What’s really behind the Mahathir gambit?

On 28 June 2002, that’s almost seven years ago, I wrote the following piece. That was soon after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad suddenly announced his resignation as Prime Minister halfway though his closing speech during the Umno General Assembly. Mahathir certainly took everyone by surprise, as he did last year when he announced his resignation from Umno (and then rejoined the party after Najib took over as Prime Minister earlier this month). Maybe we can recap what I wrote seven years ago and see how far off I was.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak and not Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is Dr Mahathir’s real choice as successor, said an extremely nervous UMNO insider whom I met at a secluded coffee shop on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. And Mahathir had really intended to go at the end of this year, 2002, not next year.

“You sure you were not followed?” asked the UMNO insider, glancing over his shoulders.

“Of course not!” I replied. “Why should I be followed?”

“Who knows? You are an ex-ISA detainee. I am sure the Special Branch is monitoring your movements.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I made sure I went round and round on my bike to shake off any possible tails.”

“And make sure you don’t mention my name,” he stressed, yet again. “When you made that report on ABIM you said, ‘someone close to the previous Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’. That’s dangerous. Everyone can suspect who you mean though you never mentioned his name.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him again. “I will not make that mistake again.”

“Mahathir did not intend to retire after October 2003,” said the UMNO insider after he had calmed down. “He was never given a chance to finish his closing speech. They quickly surrounded him and escorted him off the stage. If Mahathir had been allowed to finish his speech, he would have announced that he planned to retire at the end of this year, not the end of next year.”

“Why would Mahathir want a long transition period? He already said in an interview once that this would make him a lame duck.”

“You think Mahathir’s announcement to resign was impromptu? He was reading from his prepared speech when he announced this. The announcement was already planned beforehand. It was written into his speech.”

“They published his opening speech in full. But they did not publish his closing speech. Why? Because this would show that his resignation announcement was already written into his speech and was not spontaneous. His family was aware of it. So was Daim.”

“Hmm. How do you know?” I was now really intrigued.

“Daim came for the opening isn’t it? But he was not there for the closing when Mahathir was supposed to announce his resignation. Daim knew Mahathir was going to make this announcement. That’s why he did not turn up. It was all planned.”

“And that’s why Daim left the government. He was not sacked by Mahathir, as everyone believes. He just wanted to get out before Mahathir does.”

“People think that Daim’s people suffered after he got sacked by Mahathir. His people did not suffer. Daim bailed them out. The government took over all their companies, not to punish them because they are Daim’s people, but to help them clear their debts.”

“Before the government took over their companies, they owed the banks billions which they could not repay. Now, they are sitting on hundreds of millions in hard cash. They were not punished, they were rewarded. They did not lose their companies. They lost their debts.”

“Mahathir and Daim made sure they bailed out all their friends and family before Mahathir retires. Daim went first. Then all their cronies got saved. And, now that everyone is safe, Mahathir too retires.”

“Didn’t Mahathir himself say that he had been thinking of retiring for some time? He said this when they all rushed up to him as soon as he announced his resignation. He said he had made up his mind long ago. It was not a sudden or spontaneous move.”

“Mahathir’s son also said that his father’s resignation is for real and that there is no turning back. Even Ku Li was told. Mahathir wanted Ku Li to support his choice of successor. But Pak Lah and the rest were not told.”

“That night they had an emergency meeting and Mahathir scolded Pak Lah for announcing that he had agreed to retire after 25 October next year. First Pak Lah told the press that it would be on 25 October. Then, he said the actual date had not been fixed yet but it will be some time after 25 October. This is inconsistent and shows that the date had never been agreed upon.”

“Mahathir has been disgusted with the UMNO Malays for a long time now. His entire speech at the recent General Assembly was lambasting the UMNO Malays.”

“He wasn’t running down the PAS Malays. He was talking about the Malays who got contracts, projects and permits and sold them for quick money. Which Malays are these? UMNO Malays! PAS Malays cannot get contacts, projects or permits from the government. Only UMNO Malays can. He was disgusted with the UMNO Malays.”

“Mahathir was not trying to give the UMNO Malays a wake-up call. He was giving them his farewell speech and telling them why he is abandoning them. He is telling them he is so disgusted with them and is leaving them. He wants nothing more to do with the UMNO Malays.”

“Maybe Dr Mahathir wanted to give Abdullah Badawi ample time to slip into the job,” I said. “That’s why he decided to have a long transition period of 16 months.”

“Who said Mahathir wants Pak Lah to replace him?”

“Come again!” This one really took me by surprise. “Then who does he want as his successor?”


“Najib?” I could not believe I was hearing this. “What makes you say this? Isn’t Abdullah Badawi the number two? By tradition, this makes him the likely choice.”

“Since when does Mahathir abide to tradition? Look, after he had announced his resignation, he summoned Najib and had a private word with him. He chased everyone else out of the room and spent 40 minutes alone with Najib. Why should he do this? This is Mahathir’s way of saying that he is in favour of Najib.”

“If this is so, why then did Mahathir not just announce Najib as his choice of successor?” I asked. “Why drop hints?”

“Mahathir cannot openly say this. UMNO will never be able to accept this. If he does, he would be lining Najib up for the kill. He does not want to kill Najib. He wants Najib to take over.”

“Pak Lah would not be easily accepted by the rest. Rais Yatim, who imagines himself as an intellectual, would never accept Pak Lah as his boss. He looks down on Pak Lah. He thinks Pah Lah is a nincompoop.”

“But Mahathir himself chose Abdullah Badawi as his number two. Why would Mahathir now not want him to be the successor?” I asked, not quite sure this whole thing made sense.

“Mahathir chose Pak Lah because he was the safest. Mahathir did not consider him a threat. He knows Pak Lah would not try to push him aside or try to take over before he was ready to go. But Pak Lah did not win the post. He was not elected. He was appointed by Mahathir. That’s why it would be difficult for them to accept Pak Lah.”

“But Mahathir now realises that Pak Lah cannot handle the job. You know or not, he never even reads his Cabinet papers. Most of the time he does not even know what is happening in his own Ministry.”

“Do you remember when you, Ezam, and all the rest were arrested under ISA last year? Pak Lah was asked in Parliament whether you were all arrested under the ISA and he denied it. He said if you were then he would know about it, as he would have to sign the papers. Since he did not sign any papers, then there could not have been any ISA arrests.”

“Pak Lah was not lying or trying to hide anything. He really didn’t know. As the Minister, how come he does not know he need not sign any papers? He only needs to sign the papers after the 60 days when the detainee is sent to Kamunting. He does not need to sign anything to arrest someone under the ISA. It is all up to the police. He does not even know this.”

“Pak Lah has not been much support to Mahathir these last four years. When Anwar was his number two, Mahathir hardly had any problems. Anwar took care of everything. Anwar solved all the problems. Now, these last four years, all the problems are on Mahathir’s shoulders.”

“When he was number two, Anwar would spend at least 15 or 20 minutes every morning with Mahathir. He would brief Mahathir on what was going on and what action he had taken or would take. Mahathir was able to leave everything to Anwar to handle. Even when Mahathir was overseas, Anwar would phone him and talk to him for an hour. Mahathir would be told what was going on back home. Mahathir knew the country was in safe hands.”

“But this has not been so in Pak Lah’s case. Mahathir has to do everything himself. Pak Lah cannot even run his own Ministry let alone take care of Mahathir’s problems.”

“Mahathir knows Pak Lah is not capable of taking over. But he cannot push Pak Lah aside and put Najib in charge. So he gives a transition period and leaves it to UMNO to choose, just like what he did between Ku Li and Musa. He did not choose Musa as his number two. He left it to UMNO to make this decision. But he secretly supported Musa to make sure Musa wins.”

“He will do the same here. He will let UMNO decide on his successor but he will send signals that he wants Najib and not Pak Lah. That way, UMNO decides and not him. UMNO knows that Mahathir wants Najib and not Pak Lah. So there will now be heavy jostling for the top two posts.”

“It would have been safer for Pak Lah if UMNO had put a shorter transition period for the takeover like how Mahathir had intended. Now, with so much time, Pak Lah’s position becomes shakier. UMNO has given Najib more time to plan his moves. This long transition period is not to Pak Lah’s advantage. It helps Najib.”

Hmm, this is certainly a new twist to the Mahathir resignation drama. And, if what this UMNO insider tells me is true, then UMNO politics would be most interesting to watch over the next 16 months or so.