Dr Mahathir – from London with spite
March 31, 2009
On Saturday in Kuala Lumpur. Just before the curtain fell on the 59th UMNO general assembly, the party’s 83-year-old former president made a grand entrance with his wife in tow. Looking debonair in a neatly-pressed deep purple stripped shirt and black slacks, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was given a rapturous welcome by the UMNO leaders and delegates alike.
After all, Mahathir and his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Ali are the two pioneer party members bearing the respective membership numbers ‘000001’ and ‘000002’ of UMNO Baru – the party born out of the 1987 crisis which saw the original UMNO being declared illegal.
It was a night of love, apparently masterminded by newly-minted UMNO president Najib Abdul Razak to bring his mentor and outgoing premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi together. Mahathir, who looked the sharpest of the lot on stage, awkwardly embraced Abdullah whom he had been attacking incessantly since a year after he had handpicked him as his successor in 2003.
It was a scene that surely deserved an Oscar nomination and one that made headlines the next day. The hatchet had purportedly been buried. Overwhelmed with emotion, Najib said he hoped Mahathir and Abdullah would together guide him through his tenure at the helm and offer him ideas for his unenviable task of rebuilding the party.
Mahathir who quit UMNO last May in protest of Abdullah’s leadership also vowed to return to the fold soon. Unfortunately, the dream was short-lived.
‘My only mistake’
Fast forward to Monday in London.
The former premier, who is in Britain to attend a Palestinian conference, again let loose his stinging criticisms of his successor-turned-nemesis Abdullah. In a five-minute interview with BBC World’s Mishal Hussein at its London studio, Mahathir slammed his successor for sullying his legacy.
“Everything went rotten when Abdullah took over,” lamented Mahathir, who refused to acknowledge any shortcomings on his part for the problems in UMNO despite being asked several times.
“My mistake was to choose this man (as successor),” said Mahathir, who added that that was the only mistake he made in his two decades in power. Moving on to another one of his favourite targets, Mahathir fired several rounds at Abdullah’s son-in-law and newly-elected UMNO Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin for his influence over the government.
Mahathir’s vexation towards Khairy escalated last week when the latter defeated his son, Mukhriz, in the coveted UMNO Youth chief contest.
In a hard-hitting blog posting later, Mahathir – who during his 22-year tenure was accused of everything in the dictionary related to corruption – slammed the UMNO Youth movement for bringing shame on the party by endorsing a ‘corrupt’ leader.
The former premier also said that in 22 years in office, Barisan Nasional always won two-thirds control in Parliament but the last polls saw the ruling coalition suffering its worst ever setback, by not only losing its two-third majority but also several states.
It is this which increased the pressure on the premier to relinquish the reins although his term does not end until 2013. Ironically four years earlier, Abdullah secured the biggest ever mandate for BN, seizing control of 90 percent of the parliamentary seats. Mahathir appeared to claim some credit for the historic mandate in 2004, noting that the general elections had come just after he stepped down as prime minister.
But observers had pointed out then that it was precisely Mahathir’s exit coupled with his successor’s reform pledges had led to the boost in support.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad was interviewed by BBC World’s Mishal Hussein in London where the 83-year-old former premier was grilled on his legacy. The following is an abstract of the five-minute interview.
Mishal Hussein: One of Mr Badawi’s fiercest critics was his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad who was in power for 22 years. Dr Mahathir is here in London for a conference on the Palestinians and he is with me now in the studio. Welcome to the programme. I wonder first if I can ask what went wrong as far as Mr Badawi is concerned because this is a man that you groomed to take over from you but then you didn’t like what you saw.
Mahathir: Well, he did all the things that were wrong. In the first place, he brought in his family and involved them not only in party business but also government business. His main advisors are members of his family and the group of young people appointed by his son-in-law.
Mishal Hussein: But family involvement in Malaysian politics – dynastic politics – is nothing new. Your son has contested for a position within UMNO. You’re quite disappointed, weren’t you, when he didn’t actually get elected.
Mahathir: He got into UMNO – in active politics – only after I left, (from) becoming the prime minister. That was the condition. I told my children that they are not to be involved in party politics or politics in general until I have stepped down because I don’t want people to talk about my rising dynasty.
Mishal Hussein: But you would like to see the Mahathir name continue.
Mahathir: Well, if he deserves it, why not?
Mishal Hussein: All right, let’s talk about the man who is going to be the next prime minister, Najib Razak – also someone that you know well. What do you think of him? Would he be a good PM?
Mahathir: Well, his record shows that he is a good administrator but he has certain weaknesses and because of that we cannot really be very sure whether he would be able to handle the problems faced by the party and the government.
Mishal Hussein: It is not very encouraging, is it? I mean, this is the next leader from your party.
Mahathir: Yes, it is true. He is from my party. At least, he was from my party because I’m not a member now. But I want to say what I think is the truth. I don’t care who gets hurt, even my own party if it gets hurt, but if the correction has to be made, I will make the comments.
Mishal Hussein: I raise this because there seems to be a pattern of you grooming people, hand-picking them even. Anwar Ibrahim was one, Abdullah Badawi was another. Najib Razak to some extent is the third. And once they get close to power, or into power, you attack them.
Mahathir: No, I didn’t groom them. I had no choice but to choose one of them to be my deputy and they didn’t prove to be able to handle this, and I have to take action against them.
Mishal Hussein: Well, if you are so critical of the leaders that UMNO has produced, is it time for a change then? Perhaps this isn’t the party that should dominate Malaysia as it has done since independence.
Mahathir: The party essentially is a very good party. It has functioned very well for 50 years and now we find under the leadership of Abdullah, the party has really become rotten, (it) has not been able to win the usual results that we have had in the past elections.
Mishal Hussein: So everything went wrong when you stepped down, is that right?
Mahathir: No, everything went wrong when Abdullah took over.
Mishal Hussein: Which is about the same period of time.
Mahathir: It is not the same because it could have been somebody else. Najib was actually the senior vice-president. He should have been designated the new prime minister after me but I thought he was young and I thought I will give Abdullah to assume, hold, some opportunity to lead the country.
Mishal Hussein: Let’s look at some criticisms of UMNO though. It’s been called corrupt. It’s been called detached from the people. Abdullah Badawi even said it is complacent. It is facing death. I mean these are the kinds of thing that don’t happen to a party overnight. Isn’t there anything that you would take responsibility for? You led the party for 22 years.
Mahathir: I led this party for 22 years. I never failed to get the support of the people in any election. I invariably get two-thirds majority. The first time we did not get two-thirds majority was after five years of Abdullah’s administration.
Mishal Hussein: Did you make any mistakes in those 22 years?
Mahathir:The mistake that I made was to choose this man.
Mishal Hussein:That was the only mistake that you made in those 22 years in power?
Mahathir:Yes, because immediately after I stepped down, the party won with an overwhelming majority. If I had left a party which is bad, they would never have won in 2004 with such a huge majority.