A brawler who won't quit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

Five years after retiring in a blaze of glory, at 82 and nursing an ailing heart, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is back in a big way as leader of a growing rebel movement in the ruling Umno party.

Ordinary Malaysians are unsure and divided over what to make of his return. Some say he is fighting his final battle to save his legacy, while others say he can't let go and needs enemies, real or imagined, to grapple with.

The scene is the Hotel Singgahsana in the Petaling Jaya suburb of the capital on Monday, and about 2,000 United Malays National Organisation members and leaders crowd the small meeting room to hear their hero speak.

As Dr Mahathir arrived, dressed in a collarless maroon Nehru-suit, the crowd broke into shouts of 'Hidup Umno! Hidup Mahathir!' (Long live Umno! Long live Mahathir!). He is the last to speak and the crowd laps up every word.

'Either we stand up and fight and save Umno now or it will sink forever,' Dr Mahathir told the cheering crowd at the function that was announced as a 'forum', but was really an occasion to bash Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

'He [Abdullah] led the party into this disaster. He must accept responsibility and resign. He has no shame,' Dr Mahathir said to more cheers. 'Others [prime ministers] have resigned before, I also retired gracefully. Why is he holding on?'

Besides Umno members, the meeting hall is packed with reporters and Malaysia's political police, the Special Branch, who are recording every face, every word and every gesture in the hall.

Unlike before when the mainstream government-controlled media gave him the cold shoulder, now under a changed political landscape, he and others are given their due coverage.

The gathering is an open show of defiance to Mr Abdullah's leadership and although such rebellion is not new in the chequered history of the Malays-only party, what is unprecedented is that the rebels go unpunished.

'It is a reflection of Abdullah's weakness and how divided Umno is,' said political analyst Raja Petra Kamaruddin. 'The party rank and file is gripped with uncertainties, doubt and fear over the future of Umno and Abdullah's leadership. Dr Mahathir is cleverly playing on those fears.'

In the March 8 polls, Umno lost five states it had ruled as the dominant party in the National Front coalition uninterrupted for 50 years, with a two-thirds majority in the 222-seat parliament.

Urged on by Dr Mahathir, a section of Umno is pointing an accusing finger at Mr Abdullah and his 32-year-old son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, for the setbacks. Another group is sympathetic and wants Mr Abdullah to be allowed to reform and reinvent the party and himself.

But Dr Mahathir and his allies say Umno will sink for good if Mr Abdullah, 68, is not removed.

It is not the first time Dr Mahathir has hit out at his successor. The former prime minister emerged out of retirement in June 2006 to criticise Mr Abdullah, who had been in power for only three years, as incompetent and pressured him to leave. 'But at that time Umno and Malaysia was still enamoured with Abdullah's promises to reform the country. He also had a huge public mandate,' said political analyst James Wong.

'Abdullah has lost this huge mandate, suffered a severe loss of status and is very vulnerable now. The changed political landscape is a boon to Dr Mahathir's re-emergence.'

Riding on the rising tide of discontent, Dr Mahathir is casting himself as a saviour, as the man who can save Umno from sinking.

'He wants Umno to see him as the man who brought great glory in the past and is now coming out of retirement to save the party,' said a senior newspaper editor. 'Many Umno members are attracted because Dr Mahathir does not want to rule, he only wants to save.

'However, he has nothing new to offer by way of economic policies, only more of his autocratic style, and that has put off many ordinary Malaysians.'

Dr Mahathir's re-emergence has a new urgency to it, the editor said, because his great nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim, is the new and powerful force in national politics.

Mr Anwar, a protege of Dr Mahathir who came within a whisker of overthrowing Dr Mahathir in 1998, is once again just one step away from the coveted post of prime minister.

Umno insiders said Dr Mahathir was worried the resurgence of Mr Anwar, a former deputy premier who is the de facto opposition leader, would eventually push aside a weak Mr Abdullah to become the next prime minister.

'His great fear is that Anwar will occupy the office and show to the world all the corruption and inside dealings that took place,' said Tian Chua, an Anwar-ally and opposition lawmaker. 'He urgently wants to get rid of Abdullah and put his man, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, in the job to save his legacy. I think his real mission is to save himself, but he has cloaked it as saving Umno.'

Mr Anwar, who has 82 seats in parliament, needs just 30 government lawmakers to cross over to form the next government. He is betting on small parties in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak to make the numbers.

In the meantime, Dr Mahathir is working hard at winning over regional Umno power brokers to rally behind his cause. His biggest recruit so far is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, an Umno stalwart and former finance minister who once challenged him and lost narrowly. Tengku Razaleigh, 71, last month announced that he would challenge Mr Abdullah in Umno elections in mid-December, but under party rules he needs to get 58 of the 199 divisions to endorse his challenge - considered a difficult task.

Although Dr Mahathir nominally supports Tengku Razaleigh's challenge, his eyes are firmly on Mr Najib to succeed Mr Abdullah. But ironically, despite numerous public appeals by Dr Mahathir, Mr Najib refuses to rise to the occasion.

Dr Mahathir is indebted to the deputy premier because Mr Najib's vote saved the former leader when Tengku Razaleigh challenged him in 1988. Mr Najib, however, is standing by Mr Abdullah.

The reason is not foolish loyalty, but the fact that Mr Najib is not convinced the Mahathir-led rebellion will succeed. Dr Mahathir might exude confidence and authority as he rallies Umno members against Mr Abdullah, but trouble is also brewing for him.

In a letter to The Sun daily on Monday, Dr Mahathir pre-empted potential developments by saying: 'Don't be surprised if suddenly I am investigated. I could be framed up.'

Dr Mahathir said he had learned that a high-powered team is sifting through documents and decisions of his administration, and he expects some retaliatory action as a result.

Ordinary people are amazed that the man who dominated their lives is once again on the political scene.

Like Umno, Malaysians are divided on what to make of his reappearance. For some he remains a hero. For others, the monster is back.