Old politicians never fade away

Raja Petra Kamarudin

“Mahathir’s attacks fuel talk of comeback,” said Leslie Lopez in the Singapore Straits Times on 26 April 2006. Well, I got news for you Leslie. Dr Mahathir never left. He may have retired as Malaysia’s Prime Minister. But he never left. How does someone who reshaped the skyline of this country and the thinking of the people over 22 years just fade away? Old soldiers never die, they just fade away. And old politicians never fade away, they just die. And Dr Mahathir is not dead yet. And going by the track record of the longevity of Dr Mahathir’s family, you had better accept the fact he is going to be around for at least another decade or so.

But he is past 80, some may argue. In China, you do not reach the top until you are past 80. At 50 you are still considered pemuda (youth) and do not deserve the honour of sitting amongst the elders. Dr Mahathir does not smoke. He does not drink. He does not karaoke till dawn with GROs sitting on his lap. He eats sparingly and watches his weight. He hardly has any vices that you and I share. Hmm….come to think of it, what is there to live for with that kind of lifestyle? Takes all the fun out of living doesn’t it?

“Is Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, planning a political comeback?” asks Leslie. “The retired politician’s blistering attack on Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s government last week over Malaysia’s scrapping of a new bridge project to link Singapore has set tongues wagging that a return of some form is on the cards.”

“It is very clear that he is unhappy about the way Abdullah is running things and he wants to do something about it,” says Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who teaches sociology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

“But no one is suggesting that Tun Dr Mahathir is planning a leadership grab,” argued Leslie. “The former prime minister, who underwent triple bypass surgery 15 years ago, is 80 years old and close associates say he has been advised by his doctors to take it easy because he is very susceptible to heart problems.”

“But there are concerns that Malaysia’s redoubtable strongman, who survived numerous challenges to his leadership during his 22 years in power, could give some serious political grief to Datuk Seri Abdullah in the coming months.”

“A more politically active Tun Mahathir would put Malaysia’s business elite, who have long relied on the state for business, on edge because of potential uncertainty born of a shifting power structure. It could also upset a budding rally on the Malaysian stock market, say analysts.”

“Close associates of the former premier say that Tun Mahathir’s displeasure with Datuk Seri Abdullah stems from his belief that the current administration is on a campaign to smear and systematically dismantle his legacy. For the past two years, the combative politician has chided the 30-month-old Abdullah administration for overturning some of his many economic initiatives and for not giving enough state assistance to pet projects such as national carmaker Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd, or Proton.”

“The simmering dissatisfaction burst into outright hostility last week when Tun Mahathir accused his successor of caving in to Singapore’s opposition to plans to build a new bridge to replace the Causeway that links the two countries. Tun Dr Mahathir, who often crossed swords with Singapore during his 22-year tenure, said that the Malaysian government’s decision to scrap the bridge project he proposed in 1996 was tantamount to surrendering the country’s sovereignty.”

“Referring to Malaysia’s former premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was forced to step down after the racial riots in May 1969, and Thailand’s Mr Thaksin Shinawatra, who stepped down as premier early this month to mollify rising public anger over allegations of corruption, Tun Mahathir also warned his successor of the perils of ignoring public sentiment,” argued Leslie.

In a clear warning to Abdullah, Mahathir said, “Please remember what happened to Tunku for not listening to the people. The most recent example is Thaksin. They did not listen to people and they got into trouble.”

Mahathir’s close associates say that his sharp remarks reflected his personal attachment to the bridge project. “Mahathir intended the bridge to be a sign of nationalism and to reflect the current state of relations with Singapore,” says a senior Kuala Lumpur businessman who enjoys close relations with Mahathir.

But many Malaysians view the caustic comments as a direct political challenge to Abdullah. “To say that he (Mahathir) is unhappy is an understatement. And it would be a mistake to underestimate him,” said Anwar Ibrahim in a Straits Times interview two weeks ago. Anwar believes that his former mentor will intensify his attacks against Abdullah in the coming months. “This is just the beginning,” predicted Anwar.

Leslie shares Anwar’s prediction. “Several analysts agree that Tun Mahathir is unlikely to let up on his attacks against the Malaysian government. They believe he is likely to organise meetings with members of the ruling party, Umno, to explain his criticism of the current administration. Tun Mahathir fired his first broadside last Friday with the publication of an open letter in a widely read Umno-sponsored website detailing his version of events concerning the failed bridge project. The same letter was also distributed to Members of Parliament and senior Umno officials.”

“What is the likely upshot of it all?” asks Leslie. “Many analysts believe that the former premier’s rants will not amount to much.”

“Apart for a small group of people who have an axe to grind with Abdullah, I don’t think Mahathir’s attacks, past, present or future, will have any huge conflict-generating impact,” says Prof Shamsul who explains that unseating an incumbent is extremely difficult in a political system which is largely patronage-driven.

“Before he stepped down in November 2003, Tun Mahathir had kept his supremacy within the government and Umno by generating corporate wealth through a steady flow of easy credit, privatised infrastructure projects and government contracts and licences,” explains Leslie. “Datuk Seri Abdullah, who recently unveiled a RM200 billion five-year development plan, is now in the position to dispense patronage.”

“Analysts argue that Umno politicians and business groups linked to the party are unlikely to oppose Datuk Seri Abdullah in any face-off with Tun Mahathir for fear that they could be dropped or blacklisted in the contest for contract awards under the country’s new development plans. The Prime Minister’s inner circle believes that Datuk Seri Abdullah does not intend to comment directly on Tun Mahathir’s statements out of respect for his former boss.”

“There is tremendous respect and Abdullah doesn’t want that jeopardised,” says a senior aide.

Leslie does not have accolades for Mahathir. “It is also politically astute. By refusing to be drawn into any confrontation with his former boss, he is enabling Mahathir to make himself the central issue in his campaign against the Abdullah-led administration. Mahathir’s criticisms of Abdullah have only underscored the shortcomings of his own economic policies, which featured a state-led push into heavy industries and the construction of so-called mega projects.”

“Today, Mahathir’s push into heavy industries lies in tatters. His government poured billions of dollars into cement and steel ventures that ultimately flopped. National carmaker Proton, the sole surviving vestige of Mahathir’s heavy industries programme, is also under siege from foreign competition and the dismantling of trade barriers.”

And Leslie sings Abdullah’s praises. “Abdullah’s economic plans are more conservative compared to his predecessor’s and on Monday the Premier offered the rationale for his cautious approach in economic management.”

“Never mind that I may not build great monuments or glittering cities. I am told this will be popular and will grease the wheels of our economy,” Abdullah told a gathering of business leaders in Kuala Lumpur.

Those within the business sector believe that Abdullah’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor’s policies by curbing government spending and reviewing many of Mahathir’s large infrastructure ventures have been crucial in restoring Malaysia’s economic fundamentals.

However, while Abdullah’s position appears secure enough, there are those aligned to Mahathir who could easily exploit the strong undercurrents in Umno to weaken the Prime Minister’s grip on power. One potentially destabilising issue is the political succession.

Abdullah and Mahathir are from the same political generation and many within Umno believe the next leadership succession should take place sooner than scheduled. Many feel that Mahathir’s unhappiness with Abdullah would fit in nicely for those seeking to accelerate the succession timetable — which would pave the way for Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak to take over.

“There is a view that Abdullah should stay for only one term and there are many in the party who would like to see him politically weakened to make way for a power change,” says a senior Umno leader aligned to the Prime Minister.

Those within Abdullah’s inner circle reveal that he is aware there are some within Umno’s top leadership who may be in a hurry to see him retire. But Abdullah is determined to go for another term, they argue. The changes he wants to bring to Malaysia will take time to bear fruit and he wants to see it through.

It is clear from Leslie’s piece above that his report is slanted in favour of Abdullah and in a sense critical of Mahathir. I would not however say that his analysis of Malaysia’s current political scenario is off tangent. Leslie has certainly read things correctly and has summed up quite accurately what we should be able to see in the not too distant future. But politics is not a science. It is an art. One cannot read politics using arithmetical calculations. And surely the Anwar Ibrahim saga should have taught us that by now.

Who would have thought that Mahathir, after getting sacked from Umno, would come back as Prime Minister? Who would have thought that Musa Hitam and Ghafar Baba would not succeed Mahathir as Prime Minister? Who would have thought that Anwar would be sacked and sent to jail after Mahathir openly named him as his successor? Who would have thought that Abdullah, after opposing Mahathir (in ‘Team B’), would be Mahathir’s choice of deputy and eventually become his successor? Who would have thought that Najib would take over as deputy prime minister when Abdullah took over from Mahathir?

Yes, in politics, expect the unexpected. And if we expect Abdullah to go one more term and for Najib to take over from thereon, then expect that not to happen as well. (Of course, there are those who subscribe to the RAHMAN theory and swear that the last letter in the RAHMAN name represents Najib, so he is ‘guaranteed’ of becoming the next prime minister). But 24 hours is a long time in politics. (Anwar transformed from ‘the next prime minister’ to ‘retired politician’ in 72 hours). So, 24 months is certainly even longer. And 24 months till April 2008, when Anwar will be legally allowed to again become active in politics, is a very, very long time. (Mahathir and Abdullah were both sacked Umno politicians who became prime minister. Why therefore is it not possible for Anwar, also a sacked Umno politician, to become prime minister as well?).

If Leslie is talking about PAS politics, well and fine. PAS is about Islam and those who love Islam will put religion above all else. If Leslie is talking about keADILan politics, that too is well and fine, as the Reformists fight for equality, justice, transparency, good governance, an end to corruption, and all such ideals. But Leslie is talking about Umno politics. And Umno is a totally different animal.

The man who becomes the Umno President becomes Prime Minister, plain and simple. You can be a saint, a super-economist, and much more; in short, the best man to run this country. But if you are not the Umno President, then you are not Prime Minister. And, in Umno, money talks and bullshit walks. (And the opposition leader becomes just the opposition leader in Parliament, never the Prime Minister).

Furthermore, Abdullah’s future as prime minister must not be looked at in isolation. It has to be looked at in the context of Abdullah, Mahathir, Najib, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Anwar and Khairy Jamaluddin. These are the six key personalities in Malaysian politics today that matter.

Anwar ousted Ghafar as the deputy prime minister through the power of money. In Sabah alone, Anwar had to spend RM50 million to buy off the 25 Umno division in that state. That comes to an average of RM2 million per division. How much do you think he had to spend in Peninsular Malaysia? Short of RM250 million, Anwar would not have been able to send Ghafar into retirement.

But that was more than a decade ago. Today, because of inflation (and we must also note that some division leaders have to spend up to RM5 million just to win their division) you need at least double that.

Umno has 191 divisions. You need to control at least 120 divisions or so to be safe — though you could do it with only 100 divisions, but that would be cutting it too fine. This would need a budget of at least RM500 million.

But that RM500 million is only to receive your nomination to challenge the Umno Presidency. You have still not won the post yet. You still need to win the votes from the roughly 2,300 delegates — or at least from 1,300 of them. For this you need to budget another RM50 million or so.

The bottom line would be, if you want to become the Umno President and subsequently Malaysia’s Prime Minister, then put aside about RM550 million.

Who has this kind of money?

Dr Mahathir has. Najib has. Tengku Razaleigh has. Anwar has. And Abdullah-Khairy has. In short, if you need to pay for the job of Prime Minister, all the above can afford to pay for it. And Abdullah-Khairy has the advantage because they have under their control RM200 billion worth of RMK9 development expenditure which is being proportioned out to those that matter even as you read this.

This is what Leslie meant by ‘political patronage’. And while Mahathir, Najib, Tengku Razaleigh and Anwar have to dig into their pockets to fund their campaign (or vote-buying if you wish), Abdullah-Khairy only have to instruct their many nominees in the Finance Ministry to sign over government contracts to designated people. In fact, this was done even before Abdullah tabled the RMK9 document in Parliament. The government contracts had already been allocated to various people even before Parliament approved them.

You may think that RM550 million is a lot of money. RM550 million is peanuts for the job of Prime Minister. They could even afford to spend RM1 billion and garner 100% of the votes from the 191 divisions and 2,300 delegates if necessary. The general elections cost RM2.5 billion. So RM1 billion is still small potatoes. And that RM1 billion can be made back within mere months and with one stroke of the pen once you are Prime Minister.

In the first place, you may ask, how did all these people accumulate so much wealth when their salaries cannot bring them even a fraction of that if they lived and worked for 1,000 years? I don’t know how the rest did it, but Tengku Razaleigh was already wealthy long before be joined the government. As for the rest, I suppose they saved their salary over the years and only ate instant noodles for lunch and dinner.

But this is not the only issue. If Mahathir teams up with Najib to make his move on Abdullah, then Abdullah will also need a team-mate. And this team-mate could be Anwar. So we will end up with a Mahathir-Najib tag team against Abdullah-Anwar. Maybe a deal would be struck where Anwar allows Abdullah one more term after which he will take over for two terms before handing over the reins to Khairy. Where does that place Tengku Razaleigh then?

Yes, where does that place Tengku Razaleigh? Will he be the Kingmaker? Will he be the White Knight? Or will he instead be the Dark Horse? Will the Umno members get so fed up with the Mahathir-Najib vs. Abdullah-Anwar feud that they throw out the whole lot and bring Tengku Razaleigh in just to restore sanity within Umno?

As I said, 24 hours is a long time in politics. 24 months till April 2008 is even longer. And in politics expect the unexpected. Yes, where does that place Tengku Razaleigh? Hey, Mahathir might even abandon Najib in favour of Tengku Razaleigh if that is the only way to oust Abdullah. Do not rule that one out as well.