Malaysia's biggest political feud is heating up, but few voters have the appetite for it

Former PM Mahathir Mohamad wants to take the incumbent Anwar Ibrahim to court, but their battle is a distraction from larger issues

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 1, 2018, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and politician Anwar Ibrahim leave after a press conference in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian politics was in turmoil on February 24, 2020 after leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim denounced a "betrayal" by coalition partners he said were trying to bring down the government, two years after it stormed to victory. / AFP / Mohd RASFAN
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If you had told Malaysians in 1998 that 25 years on, their country’s politics would still be dominated by the bitter feud between then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, most would not have believed it – and if they did they would have been aghast.

When Dr Mahathir fired Mr Anwar that year, the news of his fall from grace, his court cases, and pictures of the black eye he sported after being beaten up by no less than the country’s Inspector General of Police, went around the world. It wasn’t just the dramatic nature of events. The two men had outsized reputations, with the Far Eastern Economic Review hailing the outspoken Dr Mahathir as “a new voice for the Third World”, while Mr Anwar made the cover of TIME and was named “Asian of the Year” by Newsweek in 1998.

Mr Anwar finally became prime minister in November of last year, while Dr Mahathir had returned for a second stint from 2018-20. But the passage of time has not lessened the feud between them. In fact, there is now the prospect of a court case in which the reputation of one of the two prime ministers could be shredded.

These latest hostilities began mid-March when, speaking at his party’s congress, Mr Anwar referred to an individual who had held power for “22 years and 22 months” and whom he accused of “hogging everything for your family and children”. Dr Mahathir then responded that “his speech was clearly referring to me and not anyone else as I was in power for 22 years and 22 months”.

If you had told Malaysians in 1998 that 25 years on, their country’s politics would still be dominated by this bitter feud, most would not have believed it

“The accusations are terrible and give the impression that I stole and misappropriated monies, am a cheat, and so on,” he said. “It is slanderous unless Anwar can prove that I received billions of ringgit, funnelled it overseas and failed to pay taxes.”

Mr Anwar was sent a letter insisting he retract and apologise, but when reminded on Monday that that was his last chance to do so, his team said “see you in court”. Earlier this month, Mr Anwar was bullish when asked about Dr Mahathir’s demands in a dialogue with students. “He wants evidence, I will give, no problem,” he said.

To back down now would mean a terrible loss of face for Dr Mahathir, who had already suffered the ignominy of losing his deposit when failing to retain his parliamentary seat in last year’s general election. And he is, in any case, not known for giving up on a fight.

But there are many who are already shaking their heads that this conflict is still taking centre stage in national life after a quarter century.

“It is fully within Mahathir’s – or anyone’s – right to seek redress for any kind of grievance felt,” Elina Noor, senior fellow for Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, tells me. “But the reality is there is little, if any, appetite among the electorate for this kind of endless petty politics. It distracts from substantive work to improve people’s lives on the ground. It also detracts from Mahathir’s own legacy in Malaysia’s growth and development journey.”

If Dr Mahathir is blamed for the continued sniping, it has to be said that this feud has been pretty one-sided. Mr Anwar may well have been trying to oust his mentor in 1998, but he was the one who went to jail for four years (he was released when a court overturned the original verdict in 2004 after Dr Mahathir had left office). And publicly, at least, Mr Anwar has been magnanimous. When I saw him speak at a meeting in 2011, two years before an election he expected to win, Mr Anwar was asked what he would do with Dr Mahathir if he became prime minister. “Let’s move on, no malice,” he said. “Let him and [he mentioned one of Mahathir’s sons] count their money.” The former PM was old, he said, and suggested his wits were not so sharp.

That proved a miscalculation after the 2018 general election, which the previously opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition won on a promise that Dr Mahathir would become prime minister, but would hand over to Mr Anwar after he had been pardoned from a second jail sentence and returned to parliament. But just as Dr Mahathir would not stop undermining his two hand-picked successors, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak, until they were forced from office, so he had no intention of ever letting Mr Anwar succeed him.

The clues had been there during the election campaign. At one event key Pakatan leaders all held up the number 7 to indicate they wanted Dr Mahathir to be the country’s seventh prime minister, and then the number 8 for Mr Anwar to be the eighth. Everyone held up an 8 apart from Dr Mahathir, who pretended to be busy taking photos on his phone instead. Dr Mahathir’s administration fell apart in 2020, and it was only last year that Mr Anwar achieved his aim of leading Malaysia as head of the incoming unity government.

After losing office and then his seat, one might have thought that would be the end of it for Dr Mahathir. In January Mr Anwar said he had no interest in “never-ending enmity”. But even at the age of 97, Dr Mahathir could not stop attacking his former deputy, one day calling him a “dictator” (a charge that has no basis), the next saying Mr Anwar’s government had done nothing for the people.

If Mr Anwar decided that it was eventually time to return fire, that is not entirely surprising; because while Dr Mahathir’s career may be over, his criticisms can still hurt Mr Anwar in parts of the electorate where he is weak.

The older man did not have to respond to Mr Anwar’s accusation. This is a fight he has brought on himself. If he loses, he may regret not letting this quarrel dissipate as easily as the Kuala Lumpur sun burns off the rain after a storm. And the country has truly had enough of it.

Published: April 21, 2023, 5:00 AM