Is there a PM who can satisfy Mahathir?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am

Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has always been outspoken. Even though his retirement after 22 years at the helm in October 2003 in favour of his deputy, Abdullah Badawi, took his views from centre stage, his mutterings from the wings have been constant.

This week, though, Dr Mahathir burst back into the spotlight with a theatrically charged swipe at his successor. His legacy, he thundered, was being thoughtlessly eroded, despite promises that it would be kept intact, and enough was enough. The performance was vintage Mahathir. In a voice quivering with betrayal and vehemence, the still-influential former leader had journalists crowding around for more on Wednesday, just like the good old days.

'Having chosen him as my successor, I expect a reasonable degree of gratefulness,' the 80-year-old said. 'I am in the habit of choosing the wrong people ... I have held many people up only to have them stab me in my back.'

With a Shakespearean flourish, he claimed he had stepped aside and handed over power only on the proviso that pet projects would be carried out and the ones he had worked so hard for maintained. Therein lay the nub of the outburst.

'But not only did the incoming government not do what was promised, in fact the incoming government reversed many of the decisions,' Dr Mahathir said. 'I have a right to comment ... I will have to stick my neck out to be chopped.'

Famously thick skinned when it comes to criticism, he said he had been hurt by suggestions that his policies had bankrupted the country. No such claims have come from the government and the former premier did not say where he had heard them.

Mr Abdullah, 66, should have seen the tirade coming. His predecessor has been making increasingly niggly criticisms of his performance and the frontal assault was only a matter of time.

Relations between the two have see-sawed. In 1987, they were on opposite sides of a leadership challenge for their ruling United Malays National Organisation party (Umno). For supporting the loser, Razaleigh Hamzah, Mr Abdullah was sacked from his post as defence minister and ended up in the political wilderness for six years.

Mr Abdullah's rehabilitation was complete in 1998, when Dr Mahathir made him his deputy and the home affairs minister after sacking perceived leadership challenger Anwar Ibrahim.

On October 31, 2003, Dr Mahathir and his wife moved out of the prime minister's residence in the new administrative capital, Putrajaya, and Mr Abdullah and his wife moved in. Dr Mahathir, it was assumed, would fade from politics, an honoured and respected servant of the people, but a spent force. Shortly after, the new leader began setting out his vision for Malaysia. Seen as the 'Mr Clean' of a political system widely perceived as tainted by nepotism and corruption, he boldly began sweeping away such practices.

The overturning of Mr Anwar's sodomy conviction appeared to prove that he meant what he said.

Some political coups followed - including the removal of two cabinet ministers for vote-buying and fraud - and the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the police force. Neither move has won friends among politicians or police. Nor has Malaysia's international standing improved much for the effort; the respected corruption watchdog Transparency International contends that graft remains widespread and Mr Abdullah must show greater political will to stamp it out.

Other moves taken by the prime minister have fared poorly in some political corners as well. One of Dr Mahathir's pet projects, national carmaker Proton, for which he is still an adviser, is selling poorly and the government has been scaling back funding. The former leader bitterly indicated this on Wednesday.

'I think I have a duty to point out wrong things that are being done,' he said, turning to cancelled plans to build a bridge to Singapore and the sale of an Italian motorcycle manufacturer bought by Proton.

'I kept quiet and didn't say anything but when something is done that is really harmful, I think I would be failing in my duty as an ordinary citizen - as an ex-prime minister - if I didn't direct attention to these matters.'

Dr Mahathir's rhetoric has been slowly building in recent months and Malaysia's scrapping of the bridge in April over acrimonious negotiations with Singapore, which had demanded sand for land reclamation projects and military access to airspace, especially piqued him. It had also been one of his ideas. His response last month was to say that the government had 'no guts'. The government hit back with a broadside of its own, telling him to stop interfering in the running of the country.

For Malaysian political scientist Farish Noor, the rift was genuine and not the usual shadow play of the country's politics. Typically, such a public flare-up would be accompanied by behind-the-scenes negotiations, but the reverse was taking place this time. Two decades of work had been invested in building Malaysia's domestic and foreign image and that was being perceived by Dr Mahathir and his supporters as being rapidly eroded by Mr Abdullah.

Dr Noor, a researcher at the Centre for Modern Orient Studies in Berlin, believed that because of Dr Mahathir's still-powerful standing, Mr Abdullah would be the ultimate loser.

'Outside Malaysia, Mahathir has an enormous standing, especially in the Muslim world,' Dr Noor said. 'He's seen as a typical Muslim strongman leader, while nobody knows Badawi. Domestically, Mahathir's power lies in the network of bureaucrats and business leaders he cultivated over two decades. These people will not forget the favours he did for them. He also elevated the Malay middle class and they owe this to him.'

Mr Abdullah's reform agenda had also been too ambitious and somewhat naive. He had irked many in the country's institutions by espousing transparency, an end to corruption, and reform of the police, and subsequently lost support from powerful backers, Dr Noor contended.

'The institutions of state are turning their back on him and that's putting him in a very difficult position,' he said. 'If he can't count on the machinery of the state, then how can he deliver any of his promises?'

Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition online newspaper Malaysiakini, did not see that the nation's achievements under Dr Mahathir had been greatly eroded under Mr Abdullah's rule.

'Not much has changed really - the policy of this government under Umno is the same as it was previously,' Gan said, adding that Dr Mahathir felt 'betrayed by the people he helped put into power'.

Gan agreed that the outcome for Mr Abdullah was unlikely to be positive. 'He's the weakest prime minister we've ever had in terms of support,' Gan said. 'He won a landslide election victory with 90 per cent of the seats in parliament in 2004, but he has not managed to capitalise on that by moving his own people into power. A lot of those in the cabinet and top Umno positions owe a lot to Mahathir. We're looking at a one-term prime minister.'

Dr Mahathir may no longer be centre stage, but the observers agreed, he remained a hard act to follow - and like it or not, Mr Abdullah was playing a supporting role.