The drama surrounding a pepper spray attack on Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has caused a sensation in the country.
This came amid a climate of increasing religious tensions as well, and has prompted the government’s crackdown on traditional media and the internet.
The attack occurred shortly after Mahathir arrived in Kelantan state Friday (28 July), as he was preparing to address about 1,000 people at an airport in Kota Baru. While the Malaysian media had initially reported the incident as an attack on Mahathir, subsequent reports were revised to downplay the incident, quoting police claims that Mahathir was not the direct target of the attack, but that the substance had “accidentally splashed” on Mahathir in what the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) linked newspaper group, New Straits Times (NST) called a “farcical” scuffle between two factions of his supporters over “who had the right to chauffeur him to his hotel”. Police say the pepper spray had been aimed at the leader of the rival group.
Coming amid a bitter row between Mahathir and the new Abdullah administration, more important than the incident itself are the reactions stemming from it. NST reported the incident as having “increased the paranoia quotient among those who believe that it was staged to prevent Dr Mahathir from continuing his attacks against the Government.” The episode drew stern rebuke from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He ordered the matter to be “immediately resolved to avoid any negative implication and misconception among the people”, fearing that certain quarters would take advantage of the incident by disseminating rumours, especially through the Internet.
The incident has prompted Mahathir and government critics to suggest that the current leadership is trying to silence Mahathir.
Mahathir continued his scathing attacks on the government and Abdullah, and declared openly that he no longer supported Abdullah’s leadership. He accused the Abdullah administration of mismanaging the country by reversing his old policies - Abdullah has cancelled or put on hold several mega infrastructure projects proposed by Mahathir. He also made accusations of nepotism and played the race card, vowing to continue his attacks “for the good of the country”, “to save the ruling Umno”, and “for Malays”.
His comments were widely seen by observers as an escalation of the battle for the minds of Umno's three million members, even though he dismissed a suggestion that he was trying to make a comeback as PM. This has led observers to wonder if he had set his sights on unseating the Prime Minister, or have him edged out by someone more to his liking, with most putting their bets on Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. This has caused some unease in Umno's ranks, as well as in the Malaysian business community, where there is fear the ruling party might face a serious split and the government might be distracted by internal politicking.
Abdullah has so far stood his ground well in this battle – earning much respect for choosing not to respond to accusations, but responding with facts and figures such as the declassification of documents on the bridge, and his strong condemnation of the attack on Mahathir. With his Cabinet and state Umno leaders behind him, it’s business as usual for Abdullah who, in the midst of this drama, is busy pursing his own agenda – focused on fundamentals of rolling out the Ninth Malaysia Plan.
But more worrying than the escalating Mahathir vs Abdullah drama is the current climate of rising religious tensions, and its implications on freedom of public discourse and press freedom. Abdullah said the Cabinet had issued a directive to everyone, including the media, to avoid issues of race and religion that could create tension. “Do not force the Government to take action” was the stern warning from Abdullah to those who persist in “causing tension in the society by organising activities on racial and religious issues”, the Star reported.
Information Minister Datuk Zainuddin Maidin added that the government intended to impose control over internet media and blogs to stop the spread of “unfounded allegations that posed a threat to national security and racial unity.” Additionally, the Internal Security Ministry was investigating several websites for what it calls seditious and speculative reports about the pepper spray incident involving Mahathir.
The increased controls are a far cry from Abdullah’s loosening of the reins on public debate on race and religion after he took office in 2003. However, while liberals have been dissatisfied with the government’s decision to bow to pressure from protesting hardline Islamic groups on this matter and the abrupt order to stop all discussion without addressing the underlying problems, some such as law professor Shad Faruqi acknowledge that tensions were running high and “a cooling-off period would be good.” However, all agreed that some form of dialogue must return at some time.
Don’t underestimate Abdullah (The Straits Times, 31 July 2006)
Raise sensitive issues at your own peril (The Straits Times, 28 July 2006)
PM: Stop debate on religious issues (The Star, 28 July 2006)
Dr M: I am not making a comeback (Bernama, 29 July 2006)
Businessman held over incident involving Dr M (The Star, 30 July 2006)
Former PM Dr Mahathir sprayed with pepper (New Straits Times, 28 July 2006)
Pepper spray hits Dr M (New Straits Times, 29 July 2006)