Malaysia: Dr Mahathir and his Unrelentless Criticism of the Malaysian Government


Phar Kim Beng

Is it wrong, or right, for an ex-premier to be so vocal? Malaysians in general have been confused. Though this has not held them back from expressing their views.

A prominent personality to disagree with the vociferous attacks of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad against the administration of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi has been none other than Sultan Iskandar Shah of Johor, a southern state in Malaysia.

In a Friday sermon on 20 October, he urged Dr Mahathir to 'act like a pensioner'. The Sultan of Johor said that it was important for Dr Mahathir to let the government do its job, rather than to attack it for various kinds of misdeeds - attacks, which he felt, were pointless.

Indeed, so sensitive was the so-called 'Tun Issue' that it had to be carefully managed during the course of the recent UMNO Party General Assembly held over 13-16 November. As it happened, the 82-year old Dr Mahathir was hospitalized on 9 November after a minor heart attack and decided not to attend the Assembly in order to help his recovery. Nonetheless, his son, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, a current UMNO Youth wing Exco member, seemingly took up his father's mantle and has come under fire for apparently off-hand and critical comments he made to reporters about UMNO President Abdullah Badawi's policy speech.

For all Dr Mahathir's criticism over the last several months, it must be said that Dr Mahathir has held back his criticism in the past.

When he handed over the reins of responsibility to Abdullah Badawi in October 2003, he promised not to 'interfere' in national affairs.

In turn, Dr Mahathir was made the adviser to PROTON and Petronas, two positions that he has retained to this day.

When Abdullah Badawi's wife was stricken with cancer, eventually passing away in October 2005, Dr Mahathir also did not speak out against the government. In fact, some have it that Dr Mahathir allowed Abdullah Badawi time to mourn his loss.

However, in April 2006, when Abdullah Badawi agreed to build a new half bridge into Singapore, only to reverse his decision weeks later, this drew Dr Mahathir's wrath in no uncertain measure.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOF) even had to come out with a clarification to explain why the bridge could not be built without first obtaining the consent of Singapore.

The attempt to pacify Dr Mahathir failed. The bridge, in his view, was being built only on the Malaysian side of the border, not Singapore's.

It was therefore pointless to grant Singapore the right to decide on what is arguably a domestic Malaysian issue. Anything less was tantamount to surrendering Malaysia's sovereignty to Singapore.

Driven by this 'nationalist' logic, Dr Mahathir was subsequently unrelenting in his criticism of the government with the menu of protest increasing in size as time went along.

To break away from the curbs imposed on him, Dr Mahathir even competed in the Kubang Pasu divisional election in UMNO in September 2006. Although this election resulted in his rejection by the candidates, it underscored an attempt to more formally re-enter the fray.

In the 22 October one-on-one meeting with Abdullah Badawi, which was widely regarded as a failure, Dr Mahathir was not necessarily just acting in his own cantankerous way. Rather, he was also reacting to popular sentiments on the ground.

'People say that I have been making comments from the outside, but now I have seen him', Dr Mahathir affirmed.

Less than a day later, Dr Mahathir was again hard at it, this time by convening two press conferences in quick succession to expand his litany of complaints against the government.

Many Malaysians are unhappy with Abdullah Badawi. Malay contractors, unaccustomed to competing abroad, have traditionally relied upon the government to dish out various contracts, as for example those embedded in the 9th Malaysian Plan (2006-2010).

Thus, even with the booming economy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Malay contractors, which form a crucial constituency in UMNO, have not been able to benefit directly. In turn, it has been left to non-Malay contractors like LCL Corp to penetrate the UAE.

As the chairperson of the reform council of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Dr Mahathir is clearly aware of how much Malaysia has missed out on in the Middle East.

Indeed, since his retirement, Dr Mahathir has been a frequent traveler into the Middle East, invariably bankrolled by the likes of Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Syed Bukhari who has begun pairing up with Middle Eastern businessmen to build up his international profile in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Thus, Dr Mahathir is aware of how much Malaysian businessmen can achieve, if only the government is more pro-active, and certainly, less fiscally prudent.

By contrast, the gradualist, almost overly cautious approach of Abdullah Badawi, has caused Dr Mahathir much consternation. Thus, Dr Mahathir has chosen to speak up, and ostensibly, for Malay and Chinese businessmen alike.

But like all things, Dr Mahathir's future support (and that of Abdullah Badawi) will hinge on the state of the economy. If the Malaysian economy continues to hobble along at a growth rate of 5 per cent, with an inflation rate that is almost similar to, if not already higher than, this figure, then Dr Mahathir's rantings will carry added weight.

The Malaysian electorate at large has been becoming increasingly disillusioned with Abdullah Badawi's weak and lackluster government holding out the possibility that Dr Mahathir still may pose a real threat to Abdullah Badawi's leadership.

WATCHPOINT: Will his latest health set-back mean a more subdued Dr Mahathir or will he come back again fighting after his prescribed two month period of recuperation, in spite of the show of support for Abdullah Badawi's leadership at the recent UMNO Assembly?


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