Truly Malay: On Mahathir’s legacy

Attempts to privilege the Muslim majority over others will hurt Malaysia’s pluralistic ethos

The drama behind the developments that catapulted Muhyiddin Yassin to Malaysia’s premiership could go on, unless his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad decides to call it quits. But Mr. Mahathir, who resigned last week, seems no less determined to fight on than when he staged a spectacular comeback as Premier in 2018 after spending nearly two decades in political retirement. On that occasion, Mr. Mahathir forged the Pakatan Harapan (PH), a multiethnic coalition, with his erstwhile arch-rival Anwar Ibrahim. The sole mission of that alliance was to remove the government of United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the party of Malay nationalism which was at the time embroiled in a multibillion-dollar scandal. But the PH collapsed last week when some splinter groups tried to form an alliance with UMNO, leading to Mr. Mahathir’s resignation. But as soon as Mr. Muhyiddin, Interior Minister in the previous administration, was sworn in as the new Premier on Sunday, his ex-boss challenged the legitimacy of his appointment. While claiming the support of 112 MPs in Kuala Lumpur’s 222 member legislature, Mr. Mahathir has also objected to Mr. Muhyiddin taking the support of the UMNO. Given the UMNO’s overt assertion of Malaysia’s majority Muslim interests, Mr. Mahathir’s claim appeared to resonate among sections of the country’s diverse ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, the PH is organising roadshows to explain to supporters and voters the events that led to the breakup of the coalition, ahead of its attempt to move a vote of no confidence in Mr. Muhyiddin’s leadership. But the plan could hit a roadblock following the Speaker’s announcement on Wednesday of postponement of the next parliamentary session until May. But Mr. Mahathir’s capacity to convert the coming weeks to his advantage cannot be underestimated. Few would have taken seriously his launch of a comeback bid in 2017, when he aligned with Mr. Anwar, his one-time protege whom he had incarcerated on politically motivated charges of sodomy in the 1990s. Crucially, the latter appears to stand by his mentor now, even though the promise of being handed the baton has not materialised so far. Conversely, gains from the byelections last year are bound to renew the Opposition’s hopes to consolidate its position. The prevailing uncertainty could also distract attention away from Malaysia’s economic priorities. Equally, the revival of the old narrative to privilege the country’s Muslim majority would prove detrimental to its plural ethos. As he constitutes a new Cabinet, Prime Minister Muhyiddin would do well to build on the inclusive legacy of the past two years. At the same time, Mr. Mahathir might ponder the democratic case in making way for a successor.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 8:32:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/truly-malay-the-hindu-editorial-on-mahatir-mohamads-legacy/article30993663.ece

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