The Malaysian government should be tackling Malaysia’s economic problems instead of holding elections — especially when corruption has tainted the path to the polls, former Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told CNBC last week before the parliament dissolved on Monday.
While many countries are facing global economic headwinds, Malaysia has deeper problems caused by economic mismanagement as a result of corruption, he told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia, adding that corruption has pushed up the “costs of everything.”
The Malaysian prime minister’s office did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was recently sentenced to 12 years in prison after being found guilty of embezzling billions of dollars from Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
On Monday, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved the country’s parliament to set up an early election amid alleged reports of political infighting in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
An election must now be held within 60 days. Polls were initially due to take place by September next year.
Malaysia budget 2023
The dissolution comes after the government handed down its 2023 budget on Friday. While leaner than last year, it is one of the country’s biggest budgets with planned government spending of $372.3 billion (US$80 billion).
Mahathir, as well as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who leads the Pakatan Harapan party, both opposed conducting early elections due to the monsoon and flood season which could affect voter turnout or put voters in harm’s way.
The month of November typically faces big floods, Mahathir said.
“If there is an election, the government is banking on the obstruction to voters to voting because of the bad weather, in order to get their own people to support them. So this is not a very good time for election,” he said.
Additionally, many voters had received bribes from the government to vote, Mahathir told CNBC in an exclusive interview last Thursday.
The government should be focused on weeding out corruption and fine-tuning its economic management of the country, Mahathir said.
“The current government is not focusing on … getting rid of corruption — the government itself is corrupt,” he said.
“As you know, the leadership of the government party is involved in corruption and they are also facing court action for their past misdeeds.”
“They are not going to be able to tackle the problem. Because right from the very top, they are corrupt.”
The 97-year old Mahathir, who holds the record of being Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, is set to contest in the election with his new party, Gerakan Tanah Air.
He expressed concerns that former prime minister Najib’s UMNO party could win the election despite the 1MDB scandal, as the party is backed by “diehard supporters” who still believed in Najib’s innocence.
When asked if he could work with the opposition party, Pakatan Harapan, to contest the election and establish a cleaner government, he said: “No, I cannot work with these people because they are corrupt — right through from the top to the bottom.”
Corruption, inflation, unemployment
Anwar told CNBC that if Mahathir’s primary concern was corruption, then he should be more supportive of Pakatan Harapan, which he said has been consistent in its fight against corruption for many years.
“I share Dr Mahathir’s view that we must eradicate corruption in order for the country to progress. This means dealing with all forms of corruption,” he said.
“We cannot confine the anti-corruption drive to political opponents and enemies while turning a blind eye to the excesses happening amongst political allies, including former leaders who have enriched themselves and their families.”
Like Mahathir, he said the government should be focusing on problems such as record-high food inflation.
“Under UMNO and Najib, [the government] utterly failed to implement a coherent national food security plan. Their failure is now causing tremendous hardship for Malaysian families today,” he said.
There are other problems such as high youth unemployment, lack of jobs due to low domestic and foreign investments, struggling small- and medium-sized enterprises hurt by the pandemic and failed social safety nets for the country’s poor, Anwar added.
“I support having an election as soon as it is safe to do so,” Anwar said, referring to safe campaigning and voting after the monsoon season.
“I do not support having an election just so that some figures in the ruling coalition can save themselves from corruption cases and lengthy jail terms.”
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Dr Norshahril Saat said Malaysian voters would be overwhelmed by not just the country’s economic woes and global headwinds but a future government’s ability to lead them out of economic crisis.
The upcoming election will “see multi-cornered fights,” he added.
“The question is not whether any coalition can go solo after the election, [but that] no one coalition can win single-handedly. There has to be some alliances after [the general election],” he said.