Malaysia: Mahathir's Self Inflicted Black Eye


James Chin

The just concluded UMNO General Assembly was interesting to say the least. Many UMNO delegates saw the party elections as the unofficial barometer for Mahathir's support and standing within UMNO.

The fact that Mahathir and his hand-picked deputy's posts were not contested meant that the battle for the three vice-president's posts and the 25 Majlis Tertinggi (Supreme Council) seats were widely seen as a referendum on Mahathir's leadership after UMNO's disastrous performance in last November's general elections.

Prior to the General Assembly, Mahathir made it clear that he was would like to see certain personalities elected. Officially Mahathir maintained that delegates would be 'free' to select whom they liked but in private gatherings for UMNO members, he named several personalities who had contributed 'a lot' to UMNO and the cause of the Malays. They included Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak, Sabah ChiefMinister Osu Sukam, Johor Mentri Besar Ghani Othman, Perlis Mentri Besar Shahidan Kassim, and former Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Megat Junid Megat Ayob. Megat Junid was one of the key personalities responsible for Anwar Ibrahim's downfall. Mahathirís VP team was dubbed the ďNGO team Ē- Najib, Ghani and Osu. Although Mahathir did not like Najib, he was forced to endose Najib when the latter received the largest number of nominations for the VPís post

In a major slap to his face, the delegates refused to go along with Mahathir, and instead elected Najib Tun Razak, Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Muhyiddin Yassin, as the vice-presidents. Najib is the current defence minister, Muhammad a disgraced former Selangor Menteri Besar who was caught with A$1.6 million in cash at Brisbane airport (he was later acquitted citing his 'poor comprehension of English' as the reason for not declaring the cash), while Muhyiddin is the current Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister. Muhyiddinís previous tenure as Johor Menteri Besar was marked by several questionable land deals in which he was alleged to have received a cut. More importantly, all three were part of Anwar Ibrahim's Vision Team in the 1993 UMNO General Assembly.

Shahidan Kassim and Megat Junid failed to get into the Supreme Council.

Ironically, by voting in the three to be next in line for the UMNO leadership, the delegates confirmed all the criticisms levied by UMNO detractors. None of the three are pro-reformers and their election suggested that reforms in UMNO will not be on the cards for some time to come. The opposition Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) will likely benefit from UMNO's inability to reform. By rebuffing Mahathir, the delegates also succeeded in making the Anwar issue, hitherto seen as Mahathir's personal problem, into an UMNO problem.

Since Mahathir did not get what he wanted in the General Assembly, it can be safely concluded that there is now a clear vacuum in the continuity of Mahathir's leadership. Abdullah Badawi is widely seen as a weak successor to Mahathir, hence UMNO needs Mahathir now more than ever. The problem is that the longer Mahathir stays, the worse it is for UMNO. Many of the votes for the PAS in the last election were anti-Mahathir votes rather than pro-opposition votes. Hence, the statement by a senior leader of PAS that he wanted Mahathir to stay as UMNO leader 'as long as he likes'.

The two things Mahathir wanted from the General Assembly- burying the ghost of Anwar from UMNO politics and consolidating his support- were thus not fulfilled.

WATCHPOINT: Expect more turbulence in UMNO politics in the coming months.


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