Mahathir Quits the United Malays National Organisation

Outraged at an order by Malaysia’s cabinet to investigate him on charges of judicial corruption, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has resigned from the United Malays National Organisation, to which he had belonged since 1946, and demanded that other UMNO members follow him out of the party until his successor is overthrown.

Mahathir’s decision to quit can be expected to throw the country’s biggest ethnic political party into even more disarray than it is already experiencing. Although he has been out of power for six years, Mahathir is believed to control as much as half the party at the division levels. Speculation is that he would form a new ethnic political party. Taking members of parliament out of UMNO, the lead party in the ruling national coalition, which would cut its 140-82 seat majority by an as-yet undetermined number, could well spell the end of the coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for five decades.

UMNO has been riven with problems since disastrous March 8 elections that culminated in the coalition’s worst showing since 1969 and cost it its historic two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament. It is looking squarely down the gun barrel of the Pakatan Rakyat, the three-party opposition coalition whose de facto leader, former deputy prime minister and onetime Mahathir acolyte Anwar Ibrahim, has boasted he would be heading a majority in parliament by August.

UMNO Secretary General Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansur, who like Mahathir is a target of the investigation into judicial corruption, is said to be expected to follow Mahathir out of the party. It is uncertain how many others will do the same. But despite the fact that Mahathir himself had stepped down as prime minister in 2002 and for several years was looked upon as largely a spent force, since the election he has been picking up steam with relentless demands that Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, his successor, be forced out of office to take responsibility for the coalition’s poor showing. Much of the antipathy within UMNO is directed against Prime Minister Badawi’s son-in-law, Kairy Jamiluddin, who is regarded as having too much influence with Badawi.

Much of the opposition to Badawi has coalesced around the 82-year-old former prime minister. “A lot of people are upset at the way Dr M is being treated,” said a source in Kuala Lumpur. If Mahathir leads a lot of members out of the party, given its current chaotic condition, it could well collapse outright.

Certainly, Mahathir retains a lot of clout. Great numbers of rank and file party members and leaders came into the party during his 22 years as prime minister, during which he was a driving force for industrialization of the country. Powered by palm oil, tin, rubber and crude as well as electronics exports, the country enjoyed healthy growth through much of his time in office. Although the economy has continued to chug along, rising concern over Malaysia’s economic performance and perceptions of rising inflation played a role in the March election as well.

Under Mahathir’s reign, however, UMNO came under increasing criticism for creating a favored class of rent-seeking ethnic Malays who were skimming off the country’s wealth while the rural poor and urban Malays were being left behind and other ethnic minorities were also left out. Perceived corruption also played a role in losses by the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, the other two major parties in the national coalition. There were also growing concerns about Malay insistence on ethnic superiority, which offended minority Chinese and Indians who opted for the opposition Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Anwar’s party, while disaffected Malays moved to both Parti Keadilan and the fundamentalist Parti se-Islam Malaysia, or PAS.

The judicial scandal began when Anwar made public an eight-minute segment of a 2002 videotape showing the well-connected lawyer VK Lingam in conversation with Ahmad Fairuz, Sheikh Abdul Halim, then the country’s third-ranking judge. The release of the videotape played a major role in energizing opposition to the Barisan Nasional independence.

The conversation appeared to indicate that Mahathir was closely involved in the appointment of malleable judges although appointments are supposed to be made by the court system itself. The videotape shows that some of Mahathir’s closest cronies, particularly gaming tycoon Vincent Tan, were involved as well. Ahmad Fairuz later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, now called the Federal Court.

After weeks of stalling, during which its own “independent” inquiry commission investigated the allegations but never issued a report, the government finally acceded to the appointment of the Royal Commission of Inquiry. The five-person commission was first scheduled to report its findings on March, 11, but it was delayed. The panel agreed in a two-volume report that the video was authentic, that indeed Lingam was speaking with Ahmad Fairuz, and that there was sufficient evidence of misdoing to refer the matter for prosecution.

While the cabinet was trying to figure out what to do with the report, it was leaked to The Star, the leading English-language daily in Malaysia, which is controlled by the Malaysian Chinese Association. Political observers say the story would never have been allowed to surface unless Badawi and his loyalists had made it available to the paper. The government reportedly has started an investigation into how The Star got its hands on the royal commission report. Subsequent reports surfaced in other government-controlled newspapers as well.

Mahathir loyalists have fired back at Badawi, with one, Mohd Yacob Karim, who describes himself as a nonpartisan lawyer, delivering a printed statement saying that Mahathir had the right “to put forward any other name he deems fit for reasons best known to him which as prime minister he is not entitled to disclose with anyone else or the Chief Justice who may have recommended a name. If the prime minister cannot make that final decision, who else can--the Chief Justice?”

If Mahathir was guilty of influencing judicial appointments, Mohd Yacob argued, Badawi had done the same thing most recently over the appointment of Zaki Azmi, who was “parachuted in sometime last year as the President of the Court of Appeal and who all things being equal in October would most probably take the seat of the Chief Justice of Malaysia.

“Isn’t there a form of lobbying or brokering of his appointment with Abdullah Badawi as prime minister of Malaysia? Didn’t Abdullah Badawi have the right or to make a final decision on the appointment of Tan Sri Zaki Tun Azmi? By analogy of the findings of the Royal Commission, shouldn’t Abdullah Badawi similarly be probed for offences in parachuting the appointment of Tan Sri Zaki straight as the President of the Court of Appeal of Malaysia notwithstanding there is no video clip in play?”