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No end to political woes in Malaysia

Updated On: Oct 31, 2006

With higher visibility of the disturbing trend of increasing racial and religious segregation and intolerance growing in Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has called on Malaysians to learn to be more tolerant so that race and religion will no longer be sensitive issues in the future.  

In what must be a broad response to the recent furore about the country’s affirmative action policy, Abdullah said the country’s development was aimed at helping all Malaysians.   “If there are policies which appear to favour certain groups, these have only been decided upon after considering all factors, including the 'balance' that has to be achieved,” he said.

Abdullah has also finally broken his long silence amidst what is now developing to be an all out war between former premier Mahathir Mohamad and himself.  Responding to Mahathir’s renewed criticism following their failed ‘peace meeting’, Abdullah said he was ‘saddened’ and ‘disappointed’ that his predecessor had not waited for his explanation; but instead chose to continue his attacks with “stronger doses of venom”.  But more than just responding, Abdullah too has upped the ante, hitting back with a tit-for-tat at Mahathir’s accusations of corruption, nepotism and running a police state.  This flurry of heated remarks is a marked change in tone from Malaysia’s Prime Minister; who had previously left others to respond and defend his administration against Mahathir’s attacks.  Shattering hopes for any resolution of the most bitter political row to grip the nation in recent times, this has also signalled that Abdullah is ready to shed his 'Mr Nice Guy' image and take Mahathir head-on.

On Friday (27 October), Mahathir delivered his latest attack, issuing an open letter carried by both The Star and New Straits Times, addressed to the 'citizens of Malaysia', accusing his successor of clamping down on criticism and causing “a climate of fear” to envelop Malaysia.  The newspapers also published accompanying reports listing point-by-point rebuttals of Mahathir’s accusations, even quoting opposition members who noted that their views receive more coverage in the media under the Abdullah administration.  This gesture by the papers perhaps was deliberate as carrying all these criticisms by Mahathir clearly then negate the point that Mahathir made about the “climate of fear”.

Mahathir’s belated enthusiasm for clean government and outspoken democratic debate likely hits a tragi-comic note of irony for Malaysians who have known his intolerance of criticism during his 22 years in power – tight control over the media, blatant disregard for the independence of the judiciary and of course, the Anwar Ibrahim saga.  As one minister described it, Mahathir has “easily forgotten” his “era of dictatorship”.

In an editorial on Thursday (26 October), Malay-language daily Berita Harian said that if Malaysians were unclear before about the motives of Mahathir, it is now clear that his goal is to topple Abdullah.  “If before this, the people still respected Dr Mahathir…his latest criticism is chipping away at this respect,” it said.

Many Umno ministers have used much stronger words, blasting Mahathir’s attacks as being baseless and without credibility.  Over the weekend (28-29 October), government-linked newspapers published several articles detailing the criticism of Mahathir coming from each Umno constituency.  Increasingly however, the reports concentrate more on how ‘sick and tired’ politicians are of Mahathir’s tirade.  Noting the negative effects the criticisms have on the party and country, politicians are urging that the mud-slinging not be allowed to distract from the country’s development agenda.  Brushing aside Mahathir’s latest allegations, Deputy Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin said Umno Youth was “concentrating more on the real struggles, which are the implementation of the Ninth Malaysia Plan, the Malay agenda and preparing for the next general election”. 

Adding further cracks to Mahathir’s standing, several ministers have been making the call for Mahathir to leave Umno and resign from his positions in government bodies for criticising the government.  Senior Umno members are expected to discuss Mahathir's roles as adviser to national oil company Petronas, carmaker Proton and the Langkawi Development Authority this Thursday (2 November).

In a prelude to Anwar Ibrahim’s impending return to full-time politics in the opposition Keadilan party, Mahathir’s former deputy has also joined in the fray, calling on the national leadership to stop the bickering and concentrate on tackling the problem of an economic slowdown.  What Malaysian newspapers did not report is how Anwar backs Mahathir criticism of Malaysia as a police state, saying the matter “must be discussed and deliberated fully”, calling it “incumbent for the present leadership not to repeat the blunders of the past” and that “there is no point for the government to be in a state of denial."

The latest chapter of this increasingly epic saga looks to set the stage for a battle to the bitter end.  But with the feud dominating the political scene for well over a year now, the real question is, when will it end and what will the outcome be?

Sources:

PM: Be more tolerant to boost multi-racial ties (The Star, 29 October 2006)

Abdullah saddened by Dr M's 'stronger doses of venom' (The Straits Times/The Star/New Straits Times, 27 October 2006)

Mahathir says family is being harassed, new allegations against PM (The Straits Times/AP, 27 October 2006)

Stage set for a battle to the bitter end (The Straits Times, 28 October 2006)

Mahathir slams Abdullah's 'henchmen' in Net posting (The Straits Times, 28 October 2006)

Malaysians enjoying new climate of expression (New Straits Times, 28 October 2006)

Mahathir tirade draws barrage of criticism (The Straits Times, 30 October 2006)

‘Remarks by ex-PM don’t affect me’ (The Star, 29 October 2006)

‘Sick and tired’ of Dr M (The Star, 28 October 2006)

Anwar backs Dr M's criticism (Today/AFP, 30 October 2006)

Mahathir may be dumped as Malaysian advisor: report (Channel News Asia/AFP/dt, 30 October 2006)