By Reme Ahmad IN KUALA LUMPUR
PRIME Minister Mahathir Mohamad, addressing rumblings on the ground over the choice of the number two, said yesterday it was up to his appointed successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to name his Cabinet when the latter takes over the helm of the country.
Answering a question on the minds of many people, Dr Mahathir said party tradition allows a new prime minister to choose his team, including the new deputy premier.
Speaking to reporters in his Kubang Pasu constituency in Kedah, he said he had 'no objections' if Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak was appointed the deputy prime minister.
Dr Mahathir, who retires in October next year, was earlier mobbed by thousands of people on his first return to his constituency following his shock announcement that he was stepping down.
Answering a question on whether Datuk Seri Najib would be the new deputy prime minister, Dr Mahathir said: 'It is up to Pak Lah to form his government, choose his Cabinet.'
Datuk Seri Abdullah is affectionately known as Pak Lah in Malaysia.
'On the party's deputy president, it will be decided by the party but whoever is chosen by Pak Lah as deputy prime minister, normally will carry the post of deputy president of Umno.
'That is what happened to me and I am sure it is a good practice. And I was just hinting that Datuk Seri Najib could be the deputy when I retire. But this is up to Datuk Seri Abdullah as prime minister to choose who will be his deputy.'
There is speculation about who would be the new deputy prime minister now that the issue of Dr Mahathir's successor has been settled with the appointment of Datuk Seri Abullah.
Past Umno deputy presidents, when they move up to head the party, have always chosen their deputies from one of the three vice-presidents.
Dr Mahathir himself was one of the three Umno vice-presidents when he was elevated to become deputy premier by the then new Prime Minister Hussein Onn.
Apart from Datuk Seri Najib, the other two Umno vice-presidents are Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and former Selangor Menteri Besar Muhammad Muhammad Taib.
The Prime Minister raised eyebrows when, in thanking Umno for its support on Tuesday, indicated that Datuk Seri Najib could be the new second-in-command in the government after Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi takes over.
Asked whether he was endorsing the elevation of Datuk Seri Najib, whose father was Malaysia's second prime minister, to the number two post, Dr Mahathir said: 'Let's say, I have no objections.'
But he added that whoever is going to be chosen as deputy prime minister, the vice-presidents have agreed not to campaign openly or secretly 'to pull down each other'.
On Thursday, Datuk Seri Najib said he was surprised by Dr Mahathir's comments.
Meanwhile, Dr Mahathir said he did not know whether he would lead Barisan Nasional into the general election, which must be held by end-2004. But he promised to work just as hard even if he was not leading it.
In his two public speeches in Kedah yesterday, the Premier did a little campaigning ahead of a key by-election in the state following the death of Parti Islam SeMalaysia president Fadzil Noor.
He later flew to Chiang Mai for a three-day official visit to Thailand.