19 November 2006
Why has Mahathir gone radical?
In an article published recently, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review Michael Vatikiotis wonders why a man like former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, ďwho led his country to such great economic heights, and in the process established global stature for himselfĒ tries to tear it all down in retirement?
In fact, such a question has often been posed since the 1997 Asian financial crisis and consequent developments in Malaysia including Mahathirís differences with his then deputy and favourite successor Anwar Ibrahim. In the post- 1997crisis years, Mahathir has radicalized his rhetoric, sharply and openly attacking †Jews, the Americans, and Western institutions and scapegoating them for his countryís problems. This was in contrast to his long pragmatic policy and realistic view of the world. But with his departure from power in October 2003, such a trend has become stronger, making the architect of Malaysiaís economic miracle and the man once known as the front of all wisdom almost as radical as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In recent months, however, Mahathir has turned his cannons at his old colleagues in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), unleashing almost daily public criticism against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmed Badawi, accusing him of corruption and nepotism, and claiming he did not pick him as his successor.
This, of course, differs from the case of his old sparring partner in Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who has, since his resignation, been playing the role of father who would arbitrate quarrels rather than create them.
Explaining Mahathirís radicalization, some analysts attributed it to his hunger for publicity. According to them, those who have long been in power like Mahathir find it difficult not to be in the limelight after they leave power. They, therefore, do anything to attract media attention including the embracement of ideas or roles that contrast with their nature and previous political history.
As far as Mahathirís radical rhetoric regarding his countryís affairs is concerned, analysts hold that it has something to do with his successorís policy. Unlike his expectation that Badawi would not have the necessary power, charisma, or determination to initiate changes, the latter has proved the opposite. Badawi launched a new policy aimed at ridding the ruling UMNO and public service of corruption, eradicating corporate cronyism, investigating the Malaysian policeís violation of human rights, and bringing into government young politicians and successful diplomats. To ensure political stability and national unity, he also tried to put an end to divisions caused by the ignominious sacking and jailing of Mahathirís controversial deputy Anwar Ibrahim, by releasing him. With such a change, Badawi won a record landslide victory in the 2004 general election and succeeded in minimizing the power of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
This new political climate has reportedly irked Mahathir and his many allies and corporate favour-seekers who found themselves turned away from the Prime Ministerís Office. And with Badawiís recent decision to cancel the construction of a bridge that would have replaced part of the causeway between Singapore and Malaysia, a project that would have benefited many of Mahathirís cronies, the gap between former premier and his hand-picked successor has widened.
Regardless of reasons behind Mahathirís radicalization, his quarrel has not only tainted his image but also raised concerns overseas about Malaysiaís future. It has created a state in which the government lost its focus and the country seemed to be slipping out of sight in the region. As put by Vatikiotis, ďthe entire country comes to a standstill and fear stalks the landĒ.
Badawi, a soft-spoken, gentlemanly figure who lives by religious values and preaches tolerance, is not expected to fight back or challenge his old boss. He is likely to compromise at the expense of his reform programme, especially with the fact that Mahathir still has powerful friends in high places, and that several prominent figures in UMNO, particularly Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, wish to take the reins of power. It has been said that Razak, the eldest son of Malaysiaís second prime minister Abdul Razak and nephew of the third prime minister Hussein Onn, is favoured by Mahathirís cronies to replace Badawi. Razak is ambitious and not easy to be controlled by others, but like Mahathirís allies, he and members of his family are deeply involved in business. Moreover, despite his open support for his boss, there is no love lost between the two long-time cabinet colleagues according to UMNO insiders.
Some observers also argue that Badawi may call a snap national election in a bid to consolidate his power before problems further unravel and ahead of UMNO party elections which are scheduled to be held next year.
Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs