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How Malaysia’s political coup failed

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 26 February 2020

A plan to realign Malaysia’s political structure along racial lines to cement ethnic Malays as the country’s ruling force appears to have floundered because its architect, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, backed away at the last minute over a move by lieutenants to include the discredited United Malays National Organization in the coalition.

Mahathir, according to a wide range of sources in Kuala Lumpur, originally envisioned bringing individual UMNO MPs into his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia to strengthen a coalition that would have included his party as well as other ethnic Malay groups. But PBBM President Muhyiddin Yassin, Minister of Economic Affairs Mohamed Azmin Ali, who has challenged longtime pretender Anwar Ibrahim to become Mahathir’s successor, and others went ahead with the plan at a Kuala Lumpur hotel on Sunday night. Mahathir, who was supposed to attend the meeting, backed out.

“The UMNO guys insisted that for joining the coup, they wanted criminal charges against them dropped and the deputy PM post to be given to them,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “Mahathir balked at this, saying he could not accept the very crooks he fought being in his government. He was conscious that he is going to be 95 and this was not the legacy he wanted to leave behind.”


Among UMNO members that have been charged with crimes are former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is caught up in the huge 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, and the deputy prime minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces seven corruption charges for taking kickbacks as home affairs minister, and others. At the end of its 70-year reign as Malaysia’s primary political entity, UMNO had become indelibly corrupt.

Mahathir, said the political analyst, “is too smart, he’s been through too many battles. His position was ‘If the UMNO guys wanted to be a part of my government, they’ve got to resign from UMNO.’ What Muhyiddin did was bring in UMNO as a coalition party and kicked out the (Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party).”

The plan had been in the works for the past eight to 10 months as Mahathir’s longtime rival, Anwar, increased the pressure to honor the pre-election pledge he made in 2018 to step aside after two years, according to the sources. Those Mahathir had been meeting with were leaders of UMNO and the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, all dedicated to the idea of ketuanan Melayu, or continuing ethnic Malay political primacy. Meetings also included the East Malaysia parties Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Warisan.

All those who plotted the failed putsch are now at the mercy of Mahathir -- Muhyiddin, Azmin Ali, former Hishamuddin Hussein Onn, the former UMNO Defense Minister and others. They are now marked for political extinction, according to a range of sources.

Despite the public pleas for the 94-year-old Mahathir to return to head at least an interim government on the part of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party’s leader, Lim Guan Eng, and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s leader Anwar Ibrahim, among others, the premier has inspired behind-the-scenes distrust and anger. Sources within PKR believe the episode was part of a calculated move by Mahathir and his allies to outmaneuver Anwar and destabilize parties within Pakatan Harapan, according to a leading country risk firm that remains unnamed because of the sensitivity of the material.

“PKR leaders have told us that Mahathir had orchestrated the entire debacle, but that the move had backfired in the process of its execution,” according to a confidential report made available to Asia Sentinel


The affair has led to three days of frantic jockeying between the opposing sides, with both seeking audiences with the king in marathon sessions. The outcome is still unclear. Well informed sources say the debacle means Mahathir must formally name Anwar as his successor. Equally informed sources say Anwar is headed for political oblivion.

Since resigning on February 23, Mahathir, who also resigned as chairman of PPBM in the midst of all the fighting, has nonetheless engineered his appointment by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and has been able to assemble a majority of support from sitting MPs within the parliament.

Neither the now-defunct Pakatan Harapan nor Muafakat Nasional, as the opposition is now known, have the numbers to take over the reins of government. A vote of confidence is expected to be called on March 9 when Parliament convenes but meanwhile, the civil service will run the country. Both now-fractured coalitions begged Mahathir to return and continue to pledge loyalty to him.

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This article was first published in Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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