Dr M’s shadow looms large again

By S. Jayasankaran, Business Times Singapore

Even as he was making his farewell appearance before Umno members, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi got upstaged by his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad.

Last Saturday, when Umno leaders, including Abdullah, were delivering their winding- up addresses, Dr Mahathir strolled in casually to rousing applause and even posed for pictures with the hapless Abdullah and soon-to-be premier Najib Razak.

Dr Mahathir had been scheduled to attend the assembly on Thursday but was a conspicuous no-show. He explained in his blog on Friday that it wasn’t because his son (Mukhriz) had lost in the contest for Umno Youth leader (to Abdullah’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin) but because “the Youth has openly accepted the practice of money politics”.

Two weeks earlier, Khairy had been found guilty of money politics by Umno’s disciplinary board but had been let off with a warning.

Dr Mahathir used that to assail him, Umno and his father-in-law, saying that the Youth “had destroyed the image of Umno and the Malays”. He concluded thus: “I felt that I would be tarnished if I was in an assembly of people who accepted corruption.”

The sentiment didn’t last long, apparently, because he was there the next day accepting all the adulation heaped on him by the very people he had scorned. You had to feel for Abdullah.

But even if Dr Mahathir hadn’t showed up, one wonders if the outgoing PM could have exited in a blaze of glory. His speech, for example, was brilliant except that it was marred by delivery: it was frequently interrupted by bouts of coughing that did little to add sparkle to what was otherwise splendid, content-wise.

And one went away with the distinct feeling that his party did not agree with what he said. When Abdullah warned against returning to “the old ways” of curbing dissent and clamping down on individual freedoms, the delegates sat on their hands and there was little applause.

Indeed, much of Abdullah’s tenure was like his speech: good intentions marred by poor delivery. His legacy is one of a fundamentally decent individual who may have been overawed by the enormity of the task facing him.

Najib has an even more enormous task awaiting him: he is beset with a sharply slowing economy and a need to inspire renewed confidence among a citizenry growing mistrustful of government.

He is aware of this and has repeatedly spoken about the need of “reforming” Umno and forming a “credible” government with a Cabinet line-up that inspires trust.

But Najib is shackled by tradition, and party tradition dictates that he look for Cabinet choices among the leaders that Umno elects. And although various commentators have tried to put a kind face on things, many among the 25-man Supreme Council the party elected last Thursday hardly inspire trust.

Najib gets sworn in this week. And he is likely to announce his line-up and his national agenda to a curious country next week. He will have much to ponder upon.

The only thing he can be sure of is that his predecessor Abdullah is unlikely to criticise anything he does. Dr Mahathir, on the other hand, will have no such scruples.