Commentary: Mahathir's return and the awkward question of political leadership renewal in Malaysia

Commentary: Mahathir's return and the awkward question of political leadership renewal in Malaysia

Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s announcement that he would be open to becoming prime minister raises awkward questions about political leadership renewal, not just in the opposition coalition but also in the ruling party, argues Dr Norshahril Saat.

Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad during an interview with Reuters at his offi
Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad during an interview with Reuters at his office in Petronas Towers in October 2015. (File photo: REUTERS/Olivia Harris)

SINGAPORE: In Malaysia, there is talk that Dr Mahathir Mohamad may become prime minister for the second time if the opposition wins the next election.

At the outset, Mahathir seems reluctant to assume the position he left in 2003. Yet, he says he will consider taking up it up, if no suitable candidates are found after an opposition election victory.


The ruling party has unsurprisingly capitalised on Mahathir’s announcement to suggest that he is driven by self-interest to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak. UMNO leaders also argue that naming the 92-year-old former statesman for the top position suggests desperation on the opposition’s part.

In the past, the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the People’s Justice Party (PKR) were critical of Mahathir’s rule and wanted to bring him down. Opposition to the Mahathir government in the 1990s centred on his alleged iron-fist rule, characterised by what the opposition says was the frequent arrest of opposition leaders under the Internal Security Act.

The opposition had also disapproved of Mahathir’s mega projects, such as the Petronas Twin Towers (once the tallest building in the world), the national car company Proton and the creation of an administrative capital in Putrajaya. They had claimed that Mahathir practised cronyism, using his links and influence to make his close friends and family members super-rich. Mahathir denied these allegations.

Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) Geely's investment will end 'handouts from the
Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group inked a deal to buy a 49.9 per cent stake in Malaysia's national carmaker Proton last month. (Photo: AFP)


The truth is that the opposition remains divided about having Mahathir as prime minister again. One of those in favour of Mahathir’s return is former Cabinet minister Zaid Ibrahim. He argues that the opposition must name a prime minister candidate soon, to counter rumours from UMNO politicians that the opposition is naming the Chinese, non-Muslim DAP leader Lim Kit Siang their leader.

Zaid knows that conservative Malay-Muslims would reject Mr Lim as prime minister. Many heartland Malays are also likely to support Mahathir’s candidacy. They feel that Malaysia had witnessed an era of political stability during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister. To them, Mahathir had transformed Malaysia into an industrialised and modern Muslim country.

By contrast, PKR members are opposed to the suggestion. During the last PKR convention in May, party members were united in proposing that Anwar Ibrahim become the next prime minister. Party members flashed placards showing support for Anwar, causing discomfort to Mahathir, who also attended the convention. They did so even though Anwar is currently serving a jail sentence, and upon his release, remains barred from politics.

Free Anwar campaign
A display with a photo of Anwar Ibrahim at the annual PKR Congress on Sunday (May 21) calling for his release was signed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad. (Photo: Melissa Goh)

PKR leader and Selangor chief minister Azmin Ali claimed that the question of whether Mahathir will become the next prime minister has never arisen. The opposition is instead, focussed on winning the next general election, he said.

Another opposition leader Muhyiddin Yassin from the Malaysia United Indigenous Party (PPBM) is also a favourite for a prime minister candidate for the opposition. Muhyiddin, himself a former deputy prime minister and UMNO deputy president, was removed by Najib last year.


The names proposed so far - Mahathir, Anwar and Muhyiddin - suggest the country is facing a pressing problem of leadership renewal within the opposition.

The ruling party finds itself in the same situation. Within the UMNO ranks, the question remains who will succeed Najib if he decides to step down. His current deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is currently 64 years old. The other candidate is 55-year-old Hishammuddin Hussein, who is the son of former Prime Minister Hussein Onn and Najib’s cousin. He is currently Defence Minister and was recently appointed as minister with “special functions” in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Another of UMNO’s rising star is Khairy Jamaluddin, former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s son-in-law, who is dubbed to be the ideal prime minister. He is intelligent, popular and has a strong following among youths. The Youth and Sports Minister is an Oxford graduate, and is only 41 years old.

But whether Khairy can make it to the top position in UMNO, which automatically means becoming prime minister, depends on whether he can rally the divided party and bypass the old-guards.

Khairy speaking to CNA
It is up to Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak if the election will be called after the Southeast Asian Games, as widely speculated, said Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin in an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia in June. (Photo: Salim Hanafiah)

Ironically, he may have to “do a Mahathir” to find influential patrons to rise to power. In 1976, when Tun Hussein Onn became prime minister, Mahathir was appointed his deputy even though there were other senior UMNO leaders. Mahathir was widely known to be the previous Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak’s protégé. Mahathir went on to take on the top position in 1981 at 56 years old

Similarly, in 1993, Mahathir appointed Anwar Ibrahim his deputy and the incumbent Ghafar Baba had to make way for UMNO’s then rising star. Unfortunately, this succession plan was halted when Anwar was sacked by Mahathir.

We have yet to see a similar succession pattern in UMNO, for now.


Leadership renewal in the opposition is in a more precarious state than UMNO’s. Not enough effort has been exercised to accelerate young leaders into important, grooming positions in the party. The towering presence of party stalwarts like DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and Abdul Hadi Awang from the Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), both of whom have dominated Malaysia's political scene since the 1980s, continue to stall the opposition’s renewal.

NIP 5 - Malaysia
Abdul Hadi Awang was said to have undergone open heart surgery in May. (Photo: AFP)

The opposition may argue that disunity within their ranks has forced them to turn to these senior politicians for guidance. However, this may be counterproductive, because these old guards have been fighting one another for decades. Their quick reconciliation only suggests that pragmatism supersedes ideology, for now.

The time has come for the opposition to give their younger politicians more prominence in the next elections. Old guards should even consider stepping aside and not run, if there is appetite. In their campaigns, they should also clarify their parties’ succession plans for leadership renewal.

Malaysians are keen to see who will make the next generation of leaders in the country. They are tired of seeing the old guards fight one another on issues from the previous decade.

The suggestion that Mahathir lead the opposition coalition only reinforces these feelings.

Dr Norshahril Saat studies politics in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, as a fellow at the ISEAS- Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: CNA/sl