More than Candles at Stake as Mahathir and Najib Hold Dueling Parties

On Friday, July 24, a unique political contest will take place in Kuala Lumpur: competing birthday parties for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his nemesis, former Premier Mahathir Mohamad, who is determined to drive Najib from office.

The simultaneous events have Malaysia’s elites trying to figure out which party to attend, or attend first, or for how long. It will be possible to attend both, but according to a politically well-wired source, both sides will be watching to see who is going to attend what party first, and for how long.

"The tan sris and datuks are in disarray," chortled a source, referring to titles bestowed on well-connected Malasyians.

Najib was born 62 years ago on July 23, Mahathir was born 90 years ago on July 10, but was unable to celebrate his birthday on that date because of the onset of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Last year, both birthdays fell inside Ramadan, during which celebrations must be postponed.

Vincent Tan, the billionaire who owes much of his fortune to Mahathir’s granting a non-tendered chance to buy the country’s lucrative lottery in 1985, reportedly sent out invitations to Mahathir’s party two months ago. As many as 1,000 people are expected to honor Mahathir at Tan’s convention hall in his Berjaya Times Square shopping center.

Najib appears to have miscalculated. His birthday actually is July 23 but apparently, a source said, the planning got underway just a few weeks ago and it was decided to postpone it until tomorrow because it means the next day isn’t a weekday. Reportedly Najib’s private secretary has been calling political figures, businessmen and others, asking them to make sure they attend his party.

The war between Najib and Mahathir has been going on either behind the scenes or out front for more than a year. After months of back-room criticism, Mahathir in August 2014 took to his popular blog, Che Det, to announce that he had publicly withdrawn his support for the man he anointed in 2009 after playing a decisive role in driving Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from office.

Their relationship has grown increasingly bitter, with Mahathir accusing Najib of deep involvement in the disastrous 1Malaysia Development Bhd state-backed investment fund and hinting that he may have had something to do with the 2006 death of Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu at the hands of two of Najib’s bodyguards, who were found guilty and sentenced to death. Najib has countered that Mahathir abandoned him because he refused to do the former premier’s bidding on white elephant projects.