Khoo Boo Teik explores the “tiff” between former premier Mahathir and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and looks at the undercurrents that led to the former premier’s outbursts.
On 22 June 2002, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced his intention to resign as Prime Minister and UMNO President. On 1 November 2003, he was succeeded by Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
That sixteen-month transition in premiership, carefully managed to keep UMNO intact, was delicately presented to soothe the post-Reformasi public. The public never knew what UMNO offered or what Mahathir wanted for him to remain in office until 30 October 2003.
Lost in transition
Whatever their unwritten terms, Mahathir’s agreement with UMNO or perhaps his later ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Abdullah had become worthless by 1 May 2006 when Mahathir called this a ‘half-past six country which has no guts’.
After that, the in-thing was to spill one’s guts, or maybe to threaten so.
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At one point Mahathir said that Abdullah wasn’t UMNO’s ‘first choice’ to be his successor. By implication – a critical one since Mahathir hinted at ingratitude and broken promises – Abdullah was Mahathir’s choice.
Mahathir alluded to being ‘backstabbed’ and ‘demonized’. In public, he posed more and more demanding questions and stronger and stronger criticisms of Abdullah’s administration.
The Abdullah side – some Cabinet ministers, UMNO leaders and senior media figures – responded with harsher and harsher tones. Mahathir himself was reminded he’d given his word not to interfere with the ‘new’ government.
Soon salvoes of mutual criticism converged into a barrage of accusation.
Figures of dissent
Into the fray was drawn Tun Musa Hitam. He spoke painfully of this round of UMNO infighting as only he could speak of UMNO’s pains of the past 25 years. Musa, being no Reformasi diehard, didn’t say Mahathir was nyanyuk (senile). But he diagnosed the doctor’s condition as ‘post-PM syndrome’.
Into the fight leapt an unlikely combatant – Matthias Chang, Mahathir’s former political secretary. On 18 April, Chang called Minister of Foreign Affairs Syed Hamid Albar an ‘incompetent’ ‘big Napoleon’ over the government’s decision to stop building the ‘scenic’ or ‘crooked’ – but definitely half – bridge to Singapore.
On 13 June, Chang called Abdullah’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, and New Straits Times Deputy Chairman Kalimullah Hassan ‘corrupt’ and ‘cowardly’ and accused them of campaigning to ‘demonize’ Mahathir.
Suddenly half-forgotten figures with an axe or two to grind emerged, almost casually so.
Following a police assault on demonstrators protesting electricity rate increases, former Tenaga Chairman Ani Arope spoke of Tenaga’s ‘unequal treaties’ with the Independent Power Producers (IPP). He revealed that the Economic Planning Unit had compelled Tenaga to accept a higher price for IPP-supplied power than the IPP had asked.
Mana boleh? ‘Ask the former premier,’ Ani Arope said.
From the shadows appeared the author of a surat layang whose identity had been a poorly kept ‘official secret’ since 1996. There was an unpublicized investigation of Syed Ahmad Idid Syed Abdullah’s accusations of judicial corruption. It didn’t result in any action being taken against any judge but led to Syed Ahmad Idid’s ignoble departure as High Court judge. Now the media gave him a chance to revisit his old allegations.
Two judicial developments were perhaps not irrelevant to what was happening.
First, the Court of Appeal granted Sukma Darmawan Sasmitaat Madja’s appeal for a new trial on old charges. In 1998, Sukma had been jailed after he pleaded guilty to letting Anwar Ibrahim sodomize him. Later, Sukma maintained his innocence, claiming he ‘confessed’ only because he couldn’t withstand the torture by his interrogators.
Second, Anwar’s RM100 million ‘defamation and conspiracy’ suit against Mahathir wound its way through the judicial process, with Anwar’s registering a long reply to Mahathir’s statement of defence.
Fathers and sons
Within UMNO, Mukhriz Mahathir broke ranks with the Pemuda leadership to support his father. ‘KJ’, however, has not broken his silence, at least not in public, to defend his father-in-law.
A rumour circulated that ‘September 2’ – the day in 1998 when Anwar was sacked – would return on 19 June. This time UMNO’s Supreme Council would expel Mahathir from the party. When that didn’t happen, the spin was Abdullah couldn’t pull it off, at least not yet.
Resourceful as ever, Mahathir discovered the utility of civil society’s limited instruments of expression. His statements and his allies’ commentaries were posted on websites and blogs. He gave a characteristically long and candid interview to Malaysiakini. He held a ‘dialogue with NGOs’ on 24 June. The dialogue was arranged by Malaysia Today and attended, among others, by some opposition figures.
For ‘sleeping with the enemy’ thus, as the New Straits Times put it, Mahathir was jeered by Minister (PM’s Department) Nazri Aziz: if he was jantan, Mahathir should leave UMNO! Naturally Mahathir wouldn’t leave UMNO which he’d joined before ‘hatchet man’ Nazri was born.
Even as Mahathir’s manhood was challenged while the integrity of others was assailed, Abdullah stayed aloof. He maintained what Musa lauded as an ‘elegant silence’.
Really, can Pak Lah’s silence be elegant? In a political system where the leader habitually has the last word on everything, for how long can he rely on his ministers to shield him from replying directly to Mahathir?
Let’s call a spat a spat. Melodrama, which Abdullah dampened with his anodyne talk of civilization and governance, has returned to Malaysian politics with a vengeance.
Not since Anwar’s sacking has there been as tense an affair as this ‘tiff’ (to use Kalimullah’s language) between the Predecessor and his Successor.
However, ‘open war’ (Nazri’s term for a counter-attack against Mahathir) may not be an exaggeration for a tiff that may have become too deadly to produce a win-win situation.
How have the mighty fallen out so?
Who’s selling what?
Mahathir claimed he only wanted clear and truthful answers to questions regarding Proton, the half-bridge and Putrajaya. Each, however, was a complicated matter.
First, Proton dragged in the Approved Permits, the sale of its subsidiary, MV Augusta, and the replacement of Tengku Mahaleel Tengku Ariff as Managing Director. The APs ate into Proton’s market share. MV Augusta was sold for one Euro although it was bought for 70 million Euros (RM315 million). Under Tengku Mahaleel, Proton had evidently been a business success.
The government’s replies were: the AP issue was already clarified last year; selling MV Augusta rid Proton of a losing, debt-ridden, motorcycle company marginal to automobile manufacturing; and Proton’s Board had a right not to renew Tengku Mahaleel’s appointment. At any rate, there was a new National Automobile Policy.
Over sea to sky
Second, the half-bridge was suspended between Johor’s sand and Malaysia’s airspace, not to say remote from ‘Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore’. Mahathir wouldn’t accept that Malaysia had to abandon the crooked half-bridge because Singapore wouldn’t cooperate to build a straight full bridge. He said he’d been assured days before the government’s final decision that the bridge construction would proceed.
The government’s answers were: Singapore wouldn’t cooperate unless it was sold sand and allowed to use Malaysian airspace. Since ‘the people’ were opposed to the sand and airspace deal, it made neither legal nor financial sense to proceed with the half-bridge.
Then Mahathir charged that the sand-space ‘sweetener’ was offered to, not originally demanded by, Singapore. Selling the sand – which Johor protested – had become selling national sovereignty.
Third, the halt to further construction in Putrajaya cast an aspersion on Mahathir’s fiscal management. More than the Twin Towers or KLIA, Putrajaya – derided as mahligai by Reformasi dissidents – symbolised Mahathir’s readiness to ‘spend and spend’ on ‘mega projects’.
Hence, it had long been hinted, Abdullah had to reduce the budget deficit and watch his own spending. He wanted to focus on the Ninth Malaysia Plan, not ‘tax, spend and build’ if that left a huge burden on the future.
But Mahathir denied that state funds were low. Petronas made record profits. The Employees’ Provident Fund had lots of money. The national reserves were piling up.
How could money not be available? Why shouldn’t it be spent? Without state expenditure, how could there be multipliers and benefits to the economy?
He despaired with a certain ‘Malay attitude towards money’. Money wasn’t just something lighter than a sack of padi to be carried about for barter. Money is for making more money!
Personalities and more
Those have become highly emotional disagreements. They merge with other complications.
Mahathir’s not suffering a ‘post-PM syndrome’ as if his judgments and commitments are ruled by nostalgia.
Some may admire Abdullah’s ‘sounds of silence’. Others hear grating moans and groans issuing from power shifts that have occurred at the highest levels of policy planning and decision-making.
Of course, UMNO’s chronic infighting has always been coloured by personalities and styles but other matters have always been critical.
In 1987–88, Team A and Team B fought over ‘holding NEP in abeyance’, Malaysia Inc., privatization and the dislocation of the civil service. In 1997–98, Anwar’s fate was foreshadowed by behind-the-scenes battles over financial policies and the tools of crisis management.
What, then, is the present fight about?
Imitations and appearances
One clue comes from what Mahathir stands for, what he’s always stood for.
At first glance, it’s puzzling why there should be a Mahathir-Abdullah spat, least of all over basic policy differences. One might think Abdullah’s furiously de-Mahathirising.
Isn’t that a mirage, though? Isn’t Abdullah in fact imitating Mahathir?
Abdullah’s initiatives for better governance and ‘GLC Transformation’ were anticipated by Mahathir’s bureaucratic reforms and taming of the state-owned enterprises of the 1980s.
The ideological roots of Islam hadhari may be traced to ‘the assimilation of Islamic values’. Indeed, Abdullah was responsible for implementing Mahathir’s Islamization policies until Anwar joined the government.
And, truly, where would Abdullah’s ‘towering personalities’ come from if not Mahathir’s Melayu Baru?
Anwar Ibrahim, who isn’t caught between Mahathir and Abdullah, correctly remarked that Mahathir wasn’t pursuing a ‘reform agenda’. Mahathir was only adamant that the projects decided by his Cabinet shouldn’t be terminated by this Cabinet.
Even so, that’s not to say Mahathir’s agenda was merely personal. It was and it wasn’t.
My way or no way
Abdullah’s ‘reform initiatives’ have been limited to urging better performances from the managers of the GLCs and improving the civil service and liberalizing certain sectors of the economy. Most people suspect he has no firmer vision to offer.
In contrast, Mahathir’s policies girded a crucial project, once called Malaysia Inc., later named Vision 2020. It was a project inspired by a deep economic nationalism that drove his entire political career. He devotedly pursued it for 22 years as Prime Minister.
What do a weakened national car, an abandoned bridge and a diminished administrative capital signify? They are the brick-and-mortar symptoms of the demolition of that nationalist project. They are evidence of the dismantling of the one legacy for which Mahathir might want to be remembered.
It’s one thing for Abdullah to express a general commitment to Vision 2020. It’s something altogether different when, in the name of better governance, liberalization or globalization, he unravels Mahathir’s project.
To defend that project, Mahathir had risked everything fighting Team B in 1987–90, and sacking Anwar and imposing capital controls in 1998.
To that degree, he’d be enraged at a National Automobile Policy that wouldn’t protect Proton and a Free Trade Agreement with Japan that bartered our vegetables for their cars! Has this not become a ‘half past six country which has no guts’? And what dire trade-offs will result from the negotiations over an FTA with USA?
Tiers of fights
Believing there’s a campaign to reverse his policies, terminate agreed projects and rubbish his reputation, Mahathir might not stop short of ‘disuniting UMNO’ en route to lubang cacing (‘the source’).
But can he win an ‘open war’? What can his prestige or reputation or charisma, each dented by previous crises, accomplish without the powers of incumbency and the instruments of rule?
Much, however, depends on whether or how the Big Spat coincides with other tensions and divisions ever present in UMNO crises.
For instance, Mahathir said he wasn’t concerned with contracts and who got them. There were wrong things and wrong directions – and he wouldn’t be Mahathir if he didn’t ‘stick his neck out’ to set them right.
Yet, the talk in KL, cyberspace and beyond is about how ‘KJ and his Oxbridge boys and their consultancies’ have monopolized policy planning and taken control of projects and contracts.
That raises hopes or fears among different corporate interests and their political allies. After all, the economy, while growing, isn’t booming, and the 9MP projects are about to be awarded.
There is envious talk that KJ’s political ambition goes way beyond putting together a football team. UMNO people look at Abdullah’s menantu (in-law) and think he’s rising too rapidly, rather like Mahathir’s protégé (Anwar) in the early 1980s.
Within UMNO are the sons of former Prime Ministers – Najib Tun Razak, Hishamuddin Hussein Onn and Mirzhan Mahathir – and older claimants to power. Mahathir’s openly derided the ‘5th Floor’ (Prime Minister’s Office) for operating at the behest of the ‘4th Floor’ where KJ’s Oxbridge-trained ‘special officers’ are located.
Some, like Nazri and Hisha-muddin, come to KJ’s defence. They sneer at insinuations of his boundless influence. Others are quiet, and no one knows what they think.
There’s also plentiful speculation that certain corporate manoeuvres profit ‘new cronies’ while the termination of specific projects harmed ‘former cronies’. Given the close links between business and politics, different teams of business and political figures would have jostled for position and favours ever since Mahathir stepped down.
No permanent friends
Sometimes an unnamed ‘third party’ is said to be manipulating this clash between ‘No. 1’ and ‘Ex-No. 1’. There being no end to the creativity of Malaysian rumour-mongers, it’s even said that Anwar, with his law suits, will have to be factored in any all-out war.
Right now there are many things we don’t know. But if this tiff descends into an ‘open war’, UMNO politics will head for turmoil, perhaps of the order of April 1987 or September 1998.
By next year, we’d know the political alignments within UMNO and the government better … unless UMNO postpones the party election scheduled for 2007. In any case UMNO has again reached a point where one values friends to the degree that they are the enemies of enemies.