IT LOOKS like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has decided to burn his bridges.
The former premier's latest comments about the Abdullah administration, or more specifically, about his successor seem to suggest he has reached a sort of political point-of-no-return.
He not only lashed out at the policies of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but has gone as far as to declare that Abdullah was not his first choice.
Abdullah, he said, was actually his second choice.
His statement was staggering and sent shock waves through a good number of Malaysians, particularly through the rank and file of Umno.
Some think it was not an uncontrolled outburst but a calculated statement aimed at pushing his dissatisfaction with the affairs of state to another level.
He was so cool at the press conference that gave rise to yesterday's stunning headlines, looking polished in a steel-grey bush suit and with not a hair out of place.
Dr Mahathir has done press interviews so many times that there is no question he is not ready for. And he fielded every question so matter-of-factly that it took a few seconds for the gravity of his words to sink in for some of the journalists present.
He was probably well aware of the implications of coming out so aggressively and directly against Abdullah and his administration. He was, after all, in power for 22 years.
But the power of incumbency, as former deputy prime minister Tun Musa Hitam once said, should never be underestimated.
As expected, Cabinet members, state leaders and Umno leaders have rallied behind the Prime Minister, declaring their loyalty to him and defending him and his policies.
One of those who have come out strongly for Abdullah has been Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who is currently on an official visit to India.
The pressure was on Najib to take the lead in showing his support for the Prime Minister, but as one of his aides said, “he would have done it even if he wasn't asked”.
“The DPM's stand is clear – undivided loyalty to the PM and respect for the former PM. Pak Lah leads the government of the day while Dr Mahathir has done big things for which we are grateful,” said Razak Baginda who heads a think-tank linked to Najib.
But generally, many of those who are part of the Government today are highly uncomfortable with the way Dr Mahathir has forced the issue.
Many of them owe their upward career path to him but they also owe where they are today to Abdullah who has his own style and set of priorities.
They admit Dr Mahathir has the right to air his views, but in a constructive way and in the manner of an elder statesman.
Some feel his remarks about his successor have been more akin to that of the political opposition. His views, they feel, have also grown increasingly personal and cutting.
What he said on Wednesday was perhaps the deepest cut.
It amounted to disowning his choice of successor and was as good as a severing of ties.
But can one disown one's own decision without casting some aspersions on oneself?
Does the admission of a poor decision also not reflect on the decision-maker?
And as many have pointed out, he chose Abdullah but since then, Abdullah has gone on to secure a convincing mandate of his own from the people.
They feel Dr Mahathir does not seem to acknowledge this important factor in his verdict on the present Government.
Some think Dr Mahathir is trying to provoke a reaction from Abdullah.
Abdullah is unlikely to react in haste.
From day one, he has not said anything, partly out of respect for his predecessor and partly because it is not in his nature to fight a war of words.
But those close to him said that Dr Mahathir had simply reached the end of his tether and the cancellation of the bridge project in Johor was the proverbial last straw.
“You people have no idea how strongly he felt about Singapore and the bridge. Tun feels that since he can no longer canvass for votes from the Umno leadership, he will do it through the masses who read the news,'' said a Mahathir loyalist.
Malaysians knew that Dr Mahathir would be a tough act to follow and pity the man who has to fill his shoes. And not many expected him to let go completely, knowing his indomitable will and sheer force of personality.
But few thought that he would take on his successor and the Government this way. Is it possible he has gone too far this time?
PUTRAJAYA: He has been unhappy for some time now. A whisper here. A barbed comment there. And sharp remarks sprinkled here and there.
But yesterday, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad dropped all pretence and laid bare his anger towards his successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
All decorum was tossed aside as he accused Abdullah of betraying his trust by reversing many of his decisions, going so far as to imply that he had picked the wrong person to lead Malaysia.
"It is, unfortunately, a common trait for me," Dr Mahathir told reporters he had invited to the Perdana Leadership Institute.
"I make a habit of choosing the wrong people perhaps... I chose him and I expected a certain degree of gratitude."
The Government has not publicly accused Mahathir of excessive spending, and ministers and other politicians reacted with surprise to the personal nature of yesterday’s attack.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is on a working visit to India, said that Abdullah should not be burdened with this attack as all decisions in the Cabinet were made collectively.
Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman was moved to declare that the State Government and Sabah Umno were fully in support of Abdullah. This decision was reached after the state Umno liaison met yesterday.
Most had held their tongues until now, because Abdullah had repeatedly reminded Cabinet ministers and other politicians to remember Dr Mahathir’s great service to the country. Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said yesterday that Abdullah has not said anything negative about his predecessor.
“Not once have I heard him do so,” he said.
Reporters rushed to the World Islamic Economic forum last night hoping for some choice soundbites from Abdullah. He disappointed them and Dr Mahathir —it is not in his nature to get personal.
When Abdullah does speak in the days ahead, his words will not likely be steeped in venom. He knows some people on the sidelines want a confrontation, but he also knows that is not what 25 million Malaysians want or need right now.
Too many years in the past three decades have been spent in fighting mode, turning friends into foes and distracting the country from its goal of becoming a developed country by 2020.
Too many years have been wasted trying to paper over fissures in the ruling party.
Abdullah is not willing to go down that path again. Whatever the provocation. That is why even after being told that he headed a “half-past-six” administration, and after being chided in public for not going ahead with the bridge to replace the Causeway, Abdullah was happy to meet Dr Mahathir in Tokyo recently.
There was no shortage of provocative remarks in Dr Mahathir’s interview. Here is a snapshot of what he said:
# Dr Mahathir complained that the new Government had cancelled several major projects initiated during his two decades in power, despite assurances they would be carried out after he left office.
“I was not the one to first break the promise, the undertaking given. I made my undertaking publicly, the leader of the new Government did not. But the fact is that promises were made on both sides,” he said.
He is also upset that the pace of development of Putrajaya has slowed; peeved that the Johor bridge project has been scrapped; and angered that the National Automotive Policy has put Proton at a disadvantage.
Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin noted that all decisions reached by the Abdullah administration were collective decisions of the Cabinet. He noted that many ministers had also served under Dr Mahathir.
“Maybe what is decided by Pak Lah is not the same as what was decided in Tun’s time, but decisions are based on current needs,” Muhyiddin said.
# Dr Mahathir said he disagreed that the Government has no more money for big projects: “I know full well that the Government has never been richer.” “To say the Government has no money because the previous PM spent all the money is not supported by facts,” Dr Mahathir said. “My contention is that the Government has plenty of money.” Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz remarked that no one had said the Government is penniless.
“That is just coffeeshop talk. But it is widely known that we finished our allocation for the Eighth Malaysia Plan two years ago,” he said.
# Dr Mahathir did not openly say that he regretted choosing Abdullah to succeed him instead of current Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, but he claimed Najib had obtained more votes in Umno to inherit the party leadership, and by extension that of the Government. This is an interesting nugget of information, but not without precedent.
After his falling-out with Tun Musa Hitam in 1986, Dr Mahathir picked Tun Ghafar Baba as his deputy, although Abdullah was a more senior vice-president in Umno.
So what is provoking this no-holds barred attack? Concern that his legacy is being undone? Concern that the country is on the wrong track? Or is it prompted by disappointment that the man he put in office has not turned out to be a yes-man?
“One cannot tell what a person will do when the person is out of your control,” Dr Mahathir said yesterday. “I thought I had made the right choice.”
So what’s his end game? Dr Mahathir said he would not work to topple his successor: “I am not capable of doing that.”
But he did say he would continue watching the Government. So will the millions of Malaysians who gave Abdullah the biggest mandate in history at the 2004 general election.
If there is one signature trait that former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is famous - or infamous - for, it would have to be his crisp candidness. While some remarks are wittily poignant, others can be crass.
But Mahathir's style aside, what should Malaysians make of his latest barbed comments about Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi?
The notion that he could have made a mistake in his choice of successor, who despite being kindly handed the helm, has been ungrateful by allegedly reneging on some old promises?
As a citizen and an ex-PM, Mahathir who is a lot more privy to state matters than the average person on the street, is entitled to speak his mind, and in the manner he chooses.
We will not question his right to speak up. And as a newspaper we will give him the appropriate space to be heard. Nonetheless, where we disagree with him we will say so. This is the editorial stance we have taken with not just Mahathir but other newsmakers and opinion shapers as well.
So let us scrutinise the salient points of what he said in his most direct attack on his successor to date
* Pak Lah was not the first in line to be his deputy as Datuk Seri Najib Razak had won more votes as Umno vice-president and it was only thanks to Mahathir that he got picked over Najib. This argument does not hold water and Mahathir of all people should know. When the late Tun Hussein Onn became PM in 1976, he picked Mahathir as his deputy over two others who had won more votes as vice-presidents - the late Tun Abdul Ghafar Baba and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Indeed, Ghafar was so angry he refused to join Hussein's cabinet. Seniority as vice-president is not the ultimate factor in such a situation. And what Mahathir did in picking Abdullah was not unprecedented.
* Pak Lah should be grateful and keep his promises to maintain all Mahathir's policies and implement all projects approved previously. We disagree. While we may not be privy to what transpired between the two men at the time of the handover, the only promises Abdullah has to keep are the promises he made to the people when he sought their mandate in the 2004 general elections. He pledged to be a PM for ALL Malaysians although he himself is a Malay and a Muslim, and will promote an open and tolerant society. He promised that his adminstration would work hard to wipe out corruption and improve the public delivery system. He said he would pay attention to the people's well-being and human resource development, rather than erect any more towering monuments.
Mahathir may have picked Abdullah as his successor but in winning the 2004 elections, the PM's mandate came from the people and not from a power broker no matter how powerful. We are after all a parliamentary democracy and have put our feudalistic past behind us.
Truth is Abdullah has fallen short in delivering some of the promises he made to the people in 2004. The grumblings are there among the rakyat. It is those grumblings that Pak Lah should focus on addressing rather than the outbursts of one angry man, even if that man is Mahathir.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia’s prime minister is facing his biggest political crisis since taking office, as his authority is challenged by the man who put him there: Elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad.
The open rift between Mahathir and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has raised serious concerns about possible government instability that could shake investor confidence, roil the economy and upset race relations in the multi-ethnic nation.
After months of innuendoes, Mahathir last week launched a public and personal attack on Abdullah, 66, a highly respected scholar whom Mahathir hand-picked to lead the government when he retired in October 2003.
Mahathir, 80, who described himself as "a very crude person," said he has been "stabbed in the back" by his former supporters and suggested he made a mistake in choosing Abdullah.
In keeping with his Mr. Nice Guy image, Abdullah responded coolly with a smile to Mahathir’s characteristic self-deprecating vitriol, saying his predecessor is free to say what he wants.
Others, however, disagreed.
"It is totally unfair and uncalled for. He (Mahathir) hit below the belt on certain statements," said Denison Jayasooria, head of the Social Strategic Foundation think tank. What made it worse, he said, was that the attack came not from the opposition but from within the inner circle.
"This is undermining the leadership. This is serious. That is not good for a country," Jayasooria said, adding that a person of Mahathir’s standing and caliber should have been more statesmanlike and aired his grievances privately.
Public opinion appears to back this sentiment. Local newspapers are awash with letters to the editor urging Mahathir to remain in retirement with grace and do nothing to tarnish his larger-than-life legacy.
When he retired, Mahathir promised not to interfere in the government. Today, he has no say in its running, but his clout in the ruling United Malays National Organization party, or UMNO, cannot be underestimated.
Business leaders fear such infighting could have serious consequences.
"This is all very distressing for business, and it must be hoped it does not develop into a destabilized political environment," said Munir Majid, chairman of Malaysia Airlines. "Political stability is one of Malaysia’s strongest cards, and it should not be undermined."
During 22 years in office, Mahathir emerged as a giant nation builder. He changed the country’s economic and urban landscape, creating a wealthy, highly industrialized nation from a poor agricultural society.
He put Malaysia on the international map with aggressive leadership, and became a self-appointed spokesman for poor countries and the Muslim world in defying the West. He made many Malaysians proud.
He carried out mega-infrastructure projects that he said were needed to fuel the economy, such as the new capital city, Putrajaya, the Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest in the world, and Cyberjaya, a high-tech hub.
In his past 2 1/2 years in office, Abdullah put a stop to big spending, cutting several of Mahathir’s pet initiatives, which appears to be a cause of the former leader’s displeasure.
Mahathir has also bristled at what he says are government charges that he wasted public money on infrastructure projects, although Abdullah’s Cabinet has made no such public accusation.
"I have the impression that he (Mahathir) is suffering from severe post-prime ministerial syndrome, that only he is right," Musa Hitam, one of Mahathir’s former deputy prime ministers, said in an interview with the national news agency, Bernama.
At a highly publicized news conference Wednesday, Mahathir claimed Abdullah had promised him before taking office to continue with his policies.
No one has confirmed whether such a promise was made. Even if true, Malaysians are more likely to judge Abdullah by the promises he made to the public before the 2004 general elections, which he won by a landslide.
So far Abdullah has struggled to fulfill those promises to eradicate corruption and rejuvenate the economy. He also has faced public ire by raising fuel prices, and minority Hindus and Chinese have complained that their rights are being eroded by Islamists.
Still, Abdullah is credited with several reforms. He has loosened the government’s hold over the media, cracked down on police abuse of power, set up a public integrity commission, and pressured the civil service to implement government policies, one of the weak links in the Mahathir administration.
Abdullah has also stayed on course to achieve Mahathir’s "Vision 2020" to make Malaysia a developed country by 2020, but not through the massive government spending favored by Mahathir.
The scrapping of large-scale infrastructure projects has hurt many businesses through lost contracts. Some of the businesses are believed to be close to a few powerful figures in UMNO.
Such people are likely to support Mahathir in his campaign against Abdullah, although the party appears to be solidly behind Abdullah for the time being. But analysts say that could change in a society where what you say publicly is not necessarily what you think.
"Mahathir is certainly a mouthpiece for a bigger group. He is not alone. We need to see who are with Mahathir," Jayasooria said.