Former Malaysian PM Mahathir Turns on Najib

After months of behind-the-scenes criticism, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has publicly withdrawn his support for the current premier, Najib Tun Razak, likening Najib to the emperor with no clothes.

Mahathir delivered a blistering verdict on his blog, Che Det, in Malay language, citing a litany of sins on the part of Najib, who came to power in April of 2009 – after Mahathir led a successful months-long charge to get rid of his own successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. As the story unfolds, Najib is overseas on a controversial holiday in the Cote d’Azur, Sardinia, Rome, London and other destinations.

It has long been thought that Mahathir has held his fire on Najib out of loyalty to Najib's father, Tun Abdul Razak, who once rescued Mahathir from the political wilderness after he had been kicked out of the United Malays National Organization for attacking Tunku Abdul Rahman, "Bapak Malaysia," the country's first prime minister and founder. It now remains to be seen how much clout the 89-year-old Mahathir retains after leaving the premiership in 2003 after 22 years in the job.

Some political analysts believe he will now crisscross the country, as he did in his campaign against Badawi, delivering criticism of Najib. He appears surprisingly sprightly for his age, reportedly, insiders say, from visits to doctors in Switzerland. But so far, none of UMNO's leaders have publicly stepped up to support Mahathir’s gambit.

There is some speculation that Mahathir won’t push for Najib’s defenestration but will use his public stance to push the prime minister in ways he wants him to go. He has been critical of the government’s decision to nationalize the badly ailing Malaysian Airlines in the wake of two tragic crashes that took more than 500 lives, reportedly trying to give the airline to an unnamed businessman. Najib has apparently also ignored a request to build a bigger airport in Kedah, where Mahathir’s son serves as chief minister.

Ironically, Mahathir’s denunciation and the furor it is raising also takes some of the pressure off opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who for weeks has faced a rebellion in his own coalition over his attempts to name his wife the chief minister of Malaysia’s biggest state.

“Mahathir doesn’t have the organization, and he doesn’t have the money to go after Najib,” said a high-ranking opposition figure. “But this has the effect of delegitimizing him.”

Ironically, according to one Malaysian politician, Mahathir has sought to bring down virtually every prime minister who preceded him and the two who succeeded him. He was kicked out of the party for his criticism of Tunku Abdul Rahman and worked to end the career of Hussein Onn as well, whom he succeeded in 1981.

However, Najib so far has appeared unassailable after having won reelection as head of UMNO, the biggest ethnic party in the ruling national coalition, without opposition last October – in the process leading a coalition that defeated Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, for a seat as one of UMNO’s vice presidents.

Muhyiddin Yassin, the 67-year-old deputy prime minister and deputy party head, has indicated he would like to retire. After Muhyiddin, there appear to be few rivals within UMNO who could challenge Najib. Hishamuddin Hussein, 53, the defense minister, has been mentioned, although privately within the party he is perceived as somewhat lackluster. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the home minister, is considered to be too volatile as a former ally of Anwar who jumped ship to go back to UMNO.

Mahathir has long been critical of Najib behind the scenes because of the ruling national coalition’s performance in the 13th general election in May 2013, in which the coalition lost the popular vote - 47.38 percent to 50.87 percent for the Pakatan Rakyat opposition led by Anwar. However, gerrymandering and the first-past-the-post electoral system allowed the coalition to take 133 seats in the parliament to 89 for the opposition.

With former finance minister Daim Zainuddin as his sidekick, Mahathir last year deployed a small army of bloggers to criticize Najib, with one likening him to a “flattened bug on the windshield” in August of 2013 because of UMNO's election performance. Mahathir and Daim went after Najib over his strategy of trying to reach out to the country's minority Chinese and Indian races in the May election.

The mainstream media, all of which are owned by parties connected to the ruling coalition, have kept a blackout on Mahathir’s criticisms of the prime minister, leaving them to blogs and opposition websites like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today. Now, however, as Mahathir has gone public some observers believe the mainstream media will be more forthcoming.

In 2013, Mahathir and Daim advocated a strident Malay nationalism to lure ethnic Malays, who make up 60.1 percent of the population, to the polls. However, on the Malaysian Peninsula, ethnic Malays voted in large numbers for the opposition Islamic party PAS and Anwar’s moderate Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The Barisan was only saved from worse defeat by ethnic voters from Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia.

It is Najib’s performance since, especially in the past few weeks, that has particularly raised not just Mahathir’s anger but that of a considerable segment of the electorate. As prime minister he has appeared surprisingly indecisive. And, after flying to Amsterdam aboard a private jet to deliver an eloquent speech in remembrance of the victims of the shooting down of MAS Flight 17 over rebel-held Ukrainian territory, Najib, his wife and a flock of cronies went on holiday.

Najib is due to return to Malaysia on Aug. 22 for a day of national remembrance for the victims of MH17. However, he has delayed requests to have the bodies of the victims sent back so that they can arrive when he does, according to well-placed source in Kuala Lumpur. That has reportedly also infuriated Mahathir.

In his blog, Mahathir referred to the tale of King Canute, who put his throne on the beach facing the sea and commanded the waves not to get him wet, as well as to Hans Christian Anderson's fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, about an emperor whose courtiers were frightened to tell him that the new suit he thought he was wearing was actually not there, and that he was naked until an unawed little boy pointed it out, an apparent reference to the timidity of the courtiers in the administrative capital of Putrajaya to point out Najib’s shortcomings.

He accused Najib of using government funds to buy voters’ support during elections, of favoring imported goods and neglecting local industry, of increasing the minimum wage regardless of cost-of-living increases, of damaging race relations and causing economic and financial damage to the country.