IT IS tempting to interpret the drama of the past week—in which the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its allies, which had run Malaysia for 61 years, crashed from power—as the result of the interaction of three former colleagues in UMNO.
Without the extreme greed of UMNO’s Najib Razak, the fallen prime minister, the country would not have so readily turned against his corrupt and ruthless party. Without the return to politics of the new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old who had dominated UMNO and the country for decades before retiring in 2003, the opposition could not have persuaded so many voters to follow his lead and desert UMNO in the general election on May 9th. And without the quicksilver brilliance of Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed under Mr Najib on trumped-up sodomy charges but who re-emerged into the limelight on May 16th with a royal pardon, there would have been no momentum for change. Mr Anwar had been planning for this for 20 years.
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The urbane Mr Najib, President Donald Trump’s “favourite prime minister”, presided over the looting of billions of dollars from a state investment fund, 1MDB, according to America’s Department of Justice. Nearly $700m appeared in his own bank accounts, it says; some went on bling that subsequently appeared around the First Lady’s neck. As corruption grew, so did the abuses. Mr Najib suppressed investigations into lost funds, hounded opponents, and gerrymandered elections. He went to great lengths to ensure victory and appeared shell-shocked by the result, presumably because his unctuous courtiers did not make clear the jeopardy he was in. This week police once loyal to him searched the house where he sits awaiting arrest.
The hero of the moment is the comeback kid. Dr Mahathir had helped found UMNO in, oh, 1946. It was during his 22 years as prime minister that the party’s reputation for cronyism, high-handedness and pandering to the ethnic-Malay majority was honed. But for Dr Mahathir, who has reinvented himself as a democrat (or a “listening dictator” as he likes to joke), the excesses of his former protégé were too much. Last year he folded his breakaway party, Bersatu, into the motley, multiracial, left-of-centre opposition, Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope.
Of the coalition’s three main parties, Bersatu is the smallest. It won only 12 seats, compared with 48 for Mr Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) and 42 for the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which appeals to middle-class ethnic Chinese and Indians. Yet the election is Dr Mahathir’s. He represented, as Bridget Welsh of John Cabot University in Rome puts it, a “safe landing” for those in the system worried about the repercussions of betraying it.
On May 16th Dr Mahathir’s exertions to form a cabinet were overshadowed by Mr Anwar’s release. While Dr Mahathir is Pakatan’s “chairman”, Mr Anwar is its real leader. He plans to re-enter parliament and take over as prime minister—but only after a couple of years, Dr Mahathir insists.
When Mr Anwar emerged, Dr Mahathir was there to greet him. In the 1990s Mr Anwar had been his assumed successor. But when he began resisting Dr Mahathir’s unorthodox response to the Asian financial crisis and, much worse, denouncing cronyism, Dr Mahathir had him beaten and jailed. There is a touch of the martyr in Mr Anwar. But his reappearance this week underscored not only a dogged will to power but a bottomless capacity to absolve when necessary.
The two men’s relationship will now be the chief topic of speculation in politics. Mr Anwar says he will take a back seat for now. Dr Mahathir, he says, is “no great reformer. But he can be expected to mend a lot of wrongs, a lot of the excesses: the judiciary can be respected, the media can be free…My role will be essentially to be the voice of conscience. If ministers get new wives and live in opulence, then you can expect me to be more critical.” Big transformations, he implies, will have to wait until his turn.
There are other, far more numerous protagonists, of course, and a week after the vote millions are still loth to scrub off their personal memento: the purple ink on their index finger. The election result, many insist, was not a “Malay tsunami”. Rather, it was a Malaysian one. When Mr Najib plugged the money holes by handing land and contracts to firms linked to the Chinese state, many felt he was selling out the country. For the first time voters intentionally came together across religious and ethnic divides.
One campaign promise was to bring Mr Najib to justice. But the coalition’s first reform was to suspend the tax on goods and services from June 1st. Introduced in 2015, it is the first conspicuous levy many poor Malaysians have ever had to pay. Maybe the Najib-era larceny was so large that the new government really can, as it claims, make up the $5bn in forgone revenue with less graft and more competitive bidding for procurement.
The coalition’s experience of running several of Malaysia’s 12 states augurs well—the new government is not wholly green. What is more, notable agreement exists around the road map. In going after Mr Najib, more emphasis is put on due process than on settling scores. The talk is of overhauling a supine judiciary and strengthening parliamentary oversight. One adviser to Mr Anwar even worries that unless UMNO, now in disarray, refashions itself as a nimble opposition, the new coalition might fall for the “seductions of power” and reforms might slow.
Such sentiments are striking for Malaysia’s new insurgents. They seem to reflect not so much a desire to turn the world upside down as to return to an earlier era of settled law, fair judges and democratic accountability that survives in the national imagination. It is why Malaysia is bucking a broader shift to authoritarianism. At heart, the sentiments reflect less a revolution than a restoration. And, despite the coalition’s inevitable bickering, that restoration has a good chance of working out.