Mahathir Fights to Protect Legacy
|Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad|
A long-brewing row between Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, appears to be coming to a head, the BBC’s Jonathan Kent writes.
The joke doing the rounds in Malaysia at the moment is that Mahathir Mohamad is suffering from PPMS – Post Prime Ministerial Syndrome.
The symptoms, say the wags, include irritability, emotional outbursts and a tendency to criticise everything and everyone.
When he retired in October 2003 he promised not to interfere in government. But in the last year Dr Mahathir has trained his famously acerbic tongue on his former colleagues, including the man he chose to be his successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
“There must be issues that really provoke him,” says A. Kadir Jasin, former editor of the New Straits Times newspaper group.
“Those four issues are the sudden rise in the number of import permits for cars which he claimed affected the national car project, Proton; the sale of a motorcycle company by Proton, the removal of Proton’s chief executive and the cancellation of the bridge to Singapore,” Mr Kadir believes.
The common thread between all these issues is that of Mahathir’s legacy.
For more than two decades he single-mindedly drove Malaysia towards industrial development through a combination of large scale state intervention (such as launching pet projects like Proton) and by building a coterie of favoured businessmen to whom were handed government projects and lucrative monopolies. In the process he won a legion of admirers around the developing world.
I have helped many people up only for them to stab me in the back… I’m in the habit of choosing the wrong people
Abdullah Badawi broke with Dr Mahathir’s penchant for mega-projects to concentrate on problems like rural poverty and education while rebuilding institutions debased during his predecessor’s tenure – the police, the judiciary and the civil service.
Matters started to come to a head in May after the government abandoned plans for a new bridge to Singapore – a project Dr Mahathir had championed when he was in office – on the grounds that it might contravene international law.
“This is the limit,” Dr Mahathir declared then. “To surrender your sovereignty to Singapore as if you are scared of them… This is a ‘half past six country’ with no guts.”
By June he had ratcheted up the rhetoric, announcing publicly that he regretted appointing Mr Abdullah as his successor.
“I have helped many people up only for them to stab me in the back,” Dr Mahathir said. “I’m in the habit of choosing the wrong people.”
By the beginning of August a whispering campaign against members of Abdullah Badawi’s immediate family had gathered momentum. Dr Mahathir, telling reporters he was in fear of being arrested, alleged that Mr Abdullah’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, was handing out government contracts and determining policy.
Mr Badawi has defended his family and his administration
After months of resolutely refusing to be drawn, Mr Abdullah went on national television to confront his detractors. “I chose to keep quiet because I didn’t want to quarrel with [Dr Mahathir] in the newspaper,” he said, and defended his family.
His son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, whose company Scomi was caught up in the nuclear technology for Libya scandal, has made a fortune in the oil industry.
“Kamal has never used his relationship with me to advance in business,” said his father.
As for his son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, Mr Abdullah countered: “People say I do the things as Khairy says. There is no such thing.”
That did not silence Dr Mahathir. “There are several… things which I will come out with, one at a time, [including] evidence of corruption,” he told a news conference last week, as he dismissed Mr Abdullah’s response.
“All he was saying was that ‘I’m a good man… I’m a religious man, I wouldn’t do this.’ But specific answers, there were none,” Dr Mahathir said.
The expression often used to describe the smoke and mirrors of Malaysian politics is wayang kulit, shadow puppetry.
The root of the dispute is about Mahathir needing to act to prevent too much of his past unravelling, leaving him possibly open to prosecution
“It’s the politics of patronage and power – it’s about the control of money and the control of power, that is the root of the problem,” said P. Gunasegaram, of The Edge, an independent and outspoken business weekly.
R. Sivarasa, a prominent human rights lawyer and vice-president of the opposition National Justice Party, agrees that it is about legacy in the widest sense.
Because although Dr Mahathir is casting aspersions about his successor, of the two men he is the far more ready target – not least over the issue of state funds being used to bail out one of his sons’ companies during the August 1997 financial crisis.
“The root of the dispute is about Mahathir needing to act to prevent too much of his past unravelling, leaving him possibly open to prosecution,” Mr Sivarasa said. “He needed to see the system absolutely under control, even after his departure. He’s now realised that Abdullah is not protecting him and he’s now moving for a solution.”
Come November, Abdullah Badawi will face the only people who can unseat him; the 2,500 delegates to the annual general assembly of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
There are many in the party frustrated that Mr Abdullah has reduced the flow of government contracts that oil its political wheels. But in Mr Abdullah’s favour is the party’s feudal loyalty to its leader – which may count for even more than money when the time comes to vote.
“He’s got the power of incumbency and if you look at the history of UMNO politics, no-one has managed to unseat an incumbent,” Mr Gunasegaran said.
If Mr Abdullah survives November’s party assembly, Dr Mahathir might indeed find his world unravelling. For he may be judged to have made his move and failed. And as the old adage has it, if you move to strike the king strike well, for if he lives he will have your head.
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