Mahathir won't go quietly

COMMENT by Michael Vatikiotis*
From International Herald Tribune of August 14, 2006

Reading the news from Malaysia these days, it's hard to remember who is the prime minister.
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is under fierce verbal attack from his predecessor, Mahathir bin Mohamad. The former prime minister has suggested that he might have made the wrong choice in picking the mild- mannered Abdullah as his successor. In a concerted campaign, he appears to be trying to undermine the stability of the government, alleging nepotism and corruption in high places.
The ostensible reason for Mahathir's hurt feelings is a string of decisions taken by the Abdullah administration to slash costly mega-projects. Earlier this year, Abdullah abruptly canceled a planned bridge across the causeway linking Malaysia with Singapore, which was a pet project of Mahathir's.
Malaysia's half-century of independence has been remarkably free of succession turmoil; prime ministers have either died in office or stepped down gracefully. There have been no coups or assassination attempts; Malaysian political culture is genteel, if cutthroat.
But Mahathir isn't the first former prime minister of Malaysia to speak ill of his successor. It would seem that those who leave office quietly find it hard to suppress feelings of resentment and jealousy. Prickly post-power syndrome is the price paid for stable succession.
Mahathir himself knows this. He became prime minister in 1981 while the country's founding prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was still in the pink of health. The urbane, Westernized Tunku could barely contain his contempt for Mahathir's brash nationalism with its "look East" attitude. He was a pillar of staunch opposition until his death in 1990.
The fact that Mahathir's tirade against Abdullah has acquired such potency and forced the government to respond underscores a weakness in Malaysian political culture for paternalism and patronage. The governing United Malays Nationalist Organization is more of an ethnic and religious club than a modern political party.
Indeed, Mahathir's leadership of UMNO was never unquestioned. In Malay cultural terms, he was a maverick; he scolded the Malays for being unproductive and slow to catch up with the ethnic Chinese who comprise a third of the population. Mahathir was blunt and abrasive, flying in the face of refined Malay manners.
Abdullah came along and presented a different face. He is refined and religious; two qualities greatly admired by the country's Malay majority. If Mahathir had stayed in power after 2003, UMNO risked losing electoral ground.
Instead, Abdullah led the governing coalition to an unprecedented landslide, stopping in its tracks a surge in popularity for the Islamic Party.
This is not to say that Abdullah should be above criticism. It is right to question whether his own son's multimillion- dollar company, Scomi, is receiving government contracts without tender. (Abdullah insists that most of Scomi's business is overseas.) There is much concern in Kuala Lumpur about Abdullah's indecisiveness and the slow pace of bureaucratic and corporate reform. These are justified gripes.
But Mahathir isn't harping on relevant issues of reform; he is grinding a personal ax. It would seem that he is hurt because the new administration is undoing his legacy.
The greatest monument to Mahathir's tenure dominates the Kuala Lumpur skyline in the shape of the impressive Petronas twin towers. A determined Mahathir moved the entire government to a shiny new administrative capital called Putrajaya, where the prime minister's residence resembles an Ottoman palace in which Abdullah, who recently lost his wife, now occupies only one wing. On resigning, Mahathir promised to see through still more grand and costly projects that he saw as the key to Malaysian pride.
When Mahathir resigned in 2003 many Malaysians breathed a quiet but palpable sigh of relief. There was no question that he had pushed Malaysia kicking and screaming into the modern world. Yet his constant cajoling and, in particular, his bashing of the West, increasingly grated on modern Malaysian sensibilities. It was time, as many Malaysians saw it, for a period of calm and reflection.
For the rest of the world, it was refreshing to meet a Malaysian Muslim leader who genuinely reflected values of tolerance and moderation. In a world gripped by fear of Islamic extremism and militancy, Abdullah stands out in a quiet way as a true emblem of Malaysia, which is more than a bridge to Singapore will earn the country.

*Michael Vatikiotis is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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