The 25 year Mahathir-Anwar Feud

Murray Hunter

Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s accusations of defamation against Anwar Ibrahim could be the last chapter of the 25 year feud between the two of them.

Anwar, at a Party Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) conference said ‘a person who led the country for 22 years and 22 months had used his position to enrich himself and family’. These remarks led Mahathir to issue a letter of demand from his lawyer for Anwar to retract his statement and apologize.

Anwar has no intention of apologizing, and Mahathir’s challenge has led to Anwar stating he will provide proof to back up the statement made, at the party congress.

The gauntlet has been thrown down, which could well end up in unchartered territory.

Anwar was initially groomed by Mahathir as his successor within UMNO, during the 1990s. Together, Mahathir and Anwar nurtured crony capitalism, in their quest to create Malay multi-millionaires, under the pretext of the NEP. They introduced quotas, and APs to favour connected businesses. Project IC in Sabah was conducted to swing the balance of voters towards Sabah UMNO, which they created. They Islamized education and the civil service, and founded JAKIM, which was aimed at taking Islamic authority away from the states.

Mahathir and Anwar’s relationship began to have friction over the management of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Anwar wanted to implement IMF recommendations, which was filled with austerity measures, while Mahathir wanted to peg the falling Ringgit to the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate to protect the Malaysian economy from currency freefall.

In September 1998, Mahathir stripped Anwar from all his party and government positions. A few weeks later, after street protests supporting Anwar, he was publicly arrested at his home on charges of sodomy and corruption. The deeply humiliated Anwar was bashed by the then IGP, and put on a show trial reminiscent of the Soviet era.

The effect of the trial was to give Anwar public exposure during the trial, where sodomy and all its details became household chat. Malaysian society lost its innocence. The trial also opened up the weaponization of the legal system, as a tool of the government of the day. This received widespread criticism around the world.

Mahathir’s move against Anwar ignited the reformasi and Free Anwar movements. This ironically stuck the first blow in the slow demise of UMNO. Parti Keadilan Nasional was formed, and through Anwar’s plight, all opposition parties united under the Barisan Alternatif, later Pakatan Rakyat.

This eventually led to a Pakatan Harapan government.

The Mahathir-Anwar relationship appeared to thaw in before the 2018 general election, where the common objective was to defeat UMNO leader and then prime minister Najib Razak. PH supported Mahathir as leader in exchange for his pledge to obtain a pardon for Anwar, if they won the election. Mahathir would then stand aside and allow for Anwar to make the transition to leader and prime minister. Anwar became ‘the prime minister in waiting’.

As time went on during Mahathir second stint as prime minister, it was clearly becoming evident that Mahathir had other ideas about handing over power to Anwar. Mahathir appointed Anwar’s former second in command, Azmin Ali as a senior minister, partly as a tactic to irritate Anwar. Mahathir also backtracked on many of PH reforms.

Finally, Azmin Ali, along with Muhyiddin Yassin, engineered what is now known as the Sheraton Putsch, to bring down the PH government and replace it with a Malay-centric government. Mahathir’s surprise resignation brought the government tumbling down, where Mahathir was reappointed caretaker prime minister without the rest of the cabinet. This flaunted Anwar’s moves to become prime minister, shifting power far away from PH.

This was the second betrayal of Anwar by Mahathir in two decades.

Ironically, Mahathir’s focus upon bringing down Anwar, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Najib Razak, and Tunku Abdul Rahman before them, has divided the Malay vote. Now Malay support is split among a number of Malay-centric parties. Mahathir actually destroyed the concept of mythical Malay unity, and replaced it with a Machiavellian Malay political culture.