After dozens of banana-republic style arrrests of media operators and opposition supporters for sedition, amid a precarious economy led by an unpopularly elected leader – that voice from the past decides to speak, again.
Mahathir Mohamad’s standing among Malaysian moderates is no better than that of Prime Minister Najib Razak or his deeply unpopular wife Rosmah Mansor, whose shopping adventures and fanciful displays of wealth are a tribute to her budgeting and household management skills.
Still, when Mahathir – whose son Mukhriz has his eyes firmly on the top job in local politics – speaks, the Malaysian media is all ears. Some gush in praise, their tenacious reportage skills meriting comparisons with Hansard stenographers.
But this time the abuse leveled at Najib was palpable as Mahathir spoke about taboo subjects like the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaaribuu while wondering out loud who gave the order to kill her.
On matters of state, Mahathir argued that Najib was incapable of winning the next national election, due in 2018, despite his victory at the 2013 polls when his UMNO party and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won despite garnering less than half the popular vote.
Writing in his blog, Mahathir rebuked Najib over the government’s purchase of an expensive jet and its handling of the controversy surrounding 1Malaysian Development Berhad (1MBD), a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund established in 2009.
Rather pompously Mahathir, who led Malaysia for 22 years, wrote: “It is not easy for me to write this blog, but from the people and the country, I have to reveal all this.
“I am not senile although I am nearly reaching 90 years old. Those who say I am senile are just lying to themselves.
“Malays will only be safe if they care for their community instead of themselves,” he said.
What is happening Malaysia is winning comparisons with Mahathir’s crackdown in the late 1990s, when the last Western journalist, Canadian Murray Heibert, was jailed for six weeks for contempt of court.
Among those recently jailed was Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of sedition over a speech she made in parliament.
However, voting patterns have shown that support for Anwar is still far from overwhelming and ethnic Malays have little interest in the death of Altantuya, and her unborn child, or in associated allegations of bribes being paid during the acquisition of two French submarines by the Malaysian government.
At the same time hardline Islamic militants – who enjoy the competing affections of both Najib and Mahathir – are unlikely to complain about the arrests of media proprietors, independent journalists, or the family and friends of Anwar.
Still, speculation that 1MDB is under financial pressure amid reports it had failed to repay a loan facility is winning it comparisons with Enron – and that could be Najib’s Achille’s heel.
The fund’s total debts have been put at $11 billion after a buying binge targeting power plants around the world, which Mahathir described as “highly embarrassing.”
Last week 1MBD scrapped plans to find an outside buyer for its power business and will instead push ahead with an IPO. However, that is unlikely to impress international ratings agencies, which have indicated Malaysia’s finances could face a credit downgrade.
A financial meltdown at 1MBD would strike at the traditional hip-pocket nerve of all voters and for Malaysia’s sake should be avoided. One way to resolve that issue convincingly is to initiate an independent audit by offshore accountants from reputable Western banks. But given UMNO’s history – from Mahthair to Najib – that seems unlikely.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt