What is Dr Mahathir hinting at?

By Yong Min Wei, The Edge

Former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has hit out twice in less than two weeks at Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration although the latter was instrumental in bringing him back to Umno earlier this year.

Dr Mahathir’s occasional vocal criticisms of Najib are not new but a succession of salvos within a short space of time would surely raise some eyebrows in the prime minister’s nine-month administration which might potentially see a cabinet reshuffle towards the end of the first quarter next year.

Some may question whether Dr Mahathir’s remarks would have any bearing on the fate of the cabinet ministers despite all ministries having submitted their key performance indicator (KPI) reports on time for evaluation.

The former premier, who has been critical of Western powers, in mid-December expressed disappointment about what he perceived as a change in Malaysia’s foreign policy to one of being pro-US after Kuala Lumpur’s envoy to Vienna was recalled for voting against an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution criticising Iran’s nuclear programme.

Dr Mahathir, who was irked by Wisma Putra’s decision, commented that previously, Malaysia had defended countries oppressed by the US but was now backing the US in oppressing Iran instead.

According to him, the US and Israel continued to use nuclear weapons and were using depleted uranium from nuclear weapons but Malaysia was not officially protesting such actions.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, however, said Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Vienna Datuk Mohd Arshad M Hussain was recalled for consultations as his action in the voting process “was not in accordance with the procedures of the government”.

Then on Monday, Dr Mahathir called the administration’s decision to replace the Russian-made MiG-29N jet fighters that were less than 20 years old as a waste of money.

“Many other countries, including India, are using this aircraft. Are they not able to use their MiG-29 more than 20 years? Have they also condemned the MiGs as early as this?” Dr Mahathir said in his blog posting.

He opined that although the Russian military aircraft were cheaper than the American-made ones, a lot of money had been spent, adding that hundreds of millions of ringgit would be lost if  the MiGs were now condemned.

Dr Mahathir pointed out that with the sale and purchase of aircraft, the government could provide large benefits in profits to the middlemen, and questioned whether the interests of middlemen were influencing the decision to buy new replacements.

“I believe there are ways to overhaul fighters and other aircraft. Why can’t we repair the MiG-29? If we cannot, the Russians may be able to. Maybe the Indians also can,” he added.

“If fighter jets costing hundreds of millions can only last 20 years, it would be better we do not have fighter aircraft,” said the 84-year-old former prime minister.

The government had in June announced the phasing out of 18 units of MiG-29Ns, which were bought from Russia for US$380 million (RM1.27 billion) in 1994 and delivered the following year. The package, which included training and spare parts, cost US$1.6 billion.

The move to phase out the MiG fighter jets is said to have been able to save the government RM260 million a year in maintenance cost.

Early this month, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the MiG-29N would be phased out by next year and that the government had shortlisted aircraft from five countries to replace them.

“The new asset to replace the MiGs will be the multi-role combat aircraft, which is cost-efficient and can be used for at least 20 years,” said Ahmad Zahid, adding that the MiG-29N would be sold “lock, stock and barrel” and that two companies were keen to buy them.

Dr Mahathir’s latest salvo was on the backdrop of ongoing investigation into the theft of the two Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) F-5E fighter jet engines, worth a total of RM50 million.

Dr Mahathir had also recently traded barbs with Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz over the cabinet’s decision to overhaul the national civics bureau (BTN) courses, resulting in the minister branding him “father of all racism” for defending BTN.

In April, the former premier singled out Nazri as one of those “unsavoury characters” that Najib had appointed into his cabinet.

When Najib took over the reins of power from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi earlier this year, some political analysts believed that Dr Mahathir could actually become a liability to the current leadership.

It was argued then that Najib could be torn between accommodating Dr Mahathir’s requests and direction, and coming up with his own decisions and policies.