Why Mahathir Is Refusing to Remove Unpopular Leaders

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Why Mahathir Is Refusing to Remove Unpopular Leaders

Malaysia’s prime minister wants to signal that his opinion – not the public’s – is the ultimate career determinant.

In recent weeks, questions surrounding the authenticity of government office holders’ academic qualifications have dominated Malaysian headlines. The issue sprung up after Deputy Foreign Minister Marzuki Yahya was alleged to have misrepresented his academic background. Though he possesses a degree from Cambridge International University (CIU), an unaccredited institution in the United States, Marzuki was accused of suggesting that he was a graduate of the famous University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Since then, other office holders and Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders have been forced to confront allegations that they too misrepresented their academic credentials. Opposition parties, particularly the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), have called on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to remove them from their official positions on the grounds of a lack of integrity. However, it is unlikely that Mahathir will relieve Marzuki of his deputy ministerial duties for two reasons.

Cementing the Chain of Command

Shortly after the controversy surrounding Marzuki’s academic credentials erupted, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president and Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that he had had a discussion with Marzuki, who is also Bersatu’s secretary general. Muyhiddin then stated that the party would not be taking any action against him. However, Muhyiddin emphasized that decisions concerning Marzuki’s position was the prime minister’s prerogative and that Mahathir would issue a statement soon.

Muhyiddin’s statement should be understood in the context of how Mahathir has thus far handled office holders who have come under the negative scrutiny of the public. After the Seafield Temple riots in November 2018, National Unity Minister, P. Waytha Moorthy was accused of inciting racial hatred. There were widespread demands for Waytha to be sacked; a petition calling for his removal received over 300,000 signatures. In the case of Waytha and the other cases that have emerged, Mahathir refused to buckle. Another office holder who has struggled to manage his popularity is Education Minister Maszlee Malik. In recent months, Maszlee was involved in several public relations gaffes. For instance, he received widespread criticism for suggesting that hotels should allow students to use their swimming pools. Maszlee has also been publicly criticized by Democratic Action Party (DAP) veteran Lim Kit Siang, Mahathir’s media advisor Kadir Jasin, and Muhyiddin.

Even though there have been calls for both men to either resign or be removed, they remain in their positions. The salient response that has emerged from each instance is that their appointment is the sole prerogative of the prime minister. By retaining office holders whose popularity is declining, Mahathir is sending a message to his government and coalition partners that appointments are not made or retained on the basis of popularity. His willingness to retain officials even in the face of public pressure shows that to Mahathir, their popularity or lack thereof is inconsequential. Mahathir will decide when any office holder will leave the government based on his own calculations. As a corollary, office holders who think that they can use their popular support as a bargaining chip with Mahathir will likely find an unreceptive prime minister. Finally, by not removing those office holders under pressure, Mahathir has signaled to them that their careers in office depend on him and him alone. The controversy surrounding Marzuki’s academic credentials are likely to be used to underscore this point.

Lessons From History

This approach fits with a larger trend in Malaysia. Historically, prime ministers have tended to remove office holders when there were political imperatives to do so or when their political positions were threatened – not when faced with public or oppositional pressure to do so.

Through much of the 1990s, a number of changes to the cabinet coincided with the outcomes of UMNO party elections. With few exceptions, Mahathir (then prime minister, but with the UMNO) replaced various members of his cabinet with those who came to occupy senior leadership positions after the 1993 party elections. One of the most significant changes was the replacement of then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Rural Development Ghafar Baba with Anwar Ibrahim, who had emerged victorious in the contest for the UMNO’s deputy presidency. But Anwar himself was removed in 1998 by Mahathir because he had consolidated significant control of the political and economic spheres.

A more recent example would the decision by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2015 to remove then-Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Minister of Rural Development Shafie Apdal after both of them spoke out against him on the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Whereas the media and the then-opposition had been taking Najib to task, Muhyiddin and Shafie were the first senior members of his own cabinet to publicly use the 1MDB scandal to challenge Najib’s position as prime minister.

These episodes showed that threats to the prime minister’s position will be a key factor in determining whether or not action will be taken. While Marzuki, Maszlee, and Waytha have had their share of controversies, they are not seen as people whose actions have threatened Mahathir’s position. Unless the situation changes significantly, we are unlikely to see any action on Mahathir’s part.

An alternative approach Mahathir could take would be to announce a broader reshuffle in order to remove those in his team he is dissatisfied with. It would certainly be a less contentious way to replace people.

Prashant Waikar is a research analyst in the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).