Sex and Power: Dirty Politics Returns to Mahathir’s Malaysia

The lack of a transition plan casts doubt on the prime minister’s intentions.

By Philip Heijmans and Anisah Shukry (Bloomberg)

A power struggle, a sex scandal and slow progress to implement sweeping economic reforms: Despite a new government in Malaysia, some things haven’t changed much.

Little more than a year after Mahathir Mohamad engineered the country’s first transfer of power in six decades, some of the same problems that have long beset Malaysia are popping up again. At the center of it all is the question of when Mahathir will hand over power to one-time political nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the biggest party in the ruling alliance.

Mahathir Seeks Shared Prosperity in One-Year Anniversary Address
From left, Anwar, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Mahathir and Gobind Singh Deo at an event in Putrajaya on May 9, 2019.Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg

“The time is not very specific,” Mahathir said at the Bloomberg Asean Business Summit in Bangkok on Friday when asked about the time frame for handing over power to Anwar. “I made a promise knowing my relationship with him was not always that good,” he added in the interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haslinda Amin. “But the fact is I made a promise and I stick to my promise.”

Last year the two leaders papered over their rivalry to oust former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who faces charges related to a corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB. But uncertainty continues to loom as Mahathir hangs on to power, distracting the coalition from tackling rampant corruption, decades-long affirmative action policies and a slowing economy.

The latest commotion came last week with the distribution of sex videos from unidentified WhatsApp accounts allegedly featuring Malaysian Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, Anwar’s deputy in the ruling People’s Justice Party who is also seen as his rival for prime minister. The party has two factions—one backing Anwar and one backing Azmin—that are constantly fighting, according to a ranking official within the coalition who asked not to be identified.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Calls on his Cabinet to Declare their Wealth
Azmin Ali arrives at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission headquarters in Putrajaya, on July 10, 2018.Photographer: Rahman Roslan/Bloomberg

Azmin has denied the allegations and is cooperating in a police probe to determine who is responsible. Mahathir has said the videos were evidence of “dirty” politics, telling reporters earlier this month: “If you cannot compete with someone, don’t do something like this.” 

“In general, Malaysian politics has a Game of Thrones sort of plot to it that has been going on for the past 20 to 30 years,” said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a senior lawmaker in the party who is aligned with Anwar. “The concern is of course that these things start as nothing, but then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and it can snowball.”

“A leopard never changes its spots. The same goes for Mahathir”

Representatives of both Anwar and Azmin were contacted several times for comment—neither responded.

For Malaysia it’s a flashback to the 1990s, when Anwar served as Mahathir’s deputy and was seen as his successor. But Mahathir fired Anwar in 1998, and then he spent the next six years in prison on  convictions for abuse of power and sodomy. Anwar went back to jail in 2015 on a subsequent sodomy charge, and received a  pardon after last year’s election.

Azmin similarly is allegedly implicated in videos depicting him and another man engaged in sexual acts, which if true would put him in violation of Malaysia’s colonial-era sodomy laws. He had been positioning himself as Mahathir’s preferred choice for prime minister, Eurasia Group said in a report on Tuesday.

“I am sure that this has a political agenda, done by certain people who intend to halt my progression in the government as well as in politics,” Azmin told reporters on Tuesday.

Anwar leaves court in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 7, 2008.Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

While party officials including Anwar have continued to support Mahathir publicly, internal feuds have spilled into the open. Earlier this month, Mahathir appointed Latheefa Beebi Koya—a known Anwar critic—to head the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

While she is now the first female head of Malaysia’s anti-graft body, the accomplishment was largely overshadowed by criticism that Mahathir bypassed a parliamentary committee in appointing her. With some ruling coalition members calling for her to resign, Anwar finally came out to support the decision and cool tensions.

Mahathir, who is set to turn 94 in July, said Friday he “underestimated” the challenges of governing Malaysia before his election win. He added that he wanted to continue ruling the country to tackle problems related to public debt, which widened to a five-year high in 2018, but didn’t commit to overhauling race-based policies that give preferential treatment to Malays and indigenous groups.

Mahathir Seeks Shared Prosperity in One-Year Anniversary Address
In an address for the one-year anniversary of the Pakatan Harapan government on May 9, 2019, Mahathir said he may stay on.Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg

The ruling coalition is “too focused on politics rather than reforming institutions,” said Awang Azman Awang Pawi from the University of Malaya. He added that Mahathir isn’t much different from his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, when he was criticized for muzzling the media and political opponents.

“A leopard never changes its spots,” Awang said. “The same goes for Mahathir as he is the same Mahathir as he was before and has never changed. Only without the power he looks humble in his way of politics.”

Mahathir appears in no hurry to go anywhere.

Asked Friday about his biggest regret over the years, the prime minister didn’t hesitate: “Stepping down.”

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