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Abdullah-Mahathir spat resurfaces after brief quiet

Updated On: Oct 17, 2006

After a brief period of peace in the month of Ramadan, the long-standing Abdullah-Mahathir spat is resurfacing as the two politicians restart their political rhetoric amidst continued debate over equity issues in Malaysia.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last week stepped up his attacks when he said that his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was jeopardising the country's economic growth and that confidence in his administration was waning.  In an interview with Bloomberg on 9 October, Mahathir criticized Abdullah’s policy emphasis and for neglecting  the tech sector.

Abdullah too received high-profile coverage following an interview with CNN aired last Saturday (14 October).  Predictably, the interview touched on Abdullah’s reactions to his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad’s criticisms.  Abdullah noted that one issue that triggered the current spat between Mahathir and himself, was the former premier's projects.  For example, he cited the canning of the mega project to build a bridge to replace the Causeway as a reason for the currently testy relationship.  Abdullah described the reason for the cancellation as being very practical – simply that it was not a “matter of life and death” for the country.

Dismissing the view that he was committing political suicide for taking on a well-regarded, long-ruling leader, he said he has “decided to keep quiet” and continue his policies.  Abdullah also emphasised that he still commands majority support today.

In a rare move since the beginning of the spat, Abdullah went as far as to concede that while Mahathir should be admired for achievements during his 22-year tenure, “Today, when he begins his criticism, not everybody appreciates it”.

What must continue to haunt Abdullah is that the Kubang Pasu saga refuses to die down.  The Umno disciplinary board is currently investigating allegations of money politics at the Kubang Pasu division meeting where Mahathir lost his bid to be elected as a delegate to the Umno general assembly.

Abdullah also made a comment related to the ongoing equity debate raging on in Malaysia.  He told CNN that Chinese in Malaysia are better off than Malays, and “They have been so successful because we give them opportunities to be successful”.

While the politically sensitive issue of race has hindered debate on Malaysia’s controversial affirmative action New Economic Policy (NEP) for years, the furore caused by the conflicting bumiputera equity ownership data produced by the government versus that by the Asian Strategy Leadership Institute (Asli), has forced the debate open. 

Opposition Gerakan president Lim Keng Yaik on Saturday (14 October) called for transparency on how the government worked out this data.  His comments drew quick disagreement from Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who warned that the government's integrity must not be questioned.  He also said the government’s methodology to calculate the equity ownership could be disclosed if necessary and emphasized that the data, which is being used to justify the New Economic Policy (NEP), was based on an overall picture and was not 'modified' to reflect the interests of any particular community.  Najib also said, “the majority of non-bumiputeras understand the need and support government efforts for a more balanced distribution of wealth with bumiputeras” through the NEP.

Lim used the common reason cited for the continuation of the affirmative action policy – that the 18.9 per cent ownership achieved by bumiputeras is far short of the 30 per cent target set 36 years ago under the New Economic Policy – to argue that the figures are proof of the lack of success of the existing system and therefore should be overhauled with new methods included.Several top Malaysian politicians, businessmen and leaders of non-governmental organisations say that the NEP, first conceived as a far-reaching plan to eradicate poverty, has morphed into a form of cronyism that greases the entrenched political patronage system that grips the country's ruling Umno party. While the programme can claim some degree of success – having been hijacked by politics – it has also spawned widespread resentment, largely because wealth has been poorly distributed.

While most Malay opposition politicians, businessmen and NGO leaders largely agreed that Asli's findings on Malay corporate wealth were far from accurate, some disagree with the government's stand that the pro-Malay programme should not be open to public debate as a refusal “to debate on the policy shows that the government is reluctant to confront the shortfalls of the NEP”.

Sources:

Probe into money politics allegations (The Star, 13 October 2006)

Abdullah reveals why he canned bridge project (The Straits Times, 15 October 2006)

Tech sector is neglected: Mahathir (The Straits Times/Bloomberg, 13 October 2006)

PM on CNN Talk Asia: ‘Bridge nothing to do with issue of integrity’ (New Straits Times, 15 October 2006)

Pak Lah: I’m still the commander (The Star, 15 October 2006)

This country that we love belongs to all of us...(New Straits Times, 15 October 2006)

Keng Yaik: Tell us how you worked out figure (New Straits Times, 15 October 2006)

Gerakan wants transparency in bumiputera data (The Straits Times, 16 October 2006)

Najib: Way govt counts equity holding no secret (New Straits Times, 16 October 2006)

Government prepared to show how it calculated bumi equity share (The Star, 16 October 2006)

M'sian govt willing to release ethnic wealth data (The Straits Times/AP, 16 October 2006)

Policies that give all a chance to prosper (New Straits Times, 15 October 2006)

Non-bumiputera communities understand and support affirmative action under the NEP, says Najib (New Straits Times, 14 October 2006)

Malay critics say debate on NEP needed (The Straits Times, 14 October 2006)