June 29, 2002

Post-Mahathir succession issue remains uncertain

By Yang Razali Kassim

SUDDENLY, the post-Mahathir era has come - much sooner than expected. It caught many people off-guard and flat-footed. Now, they are simply at a loss as to whether the impending exit of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is good or bad for the country.
To the thousands of loyalists in Umno, the answer is clear: Life will be tough without Dr Mahathir. Anxious over the prospect of losing their pahlawan or hero, they are the ones most forceful in clamouring for him to stay.
There will be many among them who will worry about their future, now that their godfather will soon be gone. In the corporate sector, a clutch of business leaders who have benefited from aligning their fortunes to the premier may now have to recalculate their options.
But it is too much of a sweeping generalisation to believe that those who want Dr Mahathir to stay are doing so for selfish reasons or out of blind loyalty. In truth, the man is a true leader, whatever his faults and foibles.
But were the events of last Saturday in Kuala Lumpur mere political theatrics, as many of his cynics suggest?
I saw no political antics, nor crocodile tears. How could it be a charade when no one - not even his wife - knew anything about it?
Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz was virtually on her knees begging him not to go. Youth leader Hishammudin Tun Hussein wiped his tears with his sleeve, like a young boy who had just lost his treasured gift. 'Why? Why?' they tearfully implored him.
But Dr Mahathir would not be moved. 'Dah lama, dah (it's been too long),' he said remorsefully.
The way he shook his head a few times adamantly was also out of character, I thought. And the manner in which he broke down suggests a man who was weeping not out of a sense of loss but of a sense of attachment for a party he was leaving after having dedicated half his life to it.
Besides, how do you stage-manage ministers who are already grandmothers and grandfathers and get them to cry like children, as if pleading with their father not to leave them behind? And it is also not easy to engineer an emotional outpouring of 2,000 people that was so spontaneous and contagious.
Before the stunning announcement, I was following the proceedings in the auditorium through a huge closed-circuit screen put up outside the hall for the hundreds of non-delegates from Umno. They were all, as usual, listening attentively. Their calm turned into hysteria when it dawned on them too that the premier had just announced his resignation.
It felt as if the ruckus would never end. It dissipated only an hour later when his deputy, Abdullah Badawi, announced that Dr Mahathir had retracted his resignation statement.
We now know, of course, that it was a smart move to cool down anxieties. The Special Branch was already everywhere. You could tell by the way they looked around and the jackets they wore.
But the way things turned out, there can be no doubt that Dr Mahathir is leaving the stage and the confirmation on Tuesday did not surprise me.
There will now be a 15-month transition during which power will be transferred to Mr Abdullah. Umno leaders say the power transfer will be peaceful and orderly. But will it be?
Mr Abdullah's position is secure for now. But it is true that 15 months is a long time in politics and anything can happen. I don't think Dr Mahathir wanted it this way. I suspect this is more the plan of those who don't want Dr Mahathir to go, or don't like the idea of Mr Abdullah taking over, for fear of losing out.
Thankfully for Umno, at least there will be order for now. But a scramble for the No 2 post also seems unavoidable given that party elections will have to be called in a year or two.
In my view, the four-day suspense and tension last weekend in Kuala Lumpur could have been avoided if Dr Mahathir had not been stopped from completing his resignation announcement.
Abdullah Ahmad, a close friend of Dr Mahathir and now editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times Group, wrote in a column that there was one page left to go when the tearful Dr Mahathir was stopped by an emotional Ms Rafidah.
The contents of that page would surely have been about his plan for succession. The panic on Saturday would not have happened if he had first announced his plan for succession, and then declared his own retirement. That way, no uncertainty could have arisen.
So, it remains a mystery why the normally meticulous Dr Mahathir did not do this.
Is he leaving on a high note, as many people say and as he himself alluded to in his speech? Or is he actually leaving in dejection? Only Dr Mahathir would know.
We will find out more about the June 22 turn in Malaysian history when Asia's longest-serving prime minister decides to pen his thoughts, as he did back in 1970 with The Malay Dilemma.