By Hadi Azmi and Hareez Lee
Mahathir Mohamad took the oath of office Thursday night as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, after his induction ceremony was postponed twice in 12 hours, and vowed that his new government would uphold the nation’s laws and abolish oppressive ones.
Mahatir, 92, was sworn in as the new PM at the royal palace in Kuala Lumpur in front of Malaysia’s king, a day after leading the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in a stunning win in the country’s 14th General Election.
“We promise to set up a good government based on the constitution and law of this country, a government where the constitution is upheld and the law will guide us,” Prime Minister Mahathir told a news conference after he was re-inducted as PM for the first time in 15 years.
Dressed for the ceremony in a black and gold traditional Malay outfit, Mahathir became the oldest person in the world to serve as a head of government after he was sworn in around 10 p.m. (local time), in a nationally televised event that had Malaysians glued to their TV sets. He will turn 93 in July.
Top government officials and leaders of Pakatan were on hand to witness the much-anticipated ceremony as the octogenarian took the oath of office and oath to guard the nation’s secrets before Sultan Muhammad V, Malaysia’s 15th king.
“We seek to abolish suppressive and unfair laws – for example, the anti-fake news law and the National Security Council [law], which is set up to frighten people,” he told the post-ceremony news conference, referring to some laws that had been passed by the outgoing government, led by his former protégé, Najib Razak.
During his previous long tenure as prime minister, from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir was known as one of Southeast Asia’s strongmen. In 1987, he ordered the arrests and detention of more than 100 people, including opposition leaders and activists, under the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA).
After taking office, Najib abolished the act but his government later implemented the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which, critics said, was similar to the draconian ISA.
Mahathir had previously said that, if he became prime minister again, he would hand over the reins of government eventually to Anwar Ibrahim, his former political foe-turned-ally in Pakatan, who is due to be released from prison next month after serving time on a sodomy conviction.
On Thursday night, a reporter asked the new prime minister how long he intended to stay in office this time around.
“Maximum time as PM? I think I have some experience and the government needs my experience. And I’ll stay for as long as my experience is needed, but not too long,” Mahathir responded.
Controversy over delays to oath-taking
On Thursday, there was some drama leading up to Mahathir’s latest inauguration because of at least two delays to the ceremony that led some to question whether and when he might be sworn in.
“The delay was unavoidable due to the unnecessary procedures but in the end I was sworn-in today,” Mahathir said during the news conference that followed the ceremony.
On Wednesday, Mahathir led a historic upset against the Barisan Nasional bloc, which he used to head and which was ousted as Malaysia’s governing bloc for the first time in Malaysia’s 61-year history. The Pakatan bloc won at least 113 parliamentary seats, enough needed to control a simple majority and form a new government.
Thursday’s ceremony had been postponed twice in the same day, once at 9:30 a.m. and later at 5 p.m.
After the ceremony, he told reporters that the formation of the new government depended on the king’s signature but the monarch, Mahathir said, had insisted that an official count from the Election Commission had to come first before proceeding with the ceremony – and he wanted the results in writing.
The EC was slow in sending the written results, and they did not reach the palace until 3 p.m. Thursday, Mahathir said.
According to comments made by Mahathir at a press conference following the first postponement in the morning, there appeared to be some confusion over whether Pakatan had won a parliamentary majority because the bloc’s four parties had contested the election under the logo of the People’s Justice Party, one of the alliance’s member parties.
He said PH had “already won a clear majority and therefore we are entitled to form a government.”
“The constitution says that the PM should have the support of the majority of the members of Parliament. It does not say it should have the support of any party. As long as it has the support of the majority of members of Parliament, he is entitled to become the PM. The majority has the right to name him and to require him to be duly appointed according to the constitution,” Mahathir told reporters.
“However, there have been some delays over a lack of understanding of the constitution but we’d like to make it clear that there is an urgency here. We need to form the government now, today because there is now currently no government of Malaysia,” he added.
Separately, the royal palace issued a statement “strongly refuting” any allegation that the king “had delayed the appointment of Mahathir as Prime Minister.”
The king had met with four of the leaders of Pakatan Harapan at 5 p.m. to interview them and listen to their views, before deciding to invite Mahathir to form the next Federal Government, the palace said.
“His Majesty then consented to swear Tun Dr. Mahathir in as Prime Minister at 9:30 p.m. today,” the statement said.
“His majesty looks forward to working with Tun Dr. Mahathir and his administration for the betterment of our nation and all its people.”
Najib concedes defeat
On Thursday morning, Najib gave a somber news conference where he said, “I accept and my friends all accept the verdict of the people, and Barisan Nasional is committed to respect the principle of parliamentary democracy.”
Najib also said his government had elevated the quality of life for the Malaysian people. He was proud of its record but there were things that were “not perfect in the time when we were in power,” conceded Najib, who served two terms, starting in 2009.
Going into the election, Najib had been shadowed for the past three years by corruption allegations tied to 1MDB, a state investment fund that he started. He denied allegations of wrongdoing, but Mahathir made the 1MDB affair a plank in Pakatan’s electoral platform.
At Thursday night’s press conference, Mahathir told reporters that his government would seek to get back billions of dollars that had allegedly been stolen from the fund and led to money-laundering investigations around the globe.
‘I feel like crying’
Supporters of the victorious Pakatan coalition, meanwhile, were jubilant as the old statesmen prepared to return to office.
“Let’s not talk about them [the past government]. I am here tonight to celebrate with other Malaysians,” said 34-year-old Ryan Lim, a salesman who was celebrating outside the National Palace, where Mahathir was sworn in.
Shashipriya Nadaraja, a 38-year-old school teacher, said she had been waiting for long time for a change in her country’s government.
“I am extremely happy. I am speechless and I feel like crying because the overwhelming feeling of victory. This is the real independence,” she told BenarNews.
But, she added, “I really hope that they can fulfill their promises. I also hope that the new government will not let us down.”