|Shadow of ex-leader still looms in Malaysia|
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - For his 80th birthday today, retired Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad jetted to Italy for a holiday. But not before reviving a practice that became a signature of his two-decade rule in Malaysia: creating a flap with a few carefully placed words.
Only this time the target of his tongue-lashing was unexpected -- the administration of his hand-picked successor.
Front-page coverage of Mahathir's criticism last week of the government over its auto policy showed that even in retirement he still wields a lot of influence in Malaysia, where he is regarded as a nation-building hero.
And despite vowing that once gone from office he wouldn't offer too many opinions about the running of the country, Mahathir still finds politics hard to resist, analysts said.
"If you know Mahathir, he is overly addicted to politics," said Agus Yusuff, a political scientist at the National University of Malaysia. "I don't think he is trying to launch a comeback . . . but he will speak out on issues he feels strongly about, prime minister or not."
Mahathir's outburst -- his most acerbic since stepping down in 2003 -- was sparked by what he sees as unfair treatment by the government of Proton, the national car company he launched in the mid-1980s as part of a government-backed industrialization drive, and for whom he remains an adviser.
During 22 years in power, starting in 1981, Mahathir governed with an iron fist and earned an international reputation for lashing out at any criticism he thought was unfair. His acidic remarks were usually reserved for Western governments he branded colonialists or anti-Muslim, although he also sometimes criticized Jews.
Since retiring, he has generally kept his promise not to interfere in the government of his former deputy, now Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, although he has spoken about corruption rotting Malaysian society.
But Proton is a special case.
"Proton is Mahathir's pet project so his comments are not surprising," Agus said.
Under Mahathir, Proton was protected by a discount on excise duty and high tariffs on foreign cars, which left Proton vehicles the only ones affordable to most Malaysians.
But since Mahathir retired, Abdullah's government has lowered tariffs in line with a regional free-trade commitment, making foreign cars cheaper. Proton's market share dropped from 65 percent to 45 percent last year.
Mahathir said Proton should continue to be protected.
"The national car has been the catalyst for improving the engineering capability of Malaysia," he said. "We have done that, at a cost to us, at a cost to the government, because they have to protect us."
Mahathir also criticized the government for allowing a selected few companies to import foreign cars, many at vastly under-declared prices to escape excise duties, saying this has further undercut Proton's market.
He has accused International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz of issuing the import licenses indiscriminately and demanded that the government disclose the names of the license holders.
"There seems to be some irregularity here," Mahathir said. He hinted that he knew his comments would receive wide attention by adding: "I hope I am not going to give any headache to anybody."
In response, Abdullah told Rafidah on Wednesday to write to Mahathir to "reply to all issues that were raised" by him. Rafidah sent the letter on Thursday.
The speed with which Rafidah and Abdullah responded caused many to wonder if the government is still beholden to Mahathir, and how much influence he wields in the governing United Malays National Organization.
Regardless of his hold over the party, it is clear that Mahathir has little role in the government. On Thursday, Abdullah said emphatically that Proton will have to accept the reality that its days of protection are over. Instead of complaining, the car maker should improve its quality, Abdullah said.
Analysts say Mahathir's influence is a lingering effect of his stature in a society where age, seniority and proximity to power are treated with deference.
"More than half of living Malaysians have grown under his premiership. They don't know any other P.M. so of course he has some influence," said Subramaniam Pillay, an economist and the treasurer of a national reform movement.
Ezam Mohammed Noor, a leader of the opposition People's Justice Party, said Mahathir's comments will send the wrong signal to foreign investors that there are two power centers in Malaysia.
"His actions are detrimental to the country's image," he said.
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