IT SOUNDS a depressingly familiar Malaysian story. An outspoken political activist accuses the Prime Minister of being corrupt, authoritarian and intimidating opponents. The two antagonists meet, but the lone crusader refuses to stay silent. Soon he is reporting the inevitable retribution — threats against his relatives, and a whispering campaign casting doubts on his sanity.
But this is not the story of an isolated human rights activist or lonely left-wing MP.
The figure in question is 80-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, famous for his merciless intolerance of dissent and opposition.
The object of his denunciations is his successor, 66-year-old Abdullah Badawi, a man known, if anything, for his mildness of temper.
For months tension has been rising between the two men. Last week it boiled over, just before yesterday’s third anniversary of the handover from Dr Mahathir to Mr Abdullah. The older man accuses his one-time protégé of running a “police state”, of tapping text messages and eavesdropping on the internet.
During his 22 years as prime minister, Malaysians grew accustomed to Dr Mahathir’s short fuse and rants against the West, liberal democracy and anything else that upset him. But even they are shaking their heads over the ironies of his latest outburst.
Dr Mahathir is a towering presence in South-East Asia, the man who more than anyone else shaped the modern Malaysia. After coming to power in 1981, he was unassailable, a figure of vast energy who goaded Malaysians into unprecedented economic achievement while fulminating against the arrogance of the West.
Malaysia was a democracy, but a timid one in which the press agreed with almost everything the government said. Those who spoke out against the government were liable to find themselves locked up without trial under the British colonial era’s Internal Security Act.
One of the low points for human rights came in 1998 when Anwar Ibrahim, his then deputy, was arrested on charges of sodomy and corruption — charges that many still regard as trumped up by allies of Dr Mahathir, who felt threatened by the younger man’s popularity. He appeared in court with his face bruised from a beating in police custody. The perpetrator, it later turned out, was Dr Mahathir’s own chief of police.
It is this record which makes his criticisms of Mr Abdullah rather hard to swallow. It is rather as if Margaret Thatcher were to have spent her retirement denouncing John Major for his abrasive manner and refusal to build consensus.
Under the new Prime Minister, the press has become more free to criticise the authorities, and alleged Islamic fundamentalists have been released from their detention without trial.
Dr Mahathir also accuses Mr Abdullah of improperly helping a relative to obtain contracts under the notorious UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq — accusations that he denies.
“In a situation where no one can criticise the Prime Minister, I have to voice my criticisms on matters that do not concern my personal being but only those concerning the interest of the religion, race and country,” Dr M, as he is known, said. “A climate of fear has enveloped this country.”
If he didn’t seem as sharp as a scalpel in other respects, you may suspect that Dr Mahathir had gone a bit potty — a suggestion that he addressed last week. “Attempts are made to disparage me so badly that I am made out to be of unsound mind,” he said. “Repeatedly, allegations were made that the administration during my time was worse.”
A meeting between the two men eight days ago did nothing to clear the air. Last week, Mr Abdullah spoke wearily of Dr Mahathir’s “doses of venom”.
“What else can be done?” he asked. “He wants to continue.”
Malaysians with a sense of humour may be entertained by Mahathir Mohamad’s belated enthusiasm for clean government and outspoken democratic debate. In his 22 years as their prime minister, the prickly Dr Mahathir was not noted for his tolerance of criticism, constructive or otherwise. Newspapers toed the government line or soon found themselves in difficulty, and judges whose rulings were not to Dr Mahathir’s liking were unceremoniously dismissed.
It was an open secret that his method of governing combined strong state intervention with complex patterns of political patronage, but curiosity about the lucrative business opportunities enjoyed by his sons and specially favoured associates was robustly discouraged. Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy he initially groomed to succeed him, spent years in prison on trumped-up charges for daring to say publicly that corruption had reached critical dimensions.
How things change. Having reluctantly relinquished the reins of power three years ago, Dr Mahathir has done with such taboos. Claiming that he is “saving the nation from disaster”, he has launched streams of unproven and damaging allegations against Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, his successor as Prime Minister. These include nepotism, incompetence and even selling out the country — this last because of the sensible decision to cancel a pet Mahathir mega-project, a somewhat pointless bridge that would have gone only halfway across the Johore Strait between Malaysia and Singapore
Datuk Badawi not only has done nothing to prevent him having his say, but also, after months of suffering his sniping with dignified calm, invited him a week ago to his official residence for a “peace meeting” with no one else present. There, for nearly two hours, he dutifully took notes as Dr Mahathir listed his grievances. The courtesy was ill-rewarded; the very next day, Dr Mahathir called a press conference to announce that he was the victim of a “police state” that had “taken away” his civic rights.
This is no joking matter. The problem is not unfamiliar. Dr Mahathir admits that he considered Datuk Badawi “harmless” — in other words, content to take dictation. He is hardly the first political leader to be appalled by the discovery that apparently docile protégés can develop a mind of their own once installed in office, or the first to take that revelation badly. Baroness Thatcher’s disillusion with John Major comes to mind.
But Dr Mahathir has gone far beyond mutterings of discontent. He denies it, but it is by now obvious that he is openly campaigning to replace Datuk Badawi, who won a landslide electoral victory only two years ago, with Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister whom he publicly regrets not having chosen for the top job.
Malaysia may have had a surfeit of forced consensus politics during Dr Mahathir’s long reign, but the vendetta he is conducting has little to do with robust political debate, and a lot to do with one man’s obsession with himself.