Democracy Backstabbed: A Malaysian Whodunit

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Journalism, they say, is the first rough draft of history, but what happens when there isn’t even enough clarity for a rough draft?


Fact: On Sunday, 23rd February, Malaysia had a functioning, democratically-elected government.

Fact: By Monday, 24th February, that government had ceased to exist.


How did this happen? Malaysia has a parliamentary system wherein a government is formed by whoever has the support of the majority of members of parliament (though there can be minority governments too). Ruling parties have historically actually been coalitions of smaller parties, whose MPs band together to form a majority, and voters typically vote for MPs based on the platform of the coalition they’re part of, rather than the qualities of the MP himself. This makes for a relatively unstable political system, wherein a defection of a party or even a certain number of MPs from a ruling coalition might mean it no longer has majority support, spelling the end of its government.


That’s exactly what happened a few days ago when one of the component parties of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, Bersatu (incidentally, also the party headed by the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad), and 11 MPs from another component party, PKR, defected. If the collapse of the government wasn’t alarming enough, a new coalition seemed likely to take its place, consisting of the defectors, allied with PAS, an Islamofascist party, and UMNO, the kleptocratic, authoritarian party that ruled Malaysia since its independence, before it was finally voted out in 2018, with the aim of ensuring Malay-Muslim supremacy. Cue the collective horror amongst liberals, moderates, and minorities in Malaysia and the collective glee amongst Islamists who dream of a theocracy with minorities relegated to the bottom of the totem pole. Cue the convoys of grinning UMNO politicians, assembling to cut deals, savoring the prospect of laying their hands on public coffers again.


Except that didn’t happen, the grand Malay-Muslim coalition failed to materialize, and the apparent coup seems to have failed. The various conspirators or suspected conspirators are now backtracking, denying culpability, and coming up with various self-serving justifications for doing what they did. The king of Malaysia (Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy) has taken the unprecedented and laudable step of interviewing all 222 MPs to try to determine who should form the next government. It’s unclear whether the Pakatan Harapan government, which a majority of Malaysians voted for in the last election in 2018, will resume (albeit without the ringleaders of the attempted coup), or if the corrupt Islamofascists of UMNO and PAS will be able to horse-trade their way into power. The fate of the nation and its democracy is still up in the air, and will likely be determined by what happens in the next few days, if not the next few hours. Democracy has been backstabbed and lies in intensive care, bleeding, but who did it?

Democracy has been backstabbed and lies in intensive care, bleeding, but who did it?

Was it Muhyiddin Yasin, one of the leaders of Bersatu, in the kitchen with the steak knife, or Azmin Ali, the ambitious former Minister of Economic Affairs and leader of the PKR defectors, in the study with the letter-opener?

Azmin Ali

Or, worst of all, was it Prime Minister Mahathir himself? Was this whole thing a Machiavellian scheme by him to betray his coalition partners – the moderates in PKR, DAP, and Amanah – to form a Malay-Muslim supremacist government? When news of the attempted coup first started to spread on Sunday, the obvious conclusion was that he was behind it; after all, that would be just like him.


Fact: Mahathir also used to be head of UMNO and was Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981-2003, during which he was a dictator, neutering the judiciary and imprisoning his political opponents on dubious pretexts.

Fact: Disgusted at the blatant corruption of his successor, Najib Razak, however, he turned on UMNO and became the head of Pakatan Harapan, forming an unlikely alliance with a coalition of moderates (including many people he had persecuted before) to oust UMNO in the 2018 election.

Fact: Many people never really trusted him, but supported him anyway, since he seemed like the only one who could take down Najib.

Fact: He has never fully apologized for his despotic record, nor renounced his authoritarian sympathies.

Fact: He has demonstrated reluctance to retire as prime minister and hand the reins over to PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim, with whom he shares a bitter history, even though he ran in 2018 on the promise to do so. (Anwar was in jail at the time and couldn’t run for office himself. He’s free now and his succession is backed by PKR, DAP, and Amanah.)

Fact: Mahathir has repeatedly resisted even setting a date to hand the reins over to Anwar, despite pressure to do so.

Fact: He was the head of Bersatu, whose defection from the Pakatan Harapan coalition helped trigger this crisis.

Prime projection: Mahathir masterminded the coup so he could remain prime minister till the day he dies, or hand the reins over to a successor of his choosing, instead of to Anwar.

Mahathir Mohamad

When we put all the pieces together, what could we do but curse the treachery of that faithless old man, who was apparently so desperate to remain prime minister that he’d throw his lot in with the very devils he denounced not two years ago? What could we do but curse our naivety for trusting him, even those of us who never trusted him completely, curse how stupid we were to be taken in by his homely batik shirts, his old grandpa persona, his cutesy relationship with his wife?


Then, bizarrely, he resigned as head of Bersatu, making him a prime minister without a party. He’s since said he’s lost control of his own party (it seems to be led by Muhyiddin now), which wants to ally with UMNO, and that he resigned both in protest and to try to derail that alliance. Since nothing else seems to explain his decision to resign, he may actually be telling the truth. PKR and DAP leaders have claimed they believe Mahathir’s story, with Anwar himself saying he thinks Mahathir was unaware of the attempted coup, even though Azmin Ali said he tried to carry it out in Mahathir’s name. (It’s unknown, though, if those in PKR and DAP genuinely believe Mahathir, or if it’s merely expedient for them to pretend they do.)


Confused? You should be. As a friend of mine put it, apparently there was “a political coup in the name of Mahathir, against the government of Mahathir, that was prevented by Mahathir through the resignation of Mahathir.”

Apparently there was “a political coup in the name of Mahathir, against the government of Mahathir, that was prevented by Mahathir through the resignation of Mahathir.”

Even if all that’s true, though, it doesn’t absolve Mahathir of blame. It was his animosity towards Anwar, his reluctance to set a transition date, his stubborn desire, at 94, to remain Malaysia’s indispensible man for as long as possible that got us into this mess in the first place. The one public statement he’s made since this debacle started is maddeningly cryptic, and this failure of communication has kept the country in suspense for days and encouraged distrust to fester on all sides. His vague proposal for a “unity government” has ended up alarming and alienating almost everyone.


This didn’t seem to be lost on the 300 or so protestors who gathered at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur last night. The crowd of mostly young Malaysians assembled to denounce the “backdoor government” that the defectors were trying to form with UMNO and PAS and the damage this crisis has done to Malaysia’s fledgling democracy.

Protestors at Independence Square, 25th February, police stand in background

“I’m here because the people we’ve elected and put into power have abused the trust and the mandate we gave them for power politics,” said Adrian Pereira, 40, executive director at North South Initiative, an NGO that fights for social justice for marginalized groups.


Most of the people there seemed to blame Muhyiddin and the 11 PKR defectors in particular for this crisis. “They ran on the Pakatan Harapan ideology and then they betrayed it,” said Wong Yan Ke, a student leader from University Malaya.


Like many of the people there, though, Wong also put a lot of blame on Mahathir. “Mahathir always pretends to be innocent, but he’s always the person behind the scene,” he said. “He’s not the initiator [of the attempted coup], but that doesn’t mean he didn’t go along with it,” said Liew Liang Hong, 26, one of the speakers, and another representative from University Malaya, though he added that he thought Mahathir had ultimately been misled by the defectors.


Apparent last night was a sense of confusion, with many people, understandably, admitting they were speculating and didn’t really know what’s going on. Many favored resolving the crisis by calling for new elections so those who betrayed the popular mandate could be punished at the ballot box – and supported mass demonstrations if a coalition that didn’t reflect the will of the voters was allowed to take power.

Apparent last night was a sense of confusion, with many people, understandably, admitting they didn’t really know what’s going on.

“Only people power can save us,” cried one of the speakers, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, 37, who works at C4, the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism. “We’re gonna fight even if we’re gonna lose!”


Above all, there was a simmering anger, one that seems to be felt by people across the country, anger at opportunism, anger at irresponsibility, anger that it’s come to this. Is it too much to ask for politicians who ran on one party’s platform not to jump to another party after they’re elected? For leaders not to allow their personal squabbles to ruin the country? For UMNO, which ruled Malaysia for the past 60 years, to sit in opposition for one lousy term without trying to cheat its way back into power?


No one yet knows for sure who’s to blame, but the sense of rage at democracy backstabbed, promises betrayed, is palpable. It’s there, growing – it just needs a target.