The Mahathir Issue

From Asia News Network (Issue cover-dated Nov 10-16, 2006)

By Joceline Tan in Kuala Lumpur

Cooler days have returned with the rain, and it has also brought the political temperature down somewhat.
The Malaysian Prime Minister left for official business in China shortly after hosting a big Hari Raya gathering in his home base in Penang where he made his “doses of venom” comment.
It was Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s strongest reaction yet to the criticism by former Premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and it made people sit up and take note.
A few days after returning from China, he left again, this time for Pakistan to attend the World Islamic Economic Forum.
When he returns, he will have his hands full with preparations for the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) general assembly which starts on Nov 13.
Dr Mahathir has also been rather restrained even though the media are still hot on his heels.
Pressmen have turned up at all his public functions, be it his open house in Kuala Lumpur or even when he made his periodic visits to Kedah.
In Langkawi on Nov 1, he arrived at a Thai restaurant for lunch with Langkawi Development Authority (Lada) officials to find the media waiting and several TV microphones already positioned on the table.
It has never been his style to turn reporters away but he has been markedly reticent in his responses to their queries of late. Mukhriz said his father had spent the Raya holiday relaxing with family and old friends.
On Oct 29, Dr Mahathir went shopping and even took a ride on the LRT, causing quite a stir among the other commuters who rushed to greet him and shake his hand.
Even though the two key figures are showing restraint, others have continued their volleys.
“It’s like a contest for who can be the loudest,” said a senior supreme council member, fed-up with the small fire.
The fallout from the couple of interviews that Dr Mahathir gave after meeting Abdullah caused some sort of tipping point and Dr Mahathir, seasoned politician that he is, probably knows it.
Loyalists around Abdullah took offence and have tried to push the issue to another level.
Kedah Chief Minister Mahdzir Khalid told the senior man to give up his advisory posts in various government-linked bodies if he wished to continue attacking Abdullah’s administration.
Umno’s Youth wing in Kedah went further and asked the party to suspend the former Premier’s membership from the party. And these strident calls were coming from his home state of Kedah.
But Dr Mahathir is in no immediate danger of being forced to resign his advisory posts in Petronas, Proton or Lada, much less get booted from the party.
“It’s not going to be like that. Umno has its own way of handling issues. There is no question of sacking or punishing; Tun Mahathir has a ‘special status’ in the party,” said Umno information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib.
Said Johor Umno Youth chief Razali Ibrahim: “Mahathir has done a lot for Malays and the country. We shouldn’t worsen the situation by saying things like that.”
The more experienced segment in Umno know that punishing Dr Mahathir would only make him a martyr.
Any drastic action against an iconic figure like him has to be carefully thought over.
At the same time, Negri Sembilan Chief Minister Mohamad Hasan frowns on what he calls “tit-for-tat” behaviour.
“Personally, I don’t agree with all this pressure to force him to quit. I’m not for this tat-for-tat sort of things. It’s not productive. In fact, it can be counter-productive and there will be no end to it.
“You have to remember he is one of the few Malays whom, anywhere you go in the world, they know who he is,” he said. And even as many think he has gone way overboard in his manner of attack, they do not entirely disagree with some of the issues he has raised.
As such, it was of little surprise when the Umno supreme council on the night of Nov 2 decided that no action would be taken against him –for now at least.
Moreover, the Umno general assembly opens on Nov 15, and although Dr Mahathir has sidestepped questions about his attendance, his son Mukhriz said his father as well as his mother, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali will be at the opening ceremony.
The former Premier will be among the centre-front row of VIPs listening to the presidential address by Abdullah and there is no doubt that all eyes will be on them.
The question being asked is whether the “Tun issue,” as they call it, will be the hot debate issue.
“We should address the issues rather than sweep things under the carpet. The process will make us wiser and more able to weather other storms,” said Razali who is also Muar MP.
Most think there is no avoiding discussion on Dr Mahathir’s actions in the last months but that speakers will likely voice full support for Abdullah’s leadership while expressing respect for the former premier.
Unbridled censure of Dr Mahathir is unlikely but there are bound to be speakers who, in their endeavour to impress the leadership, may attempt to take a direct jab at their former president.
According to think tank head Razak Baginda, the general assembly is not only for delegates to air their views but to get answers and direction from the leaders.
“What has happened is not an ordinary crisis, it’s not a power struggle. If I were a delegate, I would expect the leadership to provide some sort of road map out of this crisis,” said Razak.
But, said Johor Baru MP Shahrir Samad, delegates should be aware of the way the leadership has handled Dr Mahathir.
“The leadership has been very benign and more open than Tun would have been if he were the one up there, being criticised. You have to give the leadership credit for that. There has been discipline and balance in their handling of him, they have not gone overboard, given him a fair hearing and answered where necessary.
“If the issue still requires answers, then the leadership should answer in the general assembly. But if people are expecting answers in the form of whacking Tun Mahathir, they are going to be disappointed. That is not the president’s style. I think the president will respond to issues brought up by delegates as well as by Tun,” said Shahrir.
As volatile as the Tun issue may be, Umno politics is also about economic opportunity. Hence, speakers will dwell on the 9th Malaysia Plan, projects and contracts, and about things not moving fast enough.
But, said an Umno insider, the Malay agenda will dominate at this year’s gathering of the most powerful political party in the country.
The rank and file in Umno are uncomfortable with what they perceive as challenges, even threats, against their ideas of Islam, race relations and Malay rights and equity.
Their fears, misgivings and hopes over these issues will manifest in the debates.
“The central role of Umno and the Malays will not be compromised. That Malay core will be on display,” said the Umno insider.
Party members may have their own views about what has happened since Dr Mahathir began speaking out. But the party has remained intact, and that will come out in clear expressions of support for the leadership.
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