Rasputin in Malaysia
Has Zahid hijacked Anwar’s administration?
Murray Hunter and John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel
Seven weeks into Malaysia’s unity administration, a sideshow is emerging that risks overshadowing Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim himself as his wingman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi delivers a breathtaking high-wire act as deputy prime minister.
The 70-year-old Zahid is running with his own agenda and is somehow suddenly benefiting from a delay until April without reason of his trial in a Kuala Lumpur suburb where he faces 43 counts of corruption and money-laundering for allegedly looting a charity he established. The standing court case may just drift on and on, the flotsam of survival of Anwar’s government.
The sudden prominence of Zahid, considered one of the principal bêtes noirs of the deeply corrupt United Malays National Organization in the midst of a putatively reformist government which came to power in November – especially with Anwar at the helm, with his reputation as an internationally recognized reformer, has analysts scratching their heads. But as one long-time political analyst in Kuala Lumpur put it, “Well, that’s Anwar.”
Undeterred, Zahid and Mohamad Hasan, his ally and the Pakatan Harapan defense minister, have out-politicked their opposition within the crumbling United Malays National Organization to waive any near-term election for the party’s top two positions, generating rank-and-file outrage. That ensures that Zahid and Mohamad Hasan, who is called Tok Mat, will have another three years as party president and deputy president respectively to gird up their political loins, which may even keep them in party office until after another election, the prospect of prison permitting. Anwar has assured his associates he won’t interfere in the criminal trial although the delay raises questions how and why.
Zahid claims that his three-year breathing spell will allow him and Tok Mat to put necessary reforms in place so that UMNO will be competitive in the next state elections. It will also give Zahid time to deal, probably ruthlessly, with those who oppose him within UMNO, going by what he did to those who didn’t support him before the general election. Part of the collateral damage of suspending the selection of the top two party office holders is that many grassroots supporters are leaving UMNO and going across to Perikatan Nasional, particularly the Malay nationalist Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, headed by the besieged former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and raising the possibility that the 70-year-old UMNO could implode and disappear.
Zahid now has his way with UMNO, or what’s left of it, which the other parties within the governing coalition are secretly applauding. They believe it will stabilize the government, at least in the short term. It also means Zahid – if he can stay out of prison, which is not a sure thing – will be able to work out UMNO candidate lineups in the coming state elections in six key states. A positive result for the coalition will be vital to maintaining political stability at the federal level.
This will be a major challenge as Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, with both Bersatu and the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia components believing they can maintain their so called Islamic green wave, with the basic issues of UMNO’s corruption still in the headlines. That is why there is a big push in Harapan to paint Muhyiddin as corrupt during his stewardship of the Covid pandemic, in an attempt to characterize the scandal as another 1MDB, which has resulted in the former prime minister, Najib Razak, serving a 12 year jail term.
At the center of it all is Zahid.
For the years before the last general election, Zahid was tainted as a member of the “court cluster” of UMNO politicians who earned the sobriquet by being charged with long-running and indelible corruption. Zahid was understandably a central political target during the runup to the election, with UNMO insiders and Pakatan Harapan painting him as a corrupt kleptocrat alongside Najib, who had already been convicted and jailed
Just scraping into a victory in his own seat with a 348-vote majority, and with no one political grouping able to gain a majority to claim government, Zahid turned UMNO into the kingmaker. He commanded all 30 Barisan Nasional MPs to join Pakatan in a symbolic hotel meeting. By joining Anwar and his PH coalition, they were able to bring in GPS of Sarawak with its 23 seats to form a new government.
Zahid overnight turned from villain to hero. When he spoke to Anwar about supporting Pakatan Harapan to form the new government, he insisted on two portfolios – one for himself as deputy prime minister and Rural Development minister to try and regain support from Malays in rural areas in his battle to stay out of jail, and law minister for Azalina Othman Said, a close ally who could be counted on to attempt to shepherd away any additional bothersome criminal charges.
Pakatan Harapan supporters who before the election were calling for Zahid to be jailed are now hailing him as an unlikely savior of the ‘Reformasi’ cause. That is because soon after the general election, at a by-election for a rural Kedah parliamentary seat, Zahid, who grew up with a Chinese stepfather, electrified the audience by speaking in Chinese. He said “I am a Malay. You are Chinese. We are all Malaysians, right?” He went on to say that there should no racial politics, that UMNO must be sorry for past wrongs and that the party, which had become a Malay nationalist pipe organ, should instead work closely with Pakatan far beyond the next election for national unity. To many, the speech rehabilitated Zahid, with Pakatan Harapan supporters, particularly non-Malay minorities, regarding him as one of their own.
That said, over the past month a number of decisions have taken the tarnish off Zahid’s halo. Home Minister Saifuddin Ismail Nasution, a long-time associate of Zahid, announced that the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, known as SOSMA, which superseded the draconian colonial era Internal Security Act, won’t be reviewed in the near future. This is an important reform to those who witnessed the unjust use of the old ISA during the Mahathir years when opponents of the regime could be arrested and held without a writ of habeas corpus indefinitely.