Malaysians could be excused for wondering if they are stuck in a time warp as Mahathir Mohamad rails against a sinister force wrecking an economy he spent two decades building.
But times have changed. The last time 31 million Malaysians witnessed this spectacle was 1997, and the target was billionaire investor George Soros. Today, the former prime minister is denouncing the current one, Najib Razak. And in a delicious twist of irony, even Soros shares Mahathir’s misgivings about Najib’s willingness to burn down one of Southeast Asia’s most promising economies just to stay in power.
The 1MDB fiasco accelerated Najib’s slide from Mahathir prodigy to nemesis. Mahathir rarely misses a chance to demand Najib step down over disclosures that some $700 million found its way into the prime minister’s pockets (Najib denies any wrongdoing and claims “personal donations” from Saudi Arabia, whatever that means). Soros, a U.S. citizen, appears equally aghast. According to emails released by WikiLeaks, Soros lobbied the U.S to disassociate itself from Najib even as Washington engaged with Malaysia to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
But would a return to Mahathir’s firebrand ways really help? He deserves considerable credit for transforming a tropical backwater into an Asian tiger with some of the region’s most impressive skylines. But Mahathir’s 22-year tenure that ended in 2003 was marred by authoritarian leanings, media intolerance and insular industrial policies like building national car brand Proton. His impolitic tirades found a global audience in 1997 and 1998 when he, bizarrely, blamed Jews — Soros, especially — for a plunge in Malaysia’s currency. His capital controls and jailing of his pro-capitalism deputy prime minister drew admonitions from around the globe.
There is also what Mahathir’s return says about today’s Malaysia. For one thing, it speaks to the dearth of young leaders to replace the old warlords. For another, the opposition is too feckless to provide Mahathir a plausible route back to the premiership. His old party, United Malays National Organisation, is also Najib’s, and it has held power for more than six decades. Barring a critical mass of party elders tossing Najib to the curb, which is highly unlikely, Mahathir would have to find another way in.
The wild card here is that Mahathir`s battles with Najib prod the government to do its job, not just dole out patronage. The main task is increasing competitiveness. When Mahathir left office, Malaysia ranked 37th on Transparency International’s corruption index. By 2016, it had slumped to 55th place. Since Najib took over in 2009, Malaysia has also lost ground in the productivity and efficiency scales — ranking 21th in competitiveness by the World Economic Forum then and 25th now. Najib’s team is big on splashy conferences to tout success in raising Malaysia’s game, even though the facts belie the claims.
The battle-scarred Mahathir is just as charismatic as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in his post-leadership incarnation. Some pundits argue Mahathir could act as a Trojan horse, attacking Najib’s stranglehold from inside. Yet even if Mahathir outmaneuvered Najib and reclaimed the crown, there is no guarantee things would change course significantly. To do so would be to water down the policies and laws that kept Mahathir in power — ones Najib is now using to cling on.
Only bold change will ensure Malaysia thrives in this Asian century. Its neglect of Chinese and Indian minorities, for example, is self-defeating economic apartheid. It encourages many of Malaysia’s best and brightest to flee to Singapore or Hong Kong and increases the relative attractiveness of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam for foreign executives.