Mahathir and Najib in Divorce Court
The honeymoon between Malaysia's new prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, and the irascible 84-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who played a major role in driving Najib's predecessor from office, is over almost before it began.
Najib, gambling that the former premier's influence is waning within the ranks of the United Malays National Organisation, has broken decisively over a number of hot-button issues with Mahathir, who held office for 22 years before stepping down in 2003 in favor of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Many of them involve a cozier relationship with the Singapore government, with which Mahathir carried on a rocky relationship.
So far, Mahathir, although said to be privately furious with Najib, has held back from attacking him publicly.
"I believe this is for a number of reasons," says a lawyer with ties to the Mahathir faction. "Remember, we are after all in a recession -- and what good would it do to try to force him out in an all-out war? But Najib is pushing the envelope by making his own mistakes. I think the die is cast, but it's not full blown war yet."
Earning Mahathir's enmity could be dangerous. Badawi, who came into office as a reformer but stumbled, was attacked by Mahathir almost from the time he became prime minister, especially after cancelling a series of Mahathir's favorite projects. He was beset by a series of other problems, including a fading economy, perceptions of rising crime and a passive personality. He led his party to disastrous elections in 2008 in which the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition, lost its two-thirds hold on the national parliament for the first time since independence.
Given Badawi's weakness, it is questionable how much influence Mahathir actually had in engineering his downfall. Mahathir in 2007 left the party he had headed when the government announced he would be investigated on allegations he had rigged judicial appointments. Blasting away from the sidelines, he didn't return until April, when Badawi finally stepped down.
Nor was he especially charitable to Najib. Although he returned to share the podium with Najib at the UMNO national conclave in April, those close to him say he regards Najib as a potentially weak leader because he didn't break with Badawi soon enough. He also is said to think Najib is tainted by a long series of scandals and, in the words of the source, is "yellow" because he lacked the nerve to take on the opposition in a by-election in the state of Penang that is set for May 31.
Najib, according to polls, actually took office with a lower approval rating than the ill-starred Badawi. Party insiders say he recognizes his weakness and feels he has to act fast to try to get the voters to forget his weaknesses. He has cracked down hard on protesters and the opposition at the same time he has instituted measures to try to revive the economy, which shrank at a disastrous 6.2 percent annual rate in the last quarter.
After appearing to embrace the idea of Mahathir's "crooked bridge" proposal to replace half of the narrow, congested causeway that links Singapore with the southern state of Johor, Najib has announced he would go along with a plan favored by the Singapore government for a third bridge. He has also publicly endorsed the massive Iskandar project directly across the causeway in Johor over the objections of Mahathir, who famously said Singaporeans would take over the project and drive Malays out to live in the forest.
Najib has also made a series of appointments to top positions in UMNO and the government over Mahathir's objections, including provisionally naming a former close Badawi associate, Omar Ong as a non-executive director of the state oil and gas company Petronas, which observers in Kuala Lumpur view as a prelude to making him the Petronas CEO when Hassan Merican is expected to retire in 2010. Ong is a member of a group called the "fourth-floor boys," top advisors to Badawi and Badawi's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, in particular a bête noir for Mahathir. To Mahathir's consternation, a number of the fourth-floor boys, perhaps Khairy himself, are gaining influence in Najib's government.
Despite Najib's early pledges to clean out the party and install reformers, as Mahathir has repeatedly demanded in his "Chedet" blog, Najib has also named several individuals to top UMNO party posts in the face of allegations that they were tainted by money politics. They include Mohd Ali Rustam, who was made a member of the UMNO Supreme Council after Ali Rustam had been suspended from competing for the job of party deputy vice president after being caught buying votes. Another is Rafidah Aziz, the long-time trade and industry minister who lost her job as head of the women's wing of the party because of allegations she had been steering contracts to members of her family.
In early April, Mahathir spoke out publicly against Najib's appointment of Mohamed Nazri Aziz as a cabinet minister and Johari Baharum as a deputy minister , whom he called "unsavory characters."
"It is quite obvious that he (Najib) does not depend upon me, for example, he appointed ministers, deputy ministers who I think don't deserve to be ministers, who are involved in corruption," he told reporters.
Most recently, on May 18 Najib announced he wouldn't lead the Barisan Nasional into contesting a by-election in the Penanti district of Penang State, where an opposition figure, Mohammad Fairu Khairuddin, quit as a state assemblyman after stepping down as Penang deputy chief minister in a spat with party leaders. Mahathir told Najib to find a candidate to go for the seat and reportedly said he would lead the campaign himself, although the opposition is extremely strong in the district and so far the Barisan has lost five out of six by-elections since disastrous national elections in March of 2008.
Najib appears to be gambling that the dyspeptic former leader's influence has waned to the point where he can't do the kind of damage to Najib that he did to Badawi. In an unsigned article that appeared last week in the Internet publication Malaysia Insider, the author said that "Pragmatism, and not bending to the will of former prime ministers, has emerged as the dominant principle behind decision-making in the early days of the Najib administration. (Najib) seeks to reconnect the Barisan Nasional government with the elusive non-Malay and younger vote bank."
Najib, the article said, fears leading the Barisan into defeat in the next general election, and that he has less than two years to win back some of the support that has evaporated to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat.
Accordingly, Najib has opened the financial services sector to multinational investors, removed affirmative action quotas for 27 sub-sectors in the services sector and taken on the emotion-laden issue of religious conversion, in which some parents who have converted to Islam have attempted to take their children with them into the new religion over the objections of their spouses. That is particularly galling to the UMNO old guard, who have never given up a single convert from Islam.
Najib faces serious challenges. In addition to the widespread perception of his own corruption in connection with billions of dollars in contracts let to UMNO cronies when he was defense minister, he has the continuing millstone of the economy around his neck. As late as two weeks ago, the stimulus package he put into place was expected to result in gross domestic product growth of plus or minus 1 percent. However, the economy slipped disastrously, by 6.2 percent year-on-year in the first quarter and Najib said Thursday that it could contract by as much as 4 to 5 percent for the full year.
And, as Mahathir has pointed out, despite his promises to rid the party of the old-guard rent-seekers that got UMNO in trouble with the wider public prior to the 2008 election, he has brought them back in growing numbers.