Illness slows Mahathir’s attacks on his successor

It’s unclear today just how sick former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is after having been hospitalized Monday with what were described as breathing difficulties. But as much as anything, the 81-year-old former premier’s hospitalization has put on hold an increasingly frenetic schedule of bombarding his successor’s government with accusations of avarice, incompetence and treachery

Mahathir was first hospitalized on the island of Langkawi, where he spends much of his time to rest and relax. After the ailing former strongman was transferred to the National Heart Institute in Kuala Lumpur, his daughter, Marina Mahathir, told Asia Sentinel he was “much better” and an aide described his mood as “cheerful. Hospital officials said he could be discharged in a few days.

Mahathir had been on a whirlwind tour trying to influence United Malays National Organisation divisions and constituencies in a probably vain but certainly entertaining attempt to regain some of the clout he lost when he gave up the premiership in 2003, after 22 years in power. Over the weekend, just before his hospitalization, he attended an old boys’ gathering of the Class of ‘47, King Edward College of Medicine, Singapore in Bukit Merah, in the state of Perak. He also delivered a keynote address for an UMNO Youth event in Perak, with the packed hall cheering as he attempted to speak. Spectators egged him on as so-called “soft” campaigning intensifies for impending general elections expected in the near future. However, other than Perak, he has largely been frozen out of UMNO politics and has been reduced to jousting from the outside since August 2006, when he complained that party leaders had issued a gag order to keep him from talking to party branches and individual units.

Recent by-elections in the Ijok and Machap districts were hard fought by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition against the opposition Keadilan party, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s former deputy premier, whom Mahathir jailed on charges of sexual abuse and corruption that many observers thought were trumped up. The Barisan prevailed in both by-elections, although in the face of widespread allegations of vote-buying and other irregularities.

However, there were gains by the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) among Chinese voters in what political analysts describe as discontent over the pro-Bumiputera, or native Malay, affirmative action policy and the state of the economy.

Mahathir had urged voters to deliver a message to what he called the “rotten government” in the by-election, surprising many observers who perceived his words to be a call for voters to back the opposition. It wasn’t. Despite his beating up on the Barisan, he has said he would not support the opposition, because he does not want to be regarded as a traitor to UMNO.

On Sunday, the local tabloid The Star, controlled by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the ethnic Chinese party in the ruling coalition, carried a piece depicting Mahathir as possibly aiding the opposition. Mahathir denied the allegation and defended his right to speak out. Supporters say that this is just an attempt to label Mahathir as the enemy and isolate him from grassroots UMNO members.

Mahathir’s punishing schedule has been a cause of concern for his family, but the former premier didn’t let up until he was carted off to the hospital. This is perhaps his last hurrah, a final chance, as he sees it, to set things right and deliver a blow to the ruling coalition’s confidence in Abdullah Badawi.

It may be a Quixotic effort, as his influence seems inevitably to be waning along with his health. He was bitterly disappointed during the UMNO general assembly in October 2006, when he lost a divisional election and was denied the chance to address delegates in his quest to oust his successor.

Mahathir suffered a mild stroke in November last year, caused by a clot that restricted blood flow in one of his arteries, but subsequently recovered fully. He also suffered a heart attack in 1989 and underwent bypass surgery. Supporters flocked to the hospital hoping to get news on his condition and to see him, however doctors have advised that he rest and only close relatives are permitted to enter his ward.

Mahathir’s hospitalization was an added shock as it happened just a day after Internet rumors reported that Abdullah Badawi himself had collapsed. The Prime Minster denied the report and attributed his unsteadiness at a ceremony in Perak to heat exhaustion and lack of sleep the night before. His physicians say Abdullah Badawi is in good health.