“He’s Baaaaack! … And He’s Not Very Happy!”
That’s no racy zinger for the latest Terminator bloodfest. It describes a more compelling bill that’s playing around Malaysia - “Dr M v Pak Lah” - a thriller, or perhaps a comedy, for Malaysians, but possibly a horror sequel for Australia.
Dr M is, of course, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the infamous Australia-hater and self-styled father of modern Malaysia. He stepped down as PM in 2003 after 22 years in power, handing over the leadership of the United Malay National Organisation - and thus the country - to the avuncular Abdullah Badawi, aka Pak Lah. “It’ll be a clean retirement, no politics,” Mahathir insisted.
Three years on, it's a different story. Dr M has begun sniping at Badawi and his government from the sidelines. He’s popping up to speak at various events, offering a characteristically glib line here, a penetrating blow there. Indeed, wags joke that the most dangerous place in the world isn’t Iraq, but the space between the "retired" Mahathir and a soapbox. The hottest item in Kuala Lumpur salons isn’t a Da Vinci Code knock-off but a DVD of a recent Mahathir speech where he slags Badawi as “selling out Malaysia’s sovereignty". He means Badawi’s acquiescence to Singapore in not building its half of a new bridge over the ancient causeway that links the two.
Malaysian politics is in a funk. It tends to operate on sycophancy but the inert UMNO faithful - most of whom owe their positions to Mahathir - don’t know what to say. Confusion reigns; surely the wily 82-year-old isn’t angling for another premiership? Western diplomats, relieved their own capitals are no longer derided on a near-daily basis, are also perplexed. Is it the first stages of senility? “It's entirely domestic,” says a US diplomat, relieved that for once Washington’s Iraq adventure isn’t being assailed. “We don’t think there is much in this.”
Kopitiam (coffee shop) theories abound. The most delicious holds that Mahathir’s worried about the libel case brought against him by his one-time loyal second, Anwar Ibrahim, and has created a distracting sideshow. Mahathir stitched his former finance minister up for six years on spurious charges of corruption and sodomy, neatly blaming the 1997-98 financial crisis on him. The courts released Anwar in 2004 and he has been progressively correcting the record ever since while rebuilding his political stocks outside UMNO. Senior UMNO figures worry that the Mahathir-Badawi feud is splitting the ruling coalition and, at its extreme, providing the charismatic Anwar a vehicle to return as the reconquering hero.
While Mahathirism advanced Malaysia economically, cases such as Anwar's did serious damage to the integrity of the legal system. It has improved significantly on Badawi’s watch. “To me, justice is very important,” Badawi recently told The Bulletin.
As Mahathir’s long-time foreign minister, the 66-year-old Badawi was entrusted with managing his abrasive leader’s comments, the 1993 "recalcitrant" affair with Paul Keating being the most notorious. Mahathir's relations with John Howard were little better. But as PM, Badawi has mended fences, helping Australia join last year’s East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, another move that angered Mahathir. Badawi told The Bulletin: “I told John, no conditions, but you sign the TAC [the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Co-operation], that is important, if you don’t sign you are out. I was dead serious.”
Badawi is no Mahathir on Australia but there are limits. “Australia cannot be in ASEAN,” he insists. “Australia is Australia but Australia can be ASEAN if it identifies itself in the spirit of ASEAN, support what ASEAN wants, do a lot of the things where ASEAN is involved. If you are talking about Australia as part of ASEAN, it has to be only in spirit and wanting to do and achieve the same thing.” And then a little indirect dig about Howard’s cuddliness with the US: “If Australia is trying to run away from this region, and thinking it is part of a distant region and not part of a nearer region in terms of spirit and of what it wants to do and what is aspires for this region then Australia is not part and we will be very sad.”
The interview was done days before the escalation in East Timor, where Australia is leading the foreign intervention force. Malaysia is the only Asian nation to send troops to Dili. Kuala Lumpur had boots on the ground in Dili in 1999, to save the departing Indonesia - and ASEAN's - face. This time, they are pounding Dili's strifetorn streets to save the stricken East Timorese face.
When asked about Mahathir’s sniping, Badawi has a perfect opportunity to go after him but he doesn’t take it. Asked what are Mahathir’s motives, Badawi responds, “You’ll have to ask him. On this issue I think that it's not easy to talk.” He says he is still friends with Mahathir and says, “Yes, I respect him." Remarkably, for a leader, he asks me not to quote a remark he makes about Mahathir’s sovereignty criticism. The quote seems harmless enough, but Badawi is clearly sensitive.
Still, Badawi understands power. Asked how strong is his hold over the premiership, and the UMNO leadership, he is emphatic, raising his usually soft-spoken voice to declare: “I am secure, my cabinet is secure,” adding that he’d like to see Vision 2020 realised, suggesting he’s up for another 14 years in the chair. Vision 2020 is an initiative to achieve developed country status by 2020. But as all Malaysians know, it was a Mahathir idea.