The chance to make peace with his successor at talks on Sunday did little to quiet Dr Mahathir’s sharp tongue
If Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi hoped to pull a nasty political thorn out of his side when he met his sharp-tongued predecessor Mahathir Mohammad on Sunday, he is likely disappointed. For months Mahathir has been twisting the knife into Badawi and he looks set to continue applying the pressure.
But while the meeting may have given the 82-year-old former prime minister plenty of time to vent, it’s questionable how much impact he will continue to have. Mahathir suffered a humiliating comedown in his attempt to win an ordinary member seat in a Kedah by-election in September, which would have given him the right to speak in national UMNO meetings. He was defeated on the party division ballot in a demonstration that Abdullah’s political strength is not waning despite Mahathir’s angry attacks.
Nonetheless, Mahathir came away from the two-hour meeting, billed by the enthusiastically pro-government New Straits Times as “peace talks,” saying he was satisfied to have aired his gripes. But he still wasn’t happy. He later told reporters, he spoke for an hour and a half whereas Abdullah touched on several issues in the remainder, “then stopped.”
Come what may, Mahathir attempted to use the meeting to serve notice on the current administration to get things right, not just in government and the lackluster economy but also inside the ruling United Malays National Organisation. Mahathir appears ready and willing to continue to encroach into Abdullah’s party domain despite his lack of success so far.
Mahathir said he told Abdullah it was not right to postpone triennial party elections in UMNO in 2007 even though he himself had done it before.
“The general election was not anytime soon, hence there was no reason for the election of UMNO office bearers to be delayed,” he said. Invariably, he claimed that many issues which he brought up weren’t touched on. Rather, Abdullah merely jotted everything into a little black book, he said.
"All the time I was talking he was jotting. It was thick. I hope following this meeting there will be some kind of action taken," he told reporters. And, he said, he reserves the right to speak out in future if he "found something wrong."
Over the last six months, Mahathir has been a constant critic of the government, to the extent of accusing Abdullah of nepotism, corruption and incompetence. Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah’s son-in-law, has borne the brunt of Mahathir’s bile, mainly over claims that Khairy holds undue influence over Abdullah in determining government and party policies.
Mahathir has also accused Kamaluddin Abdullah, Abdullah Badawi’s son, of receiving undue favors and contracts from the Malaysian government.
Now, however, Mahathir has taken after the government’s economic management as well. “I don't see any new projects coming in which would boost the economy,” he told Bloomberg in an interview last Monday.
“The last few years, I don't see any change for the better. It is affecting the nation and the growth of the country.”
Indeed, the 82-year-old firebrand, who publicly regrets handing Abdullah the top job in 2003, cast doubt on whether the prime minister was even fit for a second term. "It depends on how he performs," he said at the press conference after the Sunday meeting.
"I was there to tell him what I am not happy with. I was not going to suggest what he should do. But it is up to him to decide what to do," he told reporters.
Certainly what drew first blood was the scrapping of Mahathir’s cherished new bridge project between Malaysia and Singapore in March which earned an instant rebuke. Abdullah also has run into trouble over protection for the Proton, Malaysia’s perennially money-losing national car, as well as the distribution of approved permits for the import of foreign-manufactured vehicles.
For now, Mahathir affirmed to reporters that he will continue with his efforts to put a check on the government despite his advancing age.
"Of course I'm 82 years old. People believe that if they delay long enough this interfering nosey-parker will disappear and will not be able to speak."
Nevertheless, given the considerable power and resources of the incumbent, Abdullah has the distinct advantage. As interior minister as well as home affairs minister, he wields considerable clout over the machinery of the government.
The 9th Malaysian Plan (2006-2010) alone is embedded with contracts and licenses that could be dispensed at will to earn the loyalty of key members in UMNO. The failure of the “peace talks” aren’t expected, in the interim, to worry him much.