KUALA LUMPUR - AP: Malaysia's prime minister, backed solidly by his party, said he had better things to do than worry about a vitriolic tirade against him by former leader and mentor Mahathir Mohamad.
Referring to Mahathir with the state bestowed honorific title of "tun," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said "Tun is free to say anything. It is not a problem to me, because our country is democratic."
"I have more important things to do, like repaying the trust given to me by the people," Abdullah told reporters late Thursday in Sabah, the state capital of Borneo island, in his first public response to Mahathir's invective.
The comments -- front-page news in all major newspapers Friday -- came as Abdullah received resounding support from his Cabinet colleagues and leading lights within the ruling United Malays National Organization party, who have blasted Mahathir, saying his verbal assault on the prime minister was out of line.
Thursday's developments have somewhat eased fears of instability in the country due to a split in UMNO, and indicate that Mahathir may have miscalculated his own strength.
The 80-year-old Mahathir shocked Malaysians Wednesday when he made his most stinging and personal attack on Abdullah, hinting that he regretted choosing the respected Islamic scholar and veteran politician to inherit his mantle when he retired in 2003.
Mahathir's principal grouse is the government's recent decision to scrap one of his personal initiatives -- a plan to build a new bridge to neighboring Singapore. He has also bristled at what he said were government charges that he wasted public money on mega infrastructure projects during his tenure, although Abdullah's Cabinet has made no such accusation in public.
Using his trademark vitriol, Mahathir said Wednesday he has been "stabbed in the back" several times by people he had helped, indicating that Abdullah was one of them.
He said he could have chosen Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak as his successor, but instead opted for Abdullah, and had expected "a reasonable degree of gratefulness."
But if he expected Najib to back him, Mahathir was wrong. On Wednesday night, Najib appealed for the party and the public to give their full support to Abdullah.
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's deputy prime minister rallied behind his embattled boss on Thursday after former premier Mahathir Mohamad made a stinging attack on his successor and sparked some concerns over political stability.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, seen as the only potential challenger for the leadership, backed Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in comments published alongside Mahathir's barbed remarks on the front pages of local newspapers.
"I am appealing to all the party members and all the rakyat (people) to give full support to the PM," Najib told Malaysian reporters travelling with him on a trip to India.
Najib pointed to the overwhelming mandate given to Abdullah, a mild-mannered politician known as Pak Lah or "uncle", at the 2004 elections, shortly after he took the reins of power as the chosen successor of Mahathir, who retired in late 2003.
"After all, Pak Lah was given a big mandate by the people," Najib was quoted as saying.
Mahathir is angry at Abdullah for shelving or scrapping some major projects that had been conceived toward the end of Mahathir's 22-year reign and for developments at state-controlled car maker Proton Holdings Bhd, a Mahathir brainchild.
Last month, he said the government had sold out Malaysian sovereignty and lacked "guts" after it scrapped a planned bridge to neighbouring Singapore because the island state objected.
Mahathir, an adviser to Proton, was also unhappy that the car maker had failed to renew the previous chief executive's contract and had sold off its indebted motorcycle subsidiary for one euro.
On Wednesday, at a news conference called to discuss an upcoming peace forum he is hosting, Mahathir returned to the attack and said Abdullah had promised him he would continue with major projects begun by the former government.
"I chose him ... I expect a reasonable degree of gratefulness but instead I am told that I have indulged in mega-projects and that I have finished all the money in the country," he said.
Mahathir still has strong support in the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which can make or break prime ministers and the friction between the two men stoked some concern in business circles of political instability.
"This is all very distressing for business and it must be hoped it does not develop into a destabilised political environment," Kuala Lumpur Business Club president Munir Majid said in a statement on Thursday. "Political stability is one of Malaysia's strongest cards and it should not be undermined."
But independent political analyst Bruce Gale said that real instability was unlikely and Malaysia's politics of patronage meant that Abdullah, with the power as prime minister to hand out contracts and government money, was secure for now.
"I don't see any major sections of UMNO coming out in support of Mahathir," he said from Singapore.
Abdullah, who lacks his own strong faction within UMNO, has tried to keep above the fray and has so far not responded directly to Mahathir's criticisms and relied on his supporters, including other UMNO senior officials, to speak out.
WHISPERS that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was a big spender who emptied
government coffers have bothered Malaysia's former premier no end.
Whispers - because until this week not one official had openly blamed him for spending billions of ringgit of public money or for causing the country's budget to trail into deficit from 1998.
That changed after Tun Dr Mahathir's verbal assault on Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi on Wednesday.
Within hours, Datuk Nazri Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, stepped up with the first official word.
Datuk Nazri pointed out that the ex-premier had exhausted the allocation for the Eighth Malaysia Plan, an economic blueprint for the period 2000-2005, by 2003.
'It is merely a fact, as one can check with the Treasury, that the money allocated under the Eighth Malaysia Plan was used up two years before the plan finished,' Datuk Nazri was quoted in the local media as saying.
His comment adds to what is evident to Malaysians: The government has been on a belt-tightening drive and is trying to balance the deficit ever since Datuk Seri Abdullah took over nearly three years ago.
The government's austerity stands in stark contrast to Tun Dr Mahathir's slew of 'mega projects' in his 22 years as prime minister, with the biggest being the RM20 billion (S$8.7 billion) Putrajaya administrative capital.
Tun Dr Mahathir's critics say he overspent on 'unnecessary' or 'showy' projects.
Often included in this category are the RM9 billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the RM1.8 billion Petronas Twin Towers and the hardly-used RM500 million Putrajaya International Convention Centre.
The former premier's defence, as contained in his reply to an interviewer recently: 'When you want to build something, do not build for the present. Build for the future.'
He is known to proudly say that most of the projects were built with Petronas cash, not from money borrowed overseas.
He also points out that it is untrue that he had spent all the money as national oil company Petronas was flush with profits due to high global oil prices.
In his comments on Wednesday, he pointedly said: 'This year, Petronas made RM83 billion and spent RM13 billion to subsidise petrol prices of the public, and it still has about RM70 billion, of which it will pay taxes of RM30 billion.'
Analysts say that while some Mahathir projects had failed, like the RM10 billion lost in setting up a steel-making industry through Perwaja Steel, others helped catapult Malaysia from an agricultural economy to the world's 18th biggest trading nation.
Critics zoom in on the Eighth Malaysia Plan as an example of imprudence, but some analysts say Tun Dr Mahathir had good reason to dip into the government kitty, as he was trying to pump-prime a slowing economy.
The plan came in the wake of the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, and the early years of the plan saw the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, the post-Iraq war slowdown and the Sars epidemic in 2003.
'These were special times when he had to pump-prime the economy or else the slowdown would have been sharper,' said a banking analyst in Singapore.
The extra allocation tilted the annual government budget into deficit.
'Yes, he spent a lot, but it was for infrastructure and development,' said Mr Amin Manap, senior research manager at SBB Securities. 'True, we have a deficit, but it is nothing compared to the US.'
Still, many agree with Tun Dr Mahathir's critics when they say that a lack of transparency when awarding tenders and poor accountability have blighted many mega projects, such as Perwaja Steel.