True story: The Italian Ambassador to Malaysia in the mid-1980s said, upon leaving, that he was glad to be going back to Italy where the political factions, corruption, and infighting were easy to understand. Malaysian politics were just too hard to figure out. Coming from an Italian government functionary, that’s a pretty big statement.
It’s not that it’s hard to chart who’s in favor and who’s out of favor. That’s fairly straightforward. What seems a little different is that politicians can be part of the ruling clique in the ruling party (UMNO, the United Malays National Organization), and then offend someone and be banned for life from the party, only to be let back in later under the PM’s good graces and resume their careers. Individuals even break off from the leading party to form their own opposition alliances, fail, and then be welcomed back in. There must be some reason why a former pariah and enemy of the state, jailed under draconian "Internal Security" measures, can suddenly wind up as the Deputy Prime Minister. It’s just hard to tell what that would be.
The best example is Mahathir Mohamad himself. In 1969 he was kicked out of UMNO, the ruling party, for criticizing the then-PM, Tunku Abdul Rahman, of conceding too much political ground to Chinese Malaysians. He then wrote a seminal book, The Malay Dilemma, which was banned from publication because it was seditious. Yet Mahathir was welcomed back into the party by 1971, and was PM himself by 1981. He was the Home Affairs Minister (while also being PM) who lifted the ban of his own book.
Anwar Ibrahim is another good example. In the 1970s he was a leader of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia. Apparently he was too critical of the government, for they arrested him and detained him for two years as an enemy of the state. Yet by the 1980s he had wiggled himself into UMNO and quickly climbed the ladder of power. How could he have ingratiated himself so quickly? The story of his downfall made headlines for months in the West in 1998-1999. After opposition Mahathir’s desired adjustment policies to deal with the financial crisis, he was fired as Deputy PM (and heir apparent) and kicked out of UMNO. A few weeks later, he was arrested, tried, and eventually convicted of corruption and sodomy. He was just released from jail a couple months ago.
These are the two big ones, but there are many more. One more example. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was a protege of the PM Tun Razak. He and another politician, Musa Hitam, fought bitter battles over 8 years to become Deputy PM under Mahathir. They hated one another, and Mahathir seemed to favor Musa. Then, in 1986, Razaleigh and Musa made up and decided to team up to challenge Mahathir and his lieutenant Ghafar Baba for the number 1 and 2 spots in the country. After losing in a shady party election, they resigned and ended up (after protracted wranglings that led to the dissolution of UMNO and the abrogation of the independence of the judiciary branch) forming a whole new party to challenge a reconstituted "new" UMNO in general elections. After losing this, Razaleigh eventually made it back into UMNO again, and retired in good standing.
With all of these alliances, shifting patterns of allegiance, and backroom dealings, it’s a wonder that anyone gets anything done. What’s amazing to me (TP) is how willing politicians seem to be to "forgive and forget." Tun Razak forgave Mahathir, Mahathir forgave Anwar (for awhile), Razaleigh forgave Musa, and countless others. I know that such marriages of convenience and second political lives are common in the West as well (remember Dick Nixon?), but the speed and extent of the reversals in such a personalistic political system never ceases to amaze me.
One last note: One politician who mistakenly allied with Razaleigh and Musa against Mahathir and Ghafar was an up-and-comer named Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. After Anwar’s downfall, Abdullah’s stock seem to rise again surprisingly quickly. Today, no longer just some backbencher, he is "Pak Lah," Malaysia’s current PM and Mahathir’s handpicked successor.