TCS Daily

Bend it Like Bamboo

By Yang Razali Kassim - July 12, 2006 12:00 AM

Former Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad has once again unleashed a leadership conflict in Malaysia. Mahathir has leveled a number of public criticisms at the government since leaving office, often relating to changes in policies initiated by the former PM while in office. What will be the long-term impact for Malaysian politics?

Mahathir's criticisms have been like that triggered by a tsunami -- sudden, swift and tidal in its impact, this wave refused to return to sea. Two weeks after Mahathir's shocking broadside against his successor, the political leadership rallied around Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in a move that clearly fortified Abdullah's position. Mahathir refuses to be cowed and has promised to burrow for answers to issues he has been fuming about. Tired of Mahathir's incessant attacks, one of Abdullah's ministers, Nazri Aziz, declared on June 26 an "open war" with the former premier. But Abdullah himself continues to maintain his cool. Is there any way for the crisis to end as suddenly as it appeared? Or will the prime minister be forced to hit back hard? Will this go on to shake the edifice of Malaysian politics in yet another epic struggle, since 1969 when the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, ended up sacking the young and impetuous Mahathir, from UMNO?

There are three possible outcomes of the current saga:

  1. The worst case scenario leads to another battle royal that will end with many heads rolling. Titanic political battles are not new, of course, in UMNO, the dominant party.

  1. Nothing earth-shattering will happen despite all the turmoil. Life resumes after that initial outburst. (This outcome can only be possible when people, weary of all the clashes, demand that good sense prevail.)

  1. The crisis will eventually blow over, though not before the inevitable struggle plays itself out in a fashion defined by two contrasting personalities -- the sterling patience of Abdullah in the face of the combativeness of Mahathir.

It appears the third scenario is now in play, even as some of Abdullah's supporters are finding it hard to maintain their restraint.

Resilience of the system

The UMNO-centered political system has developed a certain degree of volatility over the years. At the same time, it has built within itself a capacity for post-conflict rebuilding and reconsolidation. There have been three major leadership crises since the 1980s. Yet each time, the system had recovered and the structure remained largely intact. In other words, the system can, and usually does, right itself.

The first systemic response to the current crisis was a show of solidarity on June 19 by all the key UMNO leaders. By closing ranks behind Abdullah, the UMNO bigwigs took the first decisive step for the system to preserve itself in the face of acute adversity. There are however two crucial mitigating factors.

The first is the Abdullah approach to crisis management. Highly sophisticated, but often mistaken for weakness, it is best captured by what former deputy premier Musa Hitam calls Abdullah's "elegant silence". In fact, Abdullah's response harkens to two analogies: the bamboo and the water. Rather than heading towards a destructive collision with the flood unleashed by his predecessor, Abdullah bends like the bamboo so as not to break. Put another way, he chooses to be like the water in a moving stream. Confronted with a boulder, the water flows around it and moves on. This philosophy will make it easier for the system to take all the hard blows. Indeed, it can achieve the goal of conflict resolution with minimum fuss.

The second facilitating factor is the response of Abdullah's deputy, Najib Tun Razak, who has chosen to stand behind his embattled prime minister. His position is delicate in view of all the talk that he stands to gain most from this crisis, which could accelerate his rise to the premiership. By closing ranks with Abdullah, Najib shows that he is in no hurry to take over, and does not relish being used by Mahathir. The combination of these two responses may yet defuse the explosiveness from Mahathir.

Origins of the volatility

This "resilience-in-volatility" in the political system coincided with one phase in Malaysian politics -- the Mahathir era. Beginning in 1981, it ended 22 years later in 2003 when the personification of the era stepped down as Prime Minister in favour of Abdullah -- a decision Mahathir now says he regrets.

Despite his retirement, many had doubts whether Mahathir would indeed call it a day, given his personality and temperament. Some even proposed a background role for him as a senior statesman. In typical style, Mahathir had dismissed the notion of being a "Senior Minister" in Cabinet, or even, in his own words, a "Senior President" in UMNO. In an IDSS commentary last year, I asked whether we were seeing a return of the Mahathir era when he broke his vow of silence to attack the government over the issue of car import permits. Now that Mahathir has taken on the surprising post-retirement role of a hyper-critic, one wonders whether this is what he had in mind for himself all along.

Mahathir the critic is not something out of character. Six years after bouncing back into UMNO following his sacking by Tunku in 1969, Mahathir proved to be a key player in the country's succession politics. When Hussein Onn stepped down in 1981 five years after taking over from Tun Razak, it was Mahathir who succeeded as prime minister. A visionary and maverick who played by his own rules and led with his quick tongue and an equally quick mind, Mahathir made both impact and controversy. His sharp attacks were aimed equally at the West, the country's neighbors and the domestic opposition. Now, as we have seen, even his successor is not spared. But while Mahathir's achievements are undeniably many, his peculiarities can also be off-putting.

The crisis that he has unleashed bears the ultimate risk of his being thrown out of UMNO again. But Abdullah would not turn him into a martyr and talk about history repeating itself at the June 19 meeting of UMNO leaders did not materialize. Had Mahathir been sacked a second time, the former premier might just bounce back like he did earlier in his political career. So, in that respect, Abdullah must have calculated his own moves very well; he continues to stick to the moral high ground to be both the bamboo and the water.

Even in his twilight days, Mahathir's strong personality continues to resonate. Abdullah's challenge is how to manage the crisis in his hands as Mahathir taunts his successor to sack him. With too much at stake for too many people, Abdullah's tricky challenge is best captured in the Malay saying -- menarik rambut dalam tepung -- removing gently the hair in the flour. How can he do this without disturbing the contours of the flour in the bowl? Abdullah has said that he wants nobody hurt along the way, yet it is Mahathir who could lose most in a massive public disclosure. His deputy, Najib, playing the loyal second man again, echoed this approach. If this is the primary tack, then the crisis may be contained because one side simply refuses to fight. But for how long?

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of a recent book on "Transition Politics in Southeast Asia: Dynamics of Leadership Change and Succession in Indonesia and Malaysia (Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2005).


1 Comment

'Mega-mouth' Matahir
Remember, that's this guy's nickname in Asia. It wasn't enough for this egomanica to dictate to Malaysia for all those years, now at 80+ he still can't believe he's out to pasture. Guess he's like other of his ilk like Bill Clinton who just can't be satisfied to sit back and enjoy his millions, but has to continue to be a disruptive influence. In mega-mouth instance I guess he's ashamed of all the evidence coming out lately about how corrupt his regime was, and now he's afraid about further humiliations.

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