What role will Dr M play in Umno?

(The Straits Times) KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s youngest son, Mukhriz, was waiting for his father at home when suddenly, he was told that the former premier had decided to drop in at the Umno assembly.

“He didn’t tell me. I think it was a decision made on the spur of the moment,” he told The Straits Times.

Neither did the former premier tell his second son, Mokhzani, who quit Umno along with his father and mother last year.

But Dr Mahathir, 83, is never predictable. Whether planned or impulsive, his entry was perfectly timed.

He walked in just as the newly elected Umno deputy president, Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, was in the middle of a speech that described Dr Mahathir in fond terms.

What a stir. The delegates gasped when the cameras focused on the beaming Dr Mahathir in a purple shirt as he took a seat in the VIP section.

Thunderous applause broke out.

“I think he came because he wanted to show support for the new leadership. He had said he wanted Muhyiddin to win the deputy presidency, and that happened,” said Mukhriz.

The euphoric response was not surprising, although there are grouses from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s supporters. They felt that Dr Mahathir had stolen the thunder from the Premier’s show – it was, after all, his farewell.

Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Shahrir Samad told The Straits Times that Dr Mahathir clearly demonstrated to the Prime Minister that he still holds the affection of Umno.

“Pak Lah would have seen the reaction, and the only conclusion is that the delegates were very happy to see him (Mahathir),” said Datuk Shahrir, referring to Datuk Seri Abdullah by his nickname.

A controversial figure, Dr Mahathir fell out with his handpicked successor in 2006 and left Umno last year. Abdullah’s supporters had dismissed his predecessor’s influence. But while Dr Mahathir no longer has a direct impact, the affection for him is still strong.

He was, after all, member 0000001 – an honour given after Umno re-registered as a party following a bitter leadership split in 1987 – and led the party from 1981 to 2003.

He steered it successfully through the fallout from his sacking of then Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim.

It is no surprise that Umno prefers him inside rather than outside. His bitter attacks on Abdullah left the Premier’s image in shreds, and Umno suffered.

His call to Malaysians to vote for clean candidates, not necessarily those from Barisan Nasional, did severe damage to the coalition in the last general election.

“One MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) candidate told me he lost because Dr Mahathir told the people that the MIC did nothing for the Indians,” Shahrir said.

Umno hopes that having Dr Mahathir back will mean one fewer formidable opponent. They need not fight him and Datuk Seri Anwar at the same time.

The burning question now is the role he will play in Umno and the government. He has already shown that he does not take kindly to being left out in the cold.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, the incoming premier, has said he will seek Dr Mahathir’s advice, but did not say if there will be a formal role for him.

Dr Mahathir is, in fact, already seen as a mentor to Datuk Seri Najib, although that is probably overstating the case. This came about because of a series of government crackdowns on the opposition – something seen as Mahathirism.

Certainly, Dr Mahathir played a key role in the events that led to Abdullah being forced to step down.

But Najib’s supporters dismiss the claim that the incoming prime minister will be under the thumb of the former premier.

A party insider said he believed that Najib will find a space for both Dr Mahathir and Abdullah, and manage these relationships carefully.

“He will not let it deteriorate like before,” he said.

It is well known that Dr Mahathir’s quarrel with Abdullah began when he perceived that the Prime Minister and his young advisers were disparaging his legacy to bolster Abdullah’s reformist image.

It became worse when his pet projects, including a bridge to replace the Causeway to Singapore, were scrapped.

Najib’s first test of his relationship with Dr Mahathir will be over the possible appointment of the newly elected Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin – who defeated Mukhriz for the post – to the Cabinet. Dr Mahathir dislikes Khairy – who is Abdullah’s son-in-law – intensely, and has started to campaign against such an appointment.

The imminent return of Dr Mahathir to the party raises many questions.

He is likely to rejoin Umno when Najib becomes prime minister. He left for London last night, and will return on Friday – the expected date of the swearing- in ceremony.

Mukhriz insists that his father wants only to be able to contribute to Umno: “He does not have to be appointed officially.”