The fear of the revival of Mahathirism – a term used to describe the tough measures used by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to maintain his political power – has arisen following the resignation of the fifth prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, on Wednesday.
Although he retired more than five years ago, Mahathir's shadow has never ceased to loom in Malaysia's political scene. After more than two decades in power he handpicked Abdullah, a soft-spoken gentleman, to succeed him in 2003. Many thought this was to continue to assert his influence in the country. However, to his predecessor's dismay, Abdullah instead promised a more liberal approach, setting up Malaysia's first parliamentary select committee, allowing greater freedom of expression and vowing to clamp down on corruption in the early days of his premiership. His acts, though, brought disgruntled noises from within his own party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
Accusations of incompetence and corruption against him and his family members added to the discontent. Pressure for him to step down escalated after the loss of four additional states to the Anwar Ibrahim-led People's Coalition in the 12th general election in March 2008, which eventually led to his departure.
Mahathir's confirmation that he would rejoin Umno – after disengaging himself from the party in May 2008 in protest at Abdullah's leadership – seems to indicate his support for the scandal-plagued Najib Razak, who was sworn in as the sixth prime minister on Thursday amid calls for him to clear his name before taking office.
Najib, who once vowed to "bathe the keris [a Malay dagger] in Chinese blood" is believed by many to be planning tough measures to consolidate his position, defend the supremacy of the Malays and silence minority and dissident voices. His announcement in his first speech as prime minister of the lifting of suspensions on two newspapers, the release of 13 detainees under the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) and a review of the act should be viewed cautiously. Can the people trust someone who has lost his credibility to have changed overnight? Any Malaysian will easily relate the above announcement to the three byelections next week. Winning them is important for the new prime minister to mark the end of the turbulent Abdullah era and signal the revival of Umno and the coalition government. Already his slogan of "One Malaysia" seems an irony when racial issues have been constantly raised by his party campaigners.
Abdullah's unusually stern warning, given days before leaving office, that Umno would perish if it continued to silence critics, jail opponents and discriminate against ethnic minorities, seemed to have been targeted directly to his successor. Whether his words will be taken seriously is another thing – the new premier should come to the realisation that in this cyber age the majority of Malaysians are no longer inclined to be blinded as they were 20 years before.
*Chiew-Siah Tei is a bilingual Malaysian author based in Glasgow. Her first novel, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes was published in July.)