Floodgates opened for Mahathir critics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2006, 12:00am

After decades of fawning treatment, once-stifled critics are rounding on former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, following his criticism of his successor, Abdullah Badawi.

The scrapping of a 'scenic' bridge to replace Malaysia's half of a 1km-long causeway linking the southern state of Johor and Singapore has become a touchstone for attacks on the former premier.

The turnabout came after Dr Mahathir slammed Mr Abdullah for the abrupt abandonment of what was one of his pet projects, which he signed off on in the last days of his leadership in 2003. He accused Mr Abdullah of failing to consider public interest by settling the long-running dispute with the Lion City.

'We retreated as if we surrendered our land to others,' he said on Monday. 'Singapore will surely think ... Malaysia lost.'

The response was immediate.

The Sun newspaper, which is partly owned by a business tycoon close to Dr Mahathir, ran an editorial on Tuesday that blamed Dr Mahathir for the bridge fiasco.

'Dr Mahathir, as the main person responsible, should do better than to criticise the only decision the present government could make about the bridge under the circumstances,' it said.

When Dr Mahathir accused the media of trying to censor him, the sense of outrage only increased.

A. Sivanesan, the senior leader of the Democratic Action Party, said of Dr Mahathir: 'This is the man who held political opponents without trial, sacked judges who ruled against him and closed down critical newspapers. He demands his right to speak but he never gave others the same right.'

Dr Mahathir's attacks have sparked a fiery debate. Was Mr Abdullah right in scrapping the bridge? Was Dr Mahathir, who promised to remain silent after his retirement, right to criticise Mr Abdullah?

Both sides of the debate agree that Dr Mahathir, like every Malaysian, has the right to free speech - something that was severely curtailed under his leadership.

'Only now under Abdullah do we have free speech and Dr Mahathir is making good use of it,' said Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre. 'He should show some respect to his successor and meet him privately to air his views. His comments are not helping the new government.'

Mr Abdullah's response has been to stick by his decision.