Those angered have used terms like ‘spineless’, ‘deceitful’ and ‘voter betrayal’, but Bersatu leaders have assured Sarawak Report that their actions over the past few days were primarily about being ‘Malay first’.
Bersatu leading lights spoke frankly as they anticipated the ministerial rewards of ‘leading’ the new ‘Malay first’ coalition with PAS/UMNO and explained their journey towards uniting with the very parties they had won their election victories by opposing.
A sense of vulnerability and self-doubt had started to build following Bersatu’s lamentable recent by-election performances they acknowledged – clearly the party’s Malay first approach has not worked in multi-racial constituencies where Malays already had PAS and UMNO to champion racist politics and where non-Malays were unimpressed.
Racism whipped up by PAS and UMNO against non-Malay ministers has been hard for Bersatu, as another Malay only party, to counter. The Malay nationalist push-back has been at the heart of the PAS/UMNO post-election revival strategy and these Bersatu leaders feared they could lose at GE15 against such forces. The answer to them seemed to be to get back on the Malay first ticket under a tripartite deal.
But there was another issue they admitted, which was to stop Anwar. This was because Anwar was working with the ‘Chinese’ DAP, the Bersatu leading lights explained. In particular, the ‘Chinese’ were being arrogant in their management of the finance portfolio in the Mahathir government.
Crony contracts have been cruelly ended thanks to DAP finance policies they told Sarawak Report – thousands of projects (1,300 they said) were terminated under new rules to the detriment of Malays. It is one thing to combat corruption moving forward, they explained, but quite another to penalise existing contracts in a way that has harmed a client electorate who may no longer vote for them.
The DAP finance people were also by-passing Cabinet with this agenda and talking of the need to overcome resistance from a ‘Deep State’ bureaucracy accused of being engaged in cronyism. This needed to be stopped and the ‘Chinese’ DAP taught a lesson.
Also “bottom line no one wanted Anwar” they explained.
When asked if it was not a voter betrayal to run on an election pledge that supported handing power on to Anwar only to then ditch him, one reply was “Since when did people follow their manifesto?” The person continued “We didn’t understand the state of the country [economy] left by Najib“.
They did not accept that to discover the country’s finances were even more destroyed by the previous prime minister than previously realised is hardly an argument that recommends joining forces back with the self-same politician and his allies.
What emerged most strongly from the frank discussion with these Bersatu leaders, who now form part of the PAS /UMNO /GPS minority coalition, which they claim to lead, was clear confusion over what their leadership had thought or wanted during the run up to the crisis.
It seems that confusion was exploited during a period of chaos to get the mainly UMNO defectors within Bersatu back on side with UMNO despite the party’s anti-corruption agenda at the election.
The original plan, as these senior decision makers in the party had come to understand it, was to make a stand for Tun Mahathir in order to keep Anwar from succeeding as prime minister and also to execute a ‘hostile move’ to make the DAP finance minister, Guan Eng, resign. They would do this by exiting the PH coalition until they achieved their ends.
The Bersatu MPs say they had come to understand that this project was in accordance with Mahathir’s own wishes, since around the middle of last year the then PM had indicated to them that he wished for them “to do something to deny Anwar the premiership”.
The message was clear to everyone one MP claimed, although subsequently their leader stayed quiet on the subject it was clear he ‘encouraged’. “He will not stop anyone to stop Anwar” the MP explained.
Just days before the coup, the same MP confessed that Mahathir had sat with him and said “I will fulfil my promise to hand over to Anwar, but up to you”. The MP and his Bersatu colleagues say they took this apparent diffidence towards supporting his designated successor as an invitation to take action to prevent the promised shift of leadership to PKR.
As subsequent events unfolded, it seems clear that this understanding amongst Bersatu MPs together with their allies from the PKR breakaway group under Azmin Ali, was led and manipulated into a position of outright conflict with their erstwhile coalition allies.
They went from seeking to force their anti-DAP, anti Anwar agenda to joining with PAS and UMNO. This was certainly the objective of PAS and UMNO, whose leaders had been reaching out for potential defectors all along.
The coup came to a head thanks to a manufactured crisis, it would appear. Statutory Declarations were collected during the course of February, according to the Bersatu leaders, because it was being explained that Mahathir needed protecting against an alleged planned mugging at the PH Supreme Council meeting due to be held on Friday 21st.
The Anwar plan, so Bersatu troops were led to understand, was to undermine Tun at this meeting and then use a pre-arranged audience with the Agong the following Monday to snatch the prime ministership.
Having prepared for the meeting primed with their collected SDs (“we had 130 signatures”) to counter this expected attack, the Bersatu MPs confessed to Sarawak Report that they were astonished at the largely cordial nature of the occasion:
“We were expecting a horrible meeting on Friday pushing Tun to resign. But it was a happy meeting and no pressure”
Who had lead Bersatu MPs and others to expect the horrible ambush was not disclosed. However, Azmin Ali who has sought to undermine and usurp his PKR boss for several months is known to have been at the centre of much plotting linked to his contacts in PAS and UMNO.
Foiled by PH’s peaceful agreement to continue to support Mahathir’s leadership at that Friday meeting, the Bersatu ‘pushback’ strategy was faced with two options as the party leaders gathered for their own general meeting on the Sunday two days later, according to the various insiders who spoke to Sarawak Report.
Azmin’s team had already set in motion a grand event to platform the outcome of that meeting, inviting over 100 supporting MPs (including PAS and UMNO leaders) to the Sheraton hotel for diner in the evening – at least some of those MPs were anticipating the celebration of a change of government, according to information passed by colleagues to SR.
The Bersatu MPs said the first option considered for the meeting was to announce a ‘full support to Tun’, demanding he be allowed a full term in office. This represented a jettisoning of Bersatu’s pledge, as a minority party, to hand over leadership of the government to the majority PKR party leader Anwar Ibrahim, as promised at the election and several times since (including at the Friday supreme council meeting).
There was a second ‘more hostile’ option, which was designed to act as ‘leverage’ to trigger the resignation of Guan Eng, DAP’s now hated finance minister. This entailed voting to depart from the PH coalition altogether.
This way the Bersatu MPs say they planned to use their 130 SDs in favour of Mahathir to demand not only that he be given full rein to remain prime minister but as the leader of a Malay dominated government.
The Bersatu MPs claim on the one hand they did not anticipate that this would result in a wholesale realignment with the opposition. Yet, on the other hand, they expected to do business with UMNO and PAS. Anwar himself has said that in the run up to this showdown he was himself approached by senior UMNO figures and was offered to join their Malay only coalition as prime minister, which he refued. Matters had got confusing.
What the MPs solidly confirm is they did anticipate that Mahathir would support their choice of the hostile second option, because they believed it was in fact his secret preference to set up a government that included more Malays (including UMNO and PAS) to side-line the second largest party in parliament, which is DAP.
This outcome was not in Mahathir’s interests and he did not in the event support a pact with PAS/ UMNO. Nonetheless, led by Muhyiddin, the Bersatu members voted by a majority to leave PH at the meeting.
In deference to the unexpected refusal by Mahathir to join the exit and a pre-arranged joint visit to the palace with PAS, UMNO and PKR rebel leaders straight after to register their realignment with the King, the meeting ended with a decision to suspend the announcement of the Bersatu exit from PH in order to give Mahathir ‘more time to consider’.
A simultaneous meeting organised by Azmin Ali nearby therefore likewise ended, without the planned press announcement to state solidarity with the Bersatu revolt. Subsequently, the grand dinner where many believed there would be an announcement of the new coalition of PAS and UMNO MPs with these Bersatu supporters of Dr M, was not attended by Mahathir and the day ended inconclusively.
The elaborate preparations indicate that these Bersatu plotters and their allies had already planned to join PAS /UMNO, although speaking to Sarawak Report they implied that this was not necessarily yet the case.
The next morning Mahathir met with the appalled leaders of his other coalition allies (PKR, DAP and Amanah) and told them he planned to resign as a result of the betrayal by his Bersatu followers, since he would not work with corrupted PAS and UMNO – he had drawn up a letter overnight.
According to DAP sources, Anwar, Matt Sabu and Guan Eng agreed to back the resignation (and dismissal of the cabinet) on the understanding that Mahathir would then realign PH strongly and rally his own party against the defectors as the leader of a new ‘interim government’.
With their solid support Mahathir was indeed re-instated as interim prime minister before the end of the day by the Agong, ready to create his new cabinet. Crucial to this had been Anwar’s own strong pledge of support to Mahathir during that pre-arranged meeting with the Agong at 2.30pm, at which Bersatu MPs had been led to expect he would betray their erstwhile party leader.
However, according to the Bersatu MPs the resignation announcement had come as a shock to them (as it had to the rest of Malaysia). The Bersatu President, Muhyiddin, learnt of it only on TV. They say that in response Muhyiddin made the unilateral decision to enact the suspended decision to declare that Bersatu had decided to exit PH, which he did shortly after. At the same time Muhyiddin and the party continued to reiterate its support for Mahathir (who was still party leader having temporarily resigned) to remain prime minister.
The Bersatu MPs found themselves in unexpected territory from that point, as did all the other parties locked into the same confusion – PKR MPs have described the ensuing Tuesday and Wednesday as a ‘Game of Thrones’ nightmare as each party found itself fighting for themselves – threatened by disaster yet tempted by possibilities as well.
On the other hand, this was all going well for UMNO and PAS who had collaborated in orchestrating the whole chaos with a view to upending a stable government that was pursuing a number of solid corruption cases against key political leaders in their alliance.
Monday had ended with Mahathir back in charge, still leading the remains of PH. However, by Tuesday all the parties who had placed hopes on his leadership (including PAS, who despite being in the opposition had made much of their loyalty pledge to support Mahathir and keep out Anwar) began to discover they would not gain any of what they wanted from the ‘saviour’ of the day before.
The ‘interim’ prime minister began calling in party leaders from all sides, including the PAS/UMNO opposition, to discuss his options. This immediately troubled PH. However, as one senior functionary told Sarawak Report, Mahathir was saying that morning “they all want me”. If so, by the end of the morning none of them did.
Surrounded by close family and NGO allies the restored prime minister put in place his own plan for a dream administration entirely controlled by him – the leader of a party rump of just six MPs. It would be a cross-party affair, selected by him, including opposition MPs (but not the proven corrupted ones) and non-party ‘technocrat’ ministers, such as the NGO allies behind the big idea.
UMNO and PAS were told during the course of the morning that their own dream of a Mahathir led ‘Malay’ government excluding DAP (and letting off the charged kleptocrats in their highest ranks) was off the table. Mahathir would select some from the party and continue to send the rest to jail.
As a result, UMNO and PAS were the first to disown their ‘loyalty to Tun’ SD declarations with an announcement they no longer supported him that Tuesday morning.
Next up, Mahathir tried the same gambit with DAP and PKR. The leaders of these majority parties in parliament were told they could not expect to be in the old man’s ‘Unity Government’ cabinet line up. He said he had been informed (by his Bersatu MPs certainly) they were both too controversial. The bad news should be delivered to their followers who needed to accept and support the Mahathir cross party ‘stability pact’.
By evening, PKR, DAP and Amanah had agreed that the old man’s rescue package resembled more of a strongman dictatorship than a party-based, parliamentary democracy. Late that evening they too pulled out and nominated Anwar Ibrahim to be the leader of the remainder of PH numbering some 92 MPs.
Suddenly, just four days after Friday’s beaming PH compromise pact, everything was up for grabs in Malaysian politics – each to his own.
Mahathir may have considered his interim status to be flexible. However, in the course of Tuesday he had gone from ‘Hero to Zero’ with the loss of support from all sides for his ‘Unity Government’ proposal. Meanwhile, the King had moved instantly to organise a permanent replacement.
To take the usual soundings the monarch had innovated a new procedure, requiring MPs over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday to submit their preferences for prime minister personally to him at the palace.
In line with more normal procedures Mahathir called instead for an emergency return of Parliament a week early, in order to test the most likely candidate’s support amongst MPs.
In a constitutional monarchy it is the job of the King to invite the person most likely to command a parliamentary majority to seek approval in parliament. However, the Speaker rebuffed Mahathir’s request over a procedural flaw and the King continued his novel way of counting the numbers.
By the end of Wednesday those numbers had been gathered and Sarawak Report has been leaked the figures from a number of reliable sources who have reported a slight variation in the figures but the same over-riding pattern. Anwar was by far the most popular choice with 107 votes, followed by Mahathir with 65. Some 50 PAS and UMNO MPs expressed a preference for an election instead.*
Muhyiddin, as the Bersatu MPs who spoke to Sarawak report fully acknowledged, was not even in contention as a likely candidate at that time, as they themselves were still pledged to Mahathir.
However, instead of inviting Anwar (who had by now dropped his support for Mahathir and was PH’s official candidate) the Agong told Mahathir during a meeting on Thursday morning that the he planned to innovate further by putting the matter past the Council of Rulers, who were due to sit the following day.
Under the constitution it is the King not the Council of Rulers who plays an official role in the appointment of a prime minister. Mahathir went on television and revealed the palace’s intentions as well as his own request to recall parliament. He also platformed a raft of planned spending to boost jobs and the economy under his preferred ‘Unity Government’.
According to the breakaway Bersatu MPs:
“the game that had started to be played went off target because of the indecisiveness of Tun. It was a mistake that he resigned”.
As a consequence, they say, they decided to put in place a ‘Plan B’ under Muhyiddin and the same Thursday evening the Bersatu plus the Azmin breakaway group announced they too were deserting Mahathir and pledging their support to Muhyiddin to lead a new alliance together with the two ‘dirty’ opposition parties they had fought against in GE14 – UMNO and PAS.
In just two days a months long ‘loyalty to TUN’ campaign had flipped against their proclaimed idol and in favour of his now ‘treacherous’ number two:
“No one can understand why Tun resigned, why didn’t he warn us of this at the meeting on Sunday?”
Complained one of the Bersatu leaders speaking to Sarawak Report. He said things might have ended differently if they had known that Mahathir was so adamantly opposed to joining with PAS and UMNO who had been working for months to prize away their support from PH.
The Bersatu/Azmin rebellion now represented a defection of some 30 MPs, bringing the opposition coalition to around 85, well short of the 112 needed to form a majority, but dangerously weakening the now split PH majority.
And by Friday news of a new threat was emerging owing to the proceedings at the palace. At 9am the Sultan of Johor (a relative by marriage of the current Agong) had arrived two hours before the full meeting with the other rulers beginning at 11am. Muhyiddin has for decades acted as a power-broker in that state.
Then, as the rulers gathered, information leaked out that two former IGPs known to be hostile to Anwar had been invited to speak to their assembly. Even more astonishingly a delegation of people dressed in white also arrived to address the rulers – they included a young former worker in Anwar’s office whose allegations of an historical incident of harassment had been dismissed by police for lack of evidence. It seems he had been invited to provide a character reference for the leading candidate.
Such threats and the emergence of the rival coalition headed by Muhyiddin focused minds at PH, in a way that once more benefitted Mahathir’s controlling plans. In the course of that day the PH leaders met the old man, originally with a view to having him endorse Anwar. An offer was made to take on a senior Bersatu MP as DPM.
However, it was not good enough, since Mahathir wanted to continue as prime minister and to have everything his own way, including free-rein to develop his planned ‘Unity Government’. By the end of the day DAP/PKR decided to give in for the sake of unity and in their view the ‘benefit of the country’ (by keeping the election losers UMNO /PAS out of power). They conceded to all Mahathir’s demands, meaning DAP would be left out of the government and Anwar would step aside.
The matter was confirmed at a meeting on Saturday morning, after which Mahathir issued a public statement saying he had a list of 114 names supporting his PH-backed alliance. It appeared he had restored an unassailable position, despite an early morning visit made by Muhyiddin and PAS and UMNO leaders (including Najib’s key ally in Sarawak GPS Bustari Yusuf’s brother Fadillah Yusuf).
Nothing was reported from that meeting and Mahathir arranged a meeting with the King for late afternoon as he first had a family wedding to attend. That was another mistake, one DAP MP told Sarawak Report. He should have gone immediately, because at midday as the situation pended the palace announced the apparent outcome of the ‘soundings’ by the King, stating “the process to appoint the prime minister cannot be delayed because the country needs a government for the wellbeing of the people and the nation.”
According to the opinion of the King the best contender to form a government in the present parliament was none other than Muhyiddin, supported by his ‘Malay first’ coalition.
Notably, however, the announcement did not adopt the standard formula stating the monarch had selected ‘the leader of the party most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons, by possessing a majority of MPs’.
Rather, the king merely decreed that the decision he had arrived at “was the best decision for all”.
Mahathir immediately retaliated that it appeared the King had been misled by Muhyiddin as to the numbers of MPs who supported him. To back his point he that evening published the full list of names for his 114 supporters and challenged Muhyiddin to do the same. Few were surprised that Muhyiddin declined to do so, since it was barely possible for him to have garnered more than some 80 MPs by that stage.
Nonetheless, the next morning, Sunday 1st March, the King conducted a ceremony to appoint him as prime minister, pending confirmation by parliament due to re-open in a few days time on March 9th.
Instead, as wryly predicted, one of the first actions of the unconfirmed new Prime Minister has been to prorogue Parliament for a full two months, which is the longest delay permitted under the constitution.
There is plainly a legal challenge that could be set, in line with the successful recent challenge against the UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who likewise attempted to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid defeat at the hands of MPs. He was forced in December to recall his angry MPs by a unanimous ruling of the UK Supreme Court and was duly defeated – after which he called a general election, which he won.
Muhyiddin meanwhile has continued to construct his government in anticipation, according to pundits from all sides, that enough Malaysian MPs will prove willing to swap sides for jobs and perks, thereby betraying their constituents and in the case of PKR triggering potential law suits worth millions of ringgit, owing to a party pledge to accept the penalty should they swap sides for gain.
The new cabinet currently attempts to exclude those leaders currently facing corruption trials, but is packed with PAS and UMNO. There are multiple dual office holders, including Muhyiddin himself, who as a cancer patient was barely active in his previous sole job as Home Minister, according to established reports.
Reflecting on the fortnight of upheaval, one Bersatu MP blamed the return to government by the corrupted political party that the country had united to eject, on over-eagerness by PH to attack corrupt practice.
Speaking to Sarawak Report he said people were upset since there had been corrupt contracts everywhere in the community after years of UMNO practices.
“You cannot kill corruption over night, as that is military law. They have been too sweeping in stopping corrupt contracts. For example, PLKM, which was a political breeding ground for UMNO. Tun asked to have it reviewed but Guan Eng terminated it. Many lost their jobs and the building is now a white elephant.
Thus have Bersatu senior representatives explained the reasons why at least some of their numbers decided to pull out of PH and return to a government dominated by UMNO as the majority party.
They claim that the trials of UMNO corrupt politicians will continue to ‘take their course’. And they admitted to Sarawak Report that were this to end in an election their minority party would be wiped out, along with their leader PM8.
* A figure was corrected. The earlier version said around 60 not 50 MPs favoured an election.