July 3, 2002

Mahathir rules out elder statesman role

Staff and wires

SUBANG, Malaysia -- Long-serving Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has ruled out taking an "elder statesman" role following his retirement from the top job next year.
Arriving back in Malaysia Wednesday after a 10-day vacation to a rapturous welcome, Mahathir told a media conference that when he left the stage in October 2003 he would "leave completely."
"I'm not going to hold any position, either in the party or the government," he said.
"But of course, I will continue to give strong support to the leadership in the same way they gave me the strong support."
Mahathir spoke to media at the Subang airforce base where he was greeted by tearful supporters. It was the first time he had spoken in public since an emotional resignation on live television on June 22.
He said he would remain as prime minister and finance minister until next October. The 76-year-old Mahathir said he would remain a member of the party and did not rule out running for parliament in the next general elections, due in late 2004.
"That is something to think about when the time comes," The Associated Press reported him as saying.
Mahathir dramatically resigned as prime minister and leader of the dominant UMNO party 11 days ago, but was persuaded to stay on to ensure a smooth transition of power.
The leader said he was quitting because of his late mother's advice.
"I was also following something my mother taught me. When you are enjoying a real good meal, stop when the food is still good. So, I guess it's good for me to stop now," Reuters reported Mahathir, prime minister since 1981, as saying amidst laughter.
"I initially asked for a month (transition) but that was not accepted. I then decided on 16 months so that I could also see through the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference) meeting. At the same time, I got their (ruling party) word there would not be any power struggle and undesirable events in the party."
The prime minister said he was confident his deputy, and anointed successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi would receive the full support of the leaders of UMNO and the other coalition parties when he stepped down.
"Praise Allah, we must be thankful for the situation in our country because a transition of power in the government would normally be plagued with all sorts of problems, chaos, power struggle and so forth," Malaysian National News Agency Bernama quotes Mahathir as saying.
Malaysia's neighbours fear the departure of Mahathir, a strong moderate Muslim leader, will cause Southeast Asia to lose a bulwark against the spread of hardline Islam.
But analysts say Abdullah, with unimpeachable religious credentials, may do a better job in containing political Islam.
Asked if a 16-month transition was too long, Mahathir said it would not be a problem.
The long transition would allow him to host the Non-Aligned Movement and Organization of Islamic Conference meetings in Malaysia next year.
Mahathir said he never wanted to be a "leader for life"" and that when he first became prime minister he thought he would serve for only six or seven years.
But along with Singaporan rival Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir has been one of South-East Asia's most enduring leaders, holding the reins in Malaysia for more than 21 years.
While Lee achieved more with Singapore, Mahathir has earned plaudits on the global stage, most recently for his role in the war against terror and for helping to mediate the release of Myanmar pro-democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi