Malaysia: Rattling skeletons in Mahathir’s closet – 5 Sep 2017

  • With the Malaysian general election expected to be called within months, the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak has dug up scandals that occurred during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 22-year reign between 1981 and 2003. There is also a buzz in Malaysia that more Mahathir-era scandals could be trotted out.
  • Rattling these skeletons is more than just an idle hobby for Datuk Seri Najib. It has manifold uses – to drive a wedge between Dr Mahathir and his new-found friends in the opposition; to jolt the memory of the electorate who remember only Dr Mahathir’s plus points; and critically, to deflect attention from Mr Najib’s own troubles. The government hopes that these old issues would sway voters, especially fence-sitters, at the next general election, which must be held by 2018.
  • The forex RCI was intended to demonstrate how opportunistic, and hypocritical, the opposition can be. The inquiry was told that former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, now in opposition and an ally of Dr Mahathir, knew about the huge sums lost then but kept mum. The Memali issue, meanwhile, could gain brownie points for Mr Najib from supporters of Umno-friendly opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Most of the villagers killed in that government-ordered raid were PAS members.
  • Indeed, there are plenty more skeletons waiting to be dug up. These included financial scandals such as those involving Bumiputera Malaysia Finance (BMF), Perwaja Steel and Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ). In the 1979 to 1983 BMF issue, hundreds of millions of dollars in bad loans were lent out by the government bank to Hong Kong property players. In the Perwaja scandal, from 1992 to 1995, a government plan to bolster the local steel industry failed, with accusations that millions of dollars earmarked for development went missing. Meanwhile, in the MYR12bn PKFZ scandal in the 1990s, alleged corruption greatly inflated the costs of building the regional shipping hub.
  • Political scandals included Project IC in Sabah where tens of thousands of identity cards were allegedly given out to Filipino Muslims in the early 1990s to change voting patterns, and the sacking and prosecution of then deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 on what many saw as politically-motivated criminal charges.
  • Still, there are questions as to whether the strategy of demonising Dr Mahathir will work. “Raising these could have a reverse effect as people might question the government’s motive, as these are old issues,” said political analyst Samsu Adabi Mamat.
  • The general view is that Dr Mahathir’s no-nonsense approach in running the country – some call it authoritarian – endears him to those nostalgic for the 1990s when the economy expanded rapidly and Malaysia was better respected internationally.

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