The kid gloves come off in the battle between Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and former premier Mahathir Mohammad as the fight involving the two camps becomes increasingly acrimonious.
In the past few months of attack from Mahathir, Abdullah has chosen to ignore Mahathir’s barbed words, but last week marked a turning point in their battle as Abdullah chose to go public in his defence against his predecessor’s escalating and increasingly personal attacks. Speaking to civil servants in Pahang last Thursday (10 August), Abdullah explained his style of governing, saying that he preferred a consultative style of government, instead of making "unilateral" decisions which often times, may cause mistakes – a pointed reference to Mahathir’s style and his mega-projects – his scrapping of which Mahathir has claimed compromises public interests. Abdullah told Malaysians they can, “Go ahead and criticise but make sure you are sincere in wanting to improve the country” – a statement that Malaysian media reported would have had a special meaning to those who have attacked his style of governance and accused him of selling the country's interests.
It is evident that despite Abdullah becoming more public on these issues, his responses have so far remained restrained – avoiding direct Mahathir-style personal attacks –choosing to respond without mentioning names or responding to specific accusations. This tactic has so far kept Abdullah at a higher moral ground as he continues to cultivate his image as being more preoccupied with the country’s development plans.
The row has led to worries among Umno members of growing strife within the party, and concerns that opposition parties will capitalise on the bitter public spat. While the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) leaders have been careful not to attack Mahathir despite his vitriolic remarks about the Government because of the stature he enjoys, there now appears to be a growing feeling in Umno that Mahathir’s incessant attacks on Abdullah and the current leadership need to be rebuffed. This is especially so since they note that what began as an exercise to obtain answers to some questions has morphed into quite a different campaign – with reports that Mahathir is out to topple his successor, creating fears over growing divisions in the party.
In his typical fighting mode, Mahathir has begun circulating a letter to all three million Umno rank-and-file, alleging that the party's leadership was stifling him by pressuring Umno groups to cancel party speaking engagements. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Petaling Jaya North Umno youth wing on Saturday (12 August), Mahathir denied he was causing divisions within Umno or that he wanted to see Abdullah step down. In what is perhaps an ominous message, Mahathir told Umno members that it was in their power to decide whether Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi should continue in his post. On the same day, Najib reminded Umno party members to be loyal and supportive of the party president at all times, saying it was not Umno’s way to have gatherings attended by members of the opposition to solve problems within the party.
In what appears to be a score for Mahathir, deputy chief of Umno youth wing, Khairy Jamaluddin, stung by Mahathir's allegations, on Friday (11 August) sold his shares in the high-profile ECM Libra Avenue financial company after claims he had obtained them through nepotism. Singled out as the first casualty of the Mahathir attacks, Malaysian reports of Khairy’s loss of almost RM200,000 after selling off his entire stake in the investment bank are angled to make Khairy out to be the good guy in this story. He told the media that despite the losses, he was proud to have sold the shares to a company controlled by a Malay bumiputera, even though he had received better offers from non-bumiputera companies. Khairy said he left the company so that its image would not be tarnished as people had cast suspicion on him, and the sale would ensure all criticisms about his stake would end. Alluding to the white-washing intention of the sale, Khairy said, “Especially as Abdullah's son-in-law, I must be whiter than white.” Analysts note that the loss is perhaps an illustration of the pressure Khairy was under. A political analyst said Khairy's departure from ECM could take the punch out of Mahathir's attacks against him to some extent. It would mean that he will be on a stronger footing if the government decides to fight the former premier.
Speculation is rife that the political row could trigger more business casualties. It is believed that the government has decided to go on the offensive soon, and this could include scrutinising the business dealings of Mahathir's sons.
Despite this episode, Khairy seems bent on giving Mahathir a graceful exit option. He said Umno Youth has no grudge against former Umno president Mahathir, and its members have been told not to show disrespect towards the former party leader. He said Mahathir might have sincere intentions in raising certain issues of late because he was speaking in the interest of the nation, “However, I feel there are certain parties who are out to instigate and influence Dr Mahathir into launching his attacks against the current leadership.”
The Mahathir-Abdullah spat has also dragged in the issue of Singapore companies taking stakes in Malaysian firms. Investments from Singapore have been thrown into the spotlight after Abdullah, in a widely viewed television interview rebutting Mahathir’s attacks, last week was asked why Singapore firms often get negative reactions over deals. The Straits Times reported that if nothing else, an issue Singapore companies must watch out for is how the Republic is often used as the bogeyman by both Umno and the opposition. As Parti Islam SeMalaysia central committee member Syed Azman Syed Nawawi puts it, Singapore is often used as a punching bag to divert attention from the real problems simply because no one loses any points when they attack Singapore.
This is Abdullah's style (Today/Agencies, 11 August 2006)
PM warns of 'lies of the devil' (New Straits Times, 11 August 2006)
Mahathir out to topple Abdullah? (Today/AFP, 14 August 2006)
KL political row could trigger more business casualties (Business Times, 14 August 2006)
S’pore investments become KL political fodder (The Straits Times, 14 August 2006)
Khairy sells off entire stake in bank to silence critics (The Straits Times, 13 August 2006)
Mahathir tells Umno members: You have the power to decide whether Abdullah stays as PM (The Straits Times, 13 August 2006)
Mahathir wants to topple PM - says minister (New Straits Times, 13 August 2006)
Some out to instigate Mahathir (The Star, 12 August 2006)
Be loyal, Umno members reminded (The Star, 13 August 2006)