Malaysia’s PM Extends Feud to Mahathir’s Son

The scorched-earth war between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his one-time mentor, former Premier Mahathir Mohamad, has extended to the northern state of Kedah, where Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, rules as chief minister.

The federal government in Putrajaya reportedly has cut budget allocations to the state, one of the country’s poorest, and is dragging its heels on a proposal by Mukhriz to build an airport in the city of Kulim which Mukhriz deems crucial to boosting the local economy. Reportedly other economic initiatives have been blocked through the federal government's refusal to pay full land premium for land that Mukhriz is attempting to convert to industrial uses. He is also encountering sniping from Najib forces in the state over his performance as chief minister

It was his father, Mahathir, who paved the way for Najib to become prime minister, first grooming him as defense minister, and then, in 2009 playing an instrumental role in driving his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from power. Anointed by Mahathir, Najib became prime minister only to lead the Barisan in 2013 to the first loss of the popular vote since 1969, although it retained its majority in parliament through gerrymandering.

Last August, after two years of behind-the-scenes impatience, Mahathir first announced on his blog, Che Det, that he was “withdrawing support” from the prime minister. His attacks have grown steadily more vitriolic as the months have worn on. Najib has returned the fire with increasing intensity, seeking to tie Mahathir to what he claims was a rigged attempt to discredit his 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state investment fund by a Swiss businessman and Clare Rewcastle Brown, a UK-based journalist who blogs at Sarawak Report. Brown has fired back with a libel demand against a research firm that claimed documents she printed had been doctored.

One thing is all but certain. While punishing Mukhriz by punishing Kedah may play well in UMNO circles, it is not going to have any effect on Mahathir’s vendetta against Najib. In fact, say sources in Kuala Lumpur, at the end of the official Muslim fasting period on July 17, the 90-year-old Mahathir intends to increase the pressure on Najib to resign.

“He has never given up in his attempts to get rid of people he wants to destroy in the past, and he has every intention of doing it to Najib,” a Kuala Lumpur source told Asia Sentinel. “He never let up on [former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi], he even attacked Dollah’s dead wife.”

Mahathir’s ambition for Mukhriz, one of his seven children, three of them adopted, is said to be for him to eventually claim the job of prime minister. But with Mahathir already after him over the April 2013 general election, Najib and his slate froze Mukhriz and other members of the Mahathir wing out of all leadership positions within UMNO in party elections later in the year.

Najib pushed Mukhriz as Kedah chief minister in the general election because of the popularity of the Mahathir name in the successful effort to wrest the state back from Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the rural-based Islamic fundamentalist party. It is a position the 50-year-old Mukhriz has turned to with relish. The airport is one of six major projects he outlined to industrialize the state, which produces half of Malaysia’s rice.

With a population that is nearly 80 percent Muslim, Kedah is of vital importance to UMNO but, according to Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob, a lawyer with links to Mukhriz, Najib’s strategy of attempting to throttle the state economically to get at the chief minister’s father is a mistake that risks driving it back into the hands of PAS, which ruled it from 2008 to 2013, and has recently intensified its own criticism of Mukhriz.

“The general feeling on the part of Kedahans is that they are being squeezed," Imran said. “There is a real impact on the ground. But there is a danger because it is a swing state. UMNO regained it from PAS [in the 2013 general election] due to promises made that having UMNO would pave the way for development.”

Indeed, last week Ahmad Yahaya, the PAS information chief in Kedah, told local reporters that after two years under the national ruling coalition, “It is proven that Mukhriz has failed to continue with various plans to lead Kedah towards the betterment of all of its people. In fact, all of the dreams he spoke about previously appear to be just that, dreams.”

PAS, Imran said, is improving its chances for the next election after having returned to its fundamentalist roots, which appeal to the rural Malays who make up the vast bulk of the party’s voters in Kedah.

Other attempts have been made to discredit Mukhriz, with charges that Islamic schools in the state were hotbeds of terrorist education. Lebai Sudina, a Kedah state assemblyman, issued a statement in April saying Mukhriz should resign as UMNO leader in the state if he didn’t declare his support for Najib’s leadership.

Mukhriz has remained largely silent, although he did join criticism of the debt-ridden 1MDB’s sale of land to the Muslim Pilgrim’s Fund [Tabung Haji] at an inflated price that many other critics said was an attempt to funnel public money to the investment fund in an effort to keep it afloat.