MAHATHIR Mohamad, Malaysia's former prime minister, is not happy. He was content to leave politics in late 2003 in return for a degree of reverence as an elder statesman, and perhaps to be consulted from time to time. He wasn't banking on being largely ignored, openly blamed for current and past errors, and seeing initiatives he backed dismantled in a way that seems calculated to make him lose face, particularly in the Asian context.
But Mahathir has retaliated in the past fortnight. He has claimed publicly that his successor, Abdullah Badawi, has stabbed him in the back. He has rebutted criticisms made of him and he has questioned Abdullah's policies.
The media, which under Abdullah was supposed to report the news rather than be the Government's good-news mouthpiece, blacked out Mahathir's remarks, presumably on Government orders. The Government also responded through Nazri Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister's office who, in a 45-minute news conference, launched a fierce attack on Mahathir, advising him to be a "real man" and to leave UMNO, the ruling party. He even accused Mahathir of not loving his country, as if criticising the Government meant criticising the country. That's the sort of confusion normally reserved for developing-world dictators.
Also last week, a former political secretary of Mahathir, who weighed in to support his former boss, was rewarded with a defamation suit for 50 million ringgit ($A18.3 million) from the deputy chairman of Malaysia's biggest newspaper group.
And a former owner of the national airline filed a court document to say he never wanted it and that Mahathir's government made him buy it. Presumably, that is what led him to strip millions from it in related-party transactions.
And former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim lodged with the High Court his reply to Mahathir's attempt to get his defamation suit against Mahathir quashed. Anwar made a range of new allegations about how the government was run under Mahathir, seemingly neglecting the fact that it was also Anwar's government at the time.
Amid all this madness, there was spark of common sense. Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail floated the idea of bringing back jury trials, which were abolished 11 years ago. Malaysians were now better read, informed and competent, he said.
But the spark was soon extinguished by none other than Nazri Aziz. Jurors were "ordinary" people, Nazri said, and might be swayed into believing clever lawyers' arguments. Goodness. On top of that, they might be bribed. Essentially, Nazri was saying that Malaysians were too stupid to be jurors and that court decisions were better left to judges. Apparently Malaysian judges are renowned for their professionalism, incorruptibility and independence. I hadn't known that.
The Mahathir furore has helped Abdullah mask his own inaction. When he came to office he encouraged expectations that he would seriously tackle corruption and promote transparency.
But Malaysia's police remain a disgrace. Out of control, corrupt and trigger-happy, they generally kill at least one person a week.
So far, no major Government project has been subject to an open tendering process, despite Abdullah's suggestions they would be.
And, despite all the talk of getting rid of nepotism, the families of most politicians remain involved in businesses that rely on Government contracts, including Abdullah's own.
Furthermore, he appears to be excessively reliant on his son-in-law, the unelected 31-year-old Khairy Jamaluddin.
Mahathir no longer wants Abdullah to remain Prime Minister. He hasn't for quite some time. His preference is for Najib Razak, the current deputy.
So what is Najib like? He's certainly no Mahathir. He rarely takes a strong position on anything, and when he does, it's usually because he's worked out which way the numbers are. Accordingly, he has few strong enemies; nor many passionate supporters.
Ever the good deputy, Najib was quick to pledge loyalty to Abdullah last week but he also refrained from saying anything critical of Mahathir. A fence-sitter but a splendid one, he is rich, Malay, well-educated, and his father (Tun Abdul Razak) was prime minister.
But will Najib take the tough decisions that so far have eluded Abdullah? Nothing in his career suggests he will. It will probably be business as usual, and in Malaysia politics is always about business.
Najib's younger brother, Nazir Razak, is chief executive of CIMB, Malaysia's largest investment bank. He and two other brothers, Nizam and Johari, are involved in GP Ocean Food, which describes itself as the country's biggest integrated fisheries group.
The company planned to issue a prospectus to enable it to list on the stock exchange this year, but that was shelved last week after the Securities Commission announced an investigation into alleged irregularities in the company's accounts. That's the thing about Malaysia: so much of the regulatory apparatus almost works.
But back to Mahathir. Is all his noise a bad thing? Not at all. Mahathir must keep up his criticisms. It doesn't matter whether he is right or wrong. What matters is that he keeps going. Monopolies are never a good thing, particularly when it comes to a monopoly of ideas. Mahathir has given Malaysians a lot of things. Giving them what might turn out to be the most effective opposition voice they've had is his latest contribution.
Flashy buildings make a country look modern. But real modernity comes from open public debate. Mahathir is dragging Malaysia forward while Abdullah is disappointing.
There is high political temperature in Kuala Lumpur (KL) these days. It is literally activated by the recent leadership conflict between the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad - who is considered the father of modern Malaysia - and the ruling Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Interestingly, the two belong to the same political party, United Malay National Organization (Umno). Mahathir had personally chosen his deputy Abdullah, a mild-mannered politician known as Pak Lah or "uncle," as his successor when he decided to step down from politics in 2003.
He now openly regrets this, saying that he made a mistake and has attacked Abdullah's government over four issues: issuance of Approval Permits (APs) to unqualified candidates for selling vehicles, scrapping of half-bridge (some say crooked bridge) replacing the Causeway, removal of national car Proton's former head Tengku Mahaleel, a Mahathir man, and the sale of MV Augusta, a subsidiary of Proton, at one Euro ($1.3).
In the 2004 election Malaysians gave an overwhelming mandate to Abdullah shortly after he took over power from Mahathir. The latter declared that he would not participate in active politics anymore the way Lee Kuan Yew was then doing in Singapore, serving the city state as "Senior Minister" after handing over power to Goh Chok Tong. Yet Mahathir was consistently persuaded by his colleagues to play a role in the background as "Senior Statesman" or "Senior President" in Umno. But his only reply: No.
In his bitter criticism of PM Abdullah, who has earned the image of good guy in this region, Mahathir has cleverly chosen nationalistic and pro-bumiputera (son of the soil) stand to argue his allegations. For aborting the half-bridge, he disparaged Pak Lah for being non-patriotic and not standing up against Singapore. He also quashed the explanation of the Foreign Minister Syed Hamid. Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz was also blamed for not awarding APs to deserving bumiputeras.
Dr Mahathir, indeed, organized road-shows to voice out his grievances, inviting the members of opposition. There, he outrageously criticized Abdullah for sidelining the policies he left with the government and also for rescinding the giant projects (mostly unproductive) that were his legacy. He mocked the cabinet ministers with comments such as "they are like a chorus line; they are all dancing; when one kicks, all will kick."
Understandably, Mahathir's lambasting of the ruling party has well been received by the leaders of opposition: especially Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamic fundamentalist party, trying to implement Shariah Law and a rival of Umno, has found it as good omen for them to fish in the troubled water. Last time, with same strategy, they defeated Umno in Terengganu state election after Mahathir expelled his deputy Anwar Ibrahim in 1999.
In fact, the former premier's road-shows, with audience of PAS members, have become a serious issue within the leaders of Umno. In support of PM Abdullah, cabinet ministers and Mentri Besars instantly expressed their regrets over Mahathir's association with the opposition, they say he is sleeping with enemy, and advised him to stop his attacks on the government.
They said his insensible comments could be used by the opposition to weaken the government and disarray the people and thus, they questioned his loyalty to Umno. One Nazri Aziz, a minister in the prime minister's office, who also served the former premier, has even gone further asking him to leave Umno. If Mahathir belongs to an opposition camp, asserts Nazri, it will be easier for the administration to deal with him.
Malaysia's deputy PM Najib Razak, whose loyalty is widely believed a key factor to defuse this explosive situation, also rallied behind his embattled boss Abdullah and appealed to the party members and the rakyat (people) to give full support to Pak Lah.
Throughout the political struggle in his life, Mahathir never ran away from the battlefield of politics. In his 22 years rule, he picked up political fracas with Malaysia's kings, judicial authorities and party members in Umno. Every time he came out the winner. Mahathir, now 80, is still strong enough to take on his opponents.
In his early days of doing politics, Mahathir wrote a fierce letter, criticizing the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman soon after the deadly race-riots in 1969 for his (Tunku's) failure to uphold the dignity of Malays. This led to his dismissal from Umno. The following year he wrote a book, The Malay Dilemma, for which Mahathir became champion as "Malay ultra." The book was, however, banned for sometime. He was later readmitted to Umno when Tun Abdul Razak was prime minister.
A challenge by the former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah for the position of Umno president in 1987 was muted by Mahathir with narrow victory. He immediately sacked Razaleigh along with five Cabinet ministers who sided with him, including Abdullah who was then defence minister. Later he (Abdullah) was reappointed after he won the post of Umno vice-president. Sacking of lord president of the supreme court of Malaysia, Tun Salleh Abas, together with three other judges by Mahathir in 1988 is largely viewed as an interference with the judiciary.
Malaysia's kings were seen to pay the price for abusing their powers in 1992. Mahathir took them to task by implementing a code of conduct for them, getting it approved in the parliament.
Abdullah's recent measure to investigate the past cases of corruption and other financial irregularities among government officials, says one analyst, perhaps provoked Mahathir in the past weeks. The prime minister is seen not only going for new policies having more transparency to attract foreign investments but at the same time looking into the cases of misappropriation, corruption, and mismanagement of Mahathir.
As it is expected, former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who was framed by the then Mahathir's government for sodomy charges and later acquitted by a panel of three judges of the Federal Court in 2004, has urged Malaysians not to be unduly distracted by the political drama, saying that Mahathir's criticisms are not addressed for the reforms but to suit his personal benefits. His recent victory over former police chief, Rahim Noor, infamous for giving Anwar a black eye, and possible defamation suit against his ex-boss are perceived by political observers in KL as another possible ground for Mahathir to be rancorous with the administration.
Even if Mahathir hardly lost any battle with his opponents in the past, some analysts suggest that the times are different now and the Cabinet ministers are solidly behind the Prime Minister Abdullah. Exactly. Much depends on how Mahathir, a shrewd strategist, will maneuver his political game-plans in the months ahead to see if he can remain as a stalwart in Umno.
*Ihtesham M Choudhury is Managing Partner, i3-P International and a freelance writer.