KUALA LUMPUR, May 23 (Reuters) - Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, never the warmest friend of a free press, has suddenly found a use for it now that he is out of power.
In an irony that escaped no one in Malaysia's pro-government mainstream media, Mahathir turned to a small independent Web site, Malaysiakini.com, to criticise the government on Tuesday.
"He's been complaining about being isolated from the mainstream media," Malaysiakini.com boss Premesh Chandran told Reuters, explaining that the major dailies that once hung on Mahathir's every word now didn't have much time for him.
That might be because he recently accused the administration of his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawai, of selling out sovereignty and lacking "guts" over its recent decision to scrap a project to build a bridge to neighbouring Singapore.
Mahathir's extraordinary attack last month was reported in the mainstream media, but not at any length and not on the front pages that used to be reserved for him when he ran the country.
The 80-year-old told Malaysiakini.com, which was born out of frustration at press curbs under his rule in the late 1990s, that he felt he should be free to air "constructive" criticism.
"When you do something that is so obviously wrong, like surrendering your sovereign right to another nation, I merely comment on that," Mahathir said.
"That cannot be published?" he wondered aloud.
Not in Mahathir's day, certainly, said a senior newspaper editor who declined to be named.
"The problem is that they (past leaders) get used to it after so many years -- being on the front pages. They find it difficult being on page 10 or when people rebut them," he said.
He felt Malaysian newspapers, such as English-language dailies the New Straits Times and the Star, had actually become more open to publishing criticism of the government since Mahathir handed power to the mild-mannered Abdullah in late 2003.
But, the editor admitted, "I think there's a long way for us to go in the press in Malaysia, for the government to relax a lot more and to let us do more things."
Mahathir made no explosive new revelations to Malaysiakini.com but he expanded on his central claim that in talks with Singapore over the bridge, Abdullah's government had been willing to lift a ban on the sale of sand to Singapore.
Mahathir had banned sand sales because they would enable Malaysia's island neighbour to reclaim large tracts of land from the thin strip of sea separating them -- something he opposed because he felt it would impinge on Malaysian sovereignty.
Mahathir no longer dictates government policy but he remains influential in the main ruling party and has loyal supporters in powerful positions in government, business and society generally.
So the irony of turning to an opposition-friendly Web site, staffed by 24 journalists in a tiny newsroom overlooking a 7-11 convenience store, was not lost on him.
"I never liked Malaysiakini.com. It was very critical of me before," he told the Malaysiakini.com editor at the start of the May 16 interview, which the Web site published on Tuesday.
But despite being criticised by Reporters Without Borders for using "a subtle mix of censorship, harassment and imprisonment to keep a grip on the news" during his 22-year reign, Mahathir kept his promise as prime minister not to censor the Internet.
"He stuck by his word. I think we have to give him that much," said Malaysiakini.com chief executive Chandran.