TCS Daily

Return of Mahathir?

By Yang Razali Kassim - September 28, 2005 12:00 AM

On Malaysia's national day, 31 August, trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz pulled a surprise act. At the end of a day of celebration which had gathered current and former leaders, Rafidah spotted former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Rushing up to him, she gave him an unexpected hug and sobbed visibly for all to see, including Mahathir's wife. The former premier was left speechless, save to console her with a few words, "It's OK, it's OK".

Many people had thought that Rafidah had finally plucked the courage to apologise to Mahathir for having been rude to him in an earlier clash over the controversial issue of car import licences, or "Approved Permits" (APs). In Malaysia, the right to import a foreign car is limited to a select group of native Malay business people. The AP controversy arose when Mahathir criticised Radifah for issuing too many licences and thereby undermining the position of the national car, the Proton.

Both Radifah or Mahathir denied that an apology for the APs affair had been offered on National Day. But the encounter shows Mahathir had once again prevailed in a situation of conflict. The difference this time is that he has prevailed over a minister even though he is no longer Prime Minister or in power.

The APs are an extension of the pro-distribution New Economic Policy introduced in 1970 following inter-ethnic riots. Mahathir said Rafidah had flooded the market with cheaper competitors by giving too many APs too fast. Worse, she did not fulfill the spirit of the AP scheme because of late, only a handful of bumiputra businessmen had benefited from the AP system. In response, the combative Rafidah suggested that Mahathir may have "forgotten many things" -- a statement which an angry Mahathir himself interpreted as suggesting that he was "senile".

The upshot of this controversy is that Rafidah's political position has been under threat ever since, especially within the ruling party, UMNO. In UMNO, Mahathir is still highly respected as an elder statesman, even though the party president is now Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the new prime minister. Many UMNO politicians have criticised Rafidah for being rude to the former premier and had demanded that she apologised -- something which the strong-headed Trade Minister had consistently refused to do. That is why the National Day hug was headline news in the Malaysian media and was interpreted as an act of penance. But Mahathir has made it clear that his criticisms of Rafidah were nothing personal -- which means they remain valid as far as he is concerned.

Mahathir and Rafidah -- two stalwarts who were once very close -- have now drifted apart over differences in policy. For Mahathir, this is nothing new. In his lifetime, there have been a string of leaders, some very close friends and allies, who had clashed with him -- notably Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Musa Hitam and Anwar Ibrahim. If Rafidah goes, she will join Mahathir's gallery of leaders whom he had scalped. But she will have the dubious honour of having her position shaken by Mahathir after he is no longer in power. This is significant: it means Mahathir can flex his muscles if he wants to, which also means that he is still a force to be reckoned with in Malaysian politics.

Protecting the Mahathir legacy?

The AP issue may well go down as a turning point in Malaysian politics since the retirement of Mahathir in 2003 -- an exit which should have officially closed the Mahathir era. In coming out so strongly against Rafidah, the former premier marked more than just the end of his retirement vow. When he stepped down more than a year ago, he had promised to retreat into political silence and let his successor rule with no interference from him. The AP issue clearly went against that vow and will certainly have an impact on his successor. As it is, Mahathir's criticisms of Rafidah had forced Prime Minister Abdullah to review the AP scheme, and just as importantly, the national automotive policy as well.

It is rare for a sitting prime minister to have to manage tensions generated by a former prime minister. The late Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first premier, did give Mahathir some headaches early in the latter's premiership in the 1980s. But those were, in comparison, mild criticisms that usually came in the form of barbed media commentaries by Tunku. So far PM Abdullah has been very deft in managing the fallout from the AP issue. He needs to make sure that the spillover will not complicate his relationship with Mahathir. But the former premier has made it clear that he has nothing more in mind except to correct some wrongs arising from the AP controversy.

When he stepped down in 2003, Mahathir had also warned his critics to leave him alone in peaceful retirement. But now he says he spoke up over the AP issue because he had been provoked. He justifies his renewed assertiveness in the name of a higher good -- the national car project. Proton has become his cause celebre because he feels it is under threat. In one television interview, he continues to portray himself as a man taking the moral high-ground -- a protector of Proton, the company, and of the country's automotive industry.

But given that he is too closely associated with the birth and genesis of Proton, for which he is now advisor, many people are inevitably asking what exactly he is protecting -- Proton or his legacy? His legacy is, of course, huge and extensive. It is a whole new Malaysian society which he reconstructed since taking over as premier in 1981. It is a society carved in the futuristic image of his Vision 2020. If he feels protective over Proton, will he feel equally stirred should he deem other aspects of his legacy to be under threat as well?

Of late, and unlike his first year in retirement, Mahathir has become more forthcoming in giving his views to the media. So will we see a more interventionist Mahathir? The Abdullah Badawi premiership has just begun. PM Abdullah has so far led with a steady hand and has made his own mark. Badawi retreated from Mahathir's anti-westernism. He is a man not to be underestimated. The question is whether we are now also witnessing signs of a comeback of the Mahathir persona or influence, if not a return of his era.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University.


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