration’s 10 core ministries, including defense and foreign affairs.
“We discussed things in depth, and for right now we are only going to create a small cabinet,” he said. “We do not want a huge cabinet.”
Oh Ei Sun, a senior analyst at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, told BenarNews that the new cabinet list could be a consolidation of related functions, allowing the country’s economy to propel forward.
“Basically it will be a combination of Economic Planning Unit previously under the prime minister’s office, and perhaps the industry portion of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry,” Oh said.
During the electoral campaign, the opposition promised to downsize the prime minister’s office, which had 28 separate ministries under the Najib Razak administration. Mahathir said discussions on cabinet appointments would take place on Saturday.
“This is to give time for parties to decide which ministry they want to be in and who will be in it,” Mahathir said.
When asked whether Anwar will be given a cabinet-level position, Mahathir replied that the law requires that the jailed politician must first become a member of parliament.
“That process can take a long time. It will be decided when the time comes,” Mahathir said.
On foreign affairs, Mahathir said he wanted to maintain good relations with other countries, while remaining neutral on controversial issues.
“Malaysia is a trading nation and we want to ensure the market for Malaysia is as large of possible,” he said.
Mahathir was apparently reacting to news reports that China had urged him to uphold the bilateral agreements between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.
“Some foreign powers may want to impose sanction to countries that are not doing what they want, but big powers will not influence our policies,” Mahathir said without elaborating.
On Thursday, Mahathir told reporters that he had no problem with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a wide-reaching infrastructure program that includes the 688-kilometer (430-mile) East Coast Railway Link, a railroad that would connect the west coast to the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.
But Mahathir added that his government “would not like to see too many warships in this area, because [a] warship attracts other warships.”
Changing of the guard
A few top government officials are facing the risk of being removed from their positions, Mahathir also told reporters.
“Our intention is to go for people who have shown a tendency to be corrupt or who have committed known corrupt acts,” Mahathir said.
Mahathir did not name names, but analysts said among those in the firing line could be Attorney General Apandi Ali, who had cleared Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib, of corruption allegations related to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The U.S. Department of Justice is trying to recover more than $1.7 billion in real-estate and other assets allegedly siphoned off through complex transactions from 1MDB, which Najib formed in 2009 ostensibly to pursue projects that would benefit Malaysian citizens through development projects.
Court documents allege that about U.S. $681 million of 1MDB funds were diverted into Najib’s personal bank accounts, but Najib said the money came as a political donation from a member of the Saudi royal family.
“At the moment the AG [attorney general] has undermined his own credibility. He has hidden evidence of wrongdoing and that is wrong under the law,” Mahathir said.
Mahathir was sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister on Thursday, a day after the coalition he led defeated the nation’s longest-ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, in the 14th general election. PH garnered 113 seats out of the contested 222 parliamentary seats.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Wan Azizah Wan Ismail did not take the oath of office as deputy prime minister.