(Image: Adobe)

The two-decade-long rivalry between 94-year-old, two time Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed and his 72-year-old protégé turned rival turned partner turned rival turned partner Anwar Ibrahim erupted again in the new year.  

Mahathir originally said he would be a short-term PM after he lead a coalition to victory at the 2018 general election. But when coalition partner Anwar began agitating for his turn at the helm, the old stager dramatically resigned.

With the nation focused on the latest round of personality politics, dark horse candidate Muhyiddin Yassin emerged on February 29 as prime minister of Malaysia.

Little-known outside Malaysia, Muhyiddin was kicked out of the United Nation Malays Organisation in 2015, where he was deputy leader, for standing up against the corruption of then-PM Najib Razak, who is now on trial in a multi-billion dollar scandal. 

A veteran politician (aren’t they all in Malaysia), Muhyiddin, also 72, teamed up with the retired Mahathir to form the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) in 2016. 

They then stitched up the alliance with Anwar that lead to Najib’s 2018 election defeat. 

Impeccably timed, Muhyiddin picked the gap, doing an about face and securing an alliance with the conservatives, UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), and getting the nod from the king.

Whether the Muhyiddin-lead coalition lasts beyond a few weeks is still a burning question. 

Mahathir claims he has the backing of more than 112 of the country’s 222 parliamentarians. Muhyiddin’s new alliance is doing all it can to have a no confidence vote against it pushed back; a date has now been set for May 18, giving it two months to try and peel away Mahathir supporters by whatever blandishments available.

“Many observers were hopeful — too hopeful, even — that Malaysia’s 2018 election marked the beginning of a more thoroughgoing democratic transition,” said Dr Amrita Malhi, senior researcher and Malaysia expert at the Australian National University. 

“The government had a series of institutional reforms it was working on, and it had reached out for advice and assistance from all sorts of international partners, including Australia.

“In fact, it was being held up by some as a nation that was defying the trends shown in various monitoring tools like the CIVICUS Monitor and the EIU Democracy Index, which have pointed to more civic and democratic restrictions being put in place around the region. 

“Now, there will be questions about whether any of those reforms are going to proceed, and whether international partners like Australia should just go back to talking about trade.”

Even more concerning is whether the ongoing prosecution of former PM and UMNO leader Najib Razak will continue (the next court hearing is due March 10), and whether Muhyiddin will go softer on his old colleagues despite promised to run a clean government in his first public address on March 2.

There are two other main concerns: Islamist fundamentalism and Chinese influence in the region.

For the first time since 1974, the fundamentalist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is back in the governing coalition with UMNO, a party that has fringe elements that are also sympathetic to PAS.

In the past, PAS had pushed for the introduction of Islamic hudud, or sharia law, as well as even more extreme policies such as stripping citizenship from minorities (the Chinese are generally the key focus). 

The party wants to increase surveillance on the piety of Muslims in a country where, like its neighbour Indonesia, Islam is becoming more conservative. None of this is good news for Malaysia’s significant Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh minorities and feeds into the general trend of religious nationalism that is concerning for Australia. 

Helping regional governments fight Islamic terrorists has been a major project for Australia, mainly via the ever-expanding deployment of Australian Federal Police across the region.

Finally, there there is the China factor and its impact in terms of Malaysia’s resilience in the face of great power competition. 

Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan coalition had raised questions about Malaysia’s relationship with China and the role of the Belt and Road Initiative in filling the fiscal hole left behind by the 1MDB scandal as part of its canny election pitch.

“If it turns out that former prime minister Najib is no longer going to be prosecuted for 1MDB, as many suspect, then does that mean that the alleged role being played by that Chinese investment — that it was being used to replenish money siphoned out of state institutions via all those 1MDB transactions — is now no longer up for debate?” Mahli asked.

With the election result overturned, the bigger picture question could be whether Malaysia is doing enough to protect itself from over-dependence on China.