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Has Mahathir lost the battle?

Updated On: Sep 05, 2006

Paying full heed to the fact that the 2007 budget will play an important role in swinging support amidst the ongoing spat with his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi last week unveiled a generous political budget dubbed by many as an “election budget”.

With goodies for almost all sectors of society, many see the normally prudent Abdullah’s announcement of a mega-project budget with a record development expenditure of RM46.4 billion as an attempt to win support from the ground in the face of political pressures and serious onslaught from Mahathir – criticisms among which include Abdullah’s handling of the economy.

Now with a budget to match the mega-projects of the ambitious Ninth Malaysia Plan – a plan that has earned Abdullah stronger grassroots support – the government is well-placed to rev up the economy.  More importantly, stepping up the roll-out of projects entails undoubted political pluses for Abdullah – it could be the magic bullet to undercut support for Mahathir. 

The mega-projects are expected to put an end to the complaints within Umno’s influential bloc of contractors and middlemen since talk in political circles has been that government contracts have all but dried up since Abdullah took over.  Earlier, Mahathir had capitalised on this well of discontent by accusing Abdullah of giving government contracts only to his cronies.  With the announcement of a mega-budget to meet the planned mega-projects however, it could well be that Umno's key warlords and members will be kept busy poring over tender documents, tax cuts and other goodies than tuning in to Mahathir's seemingly endless tirades against the government.

With Abdullah’s latest score, it appears that the verdict might really be out on the Abdullah-Mahathir battle – the predecessor may have truly been relegated to yesterday’s news.  How this came to pass could possibly be explained as a case of Mahathir moving too late to attack his successor, then finally misjudging the strength of support for Abdullah vis-à-vis that for himself.

Abdullah’s cautiously slow and conflict-adverse strategy during his first two years in office, while having attracted widespread criticism, now appears to have paid off in the long-run.  Having resisted rocking the boat earlier, Abdullah had given Mahathir no cause for concern – possibly explaining why the latter had, up till then, never expressed criticism of his chosen successor.  When Abdullah’s long-awaited cabinet reshuffle finally took place in February this year, observers bemoaned the lack of changes.  However, keeping the status quo has enabled Abdullah to secure the confidence and loyalty of the old guard.  So by the time things started unraveling for Mahathir - the release of Anwar Ibrahim, and the removal of Mahathir’s chosen head for car-maker Proton – and the senior statesman unleashed his fury, it was simply too late.  When push comes to shove, the incumbent now commands stronger loyalty than the waning feelings of gratitude many still hold for Mahathir.

The final battleground looks to be the upcoming Umno general assembly in November.  If Mahathir manages to get chosen as a delegate and speak at the assembly (SEAPSNet News – 25 August 2006), there may be hope for Mahathir yet.  But if his bid fails, Mahathir’s moment would have passed.  This fragile state of affairs reveals Mahathir’s limited options and the ineffectiveness of his campaign against his successor.

While Mahathir’s threats to reveal corruption in the government, though welcomed by the public, are not taken seriously, accusations of corruption will nonetheless continue to “haunt” Abdullah.  Indeed, Abdullah – who was elected on a campaign promise of corruption clean-up and integrity – has been forced to respond to accusations that his son, businessman Kamaluddin, had requested and received business favours from the government. 

Another danger zone for Abdullah is the worsening public spat between Malaccan Member of Parliament Mohd Said Yusof and the Customs Department.  The three-month-old saga of corruption accusations that raises prickly questions about the government’s efforts to fight corruption, is a case that continues to receive prominent coverage in the Malaysian press.  In a surprising turn of events, Abdullah confirmed that former-chief of the Backbenchers Club, Shahrir Samad was reprimanded and then forced to resign from his parliamentary post for supporting an opposition motion to probe Said for allegedly pressuring the Customs Department to “close one eye” over the seizure of a consignment of suspect Indonesian timber connected to his company.  The public has not been amused and the case has inevitably turned the spotlight on the government’s commitment to fight corruption. 

Sources:

Mega-project budget not a surprise (The Straits Times, 2 September 2006)

Was Mahathir lulled into waiting too long? (The Straits Times, 31 August 2006)

Abdullah asks Scomi for report on its activities (New Straits Times, 3 September 2006)

Malaysian MP vs Customs Dept (The Straits Times, 1 September 2006)