Leaving Umno the Mahathir way: Mahathir and Abdullah

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badawi and mahathirThe BN sorely requires reinventing, not least because the MCA, Gerakan and MIC have blamed Umno’s arrogance and excesses for their defeats, writes Khoo Boo Teik, in the second of a three-part series. While Mahathir has gone for broke, Abdullah can neither assuage Umno’s partners’ demoralisation nor reduce Umno’s power within the BN, without which there can be no revitalisation.

Strategically, that might have been why Mahathir quit UMNO – to rally the led from the outside when even disgruntled divisional and higher leaders won’t or can’t openly dissent for fear of swift retribution from the incumbents’ camp.

Everything’s lost

In fact, Mahathir loses nothing by doing so because he’s lost everything since he retired.

Nothing that Mahathir demanded throughout his big quarrel with Abdullah – from the reversal of project reversals to the latter’s departure – has he obtained.

Mahathirism, that bold, even inspiring ideology of economic nationalism and the remaking of Malaysian society, is routinely rubbished for cronyistic corruption, institutional wreckage, and personal diktat.

At their General Assembly in June 2002, many leaders of his Umno had begged Mahathir not to retire abruptly. Within four years, however, they’d vulgarly gutted his grandiose vision of a Bangsa Malaysia.

Now, ‘Lingamgate’ may ensnare him (along with Tun Eusof fChin, Tun Ahmad Fairuz, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun, and Datuk V K Lingam) in official investigations over suspected manipulation of high judicial appointments.

Everyone’s returned

It must unnerve Mahathir that those whom he’d defeated have all bounced back.

The impeached, sacked and suspended judges of 1988, recently rehabilitated, are public heroes, he the remembered villain.

The Malay Rulers have asserted their power more strenuously than at any time since 1984, his fight with them forgotten in an Umno chorus to rally the Malays around their rulers. For Mahathir, indeed, ‘Umno is no longer respected by the Malay Rulers.’

His old Team B foes – Razaleigh and Abdullah, and Tun Musa Hitam – are respectively active politicians and an elder statesman, he a cantankerous Old Man, or, as Musa described him, a ‘thorn in Umno’s flesh’ that had voluntarily removed itself.

Sabah, whose regionalist dissent he quashed, and whose peninsula-styled Umno-dominated politics he imposed, is again restive but now holds the key to Umno’s survival in power.

Even the mass media pour scorn on him, he whose words and pictures they’d slavishly used to adorn their front pages, once upon a time in Malaysia.

And the worst of all possible scenarios has come with a vengeance. Anwar has returned, morally vindicated via Lingam-gate, politically resurgent, riding the crest of the tsunami.

Mahathir once said, ‘I couldn’t care less whether people remember me or not. What does it matter if I [have made] history or not when I’m dead … You can’t determine what kind of judgement history is going to pass on you.’

Yet, he must suspect at this moment that History might have little good to say of ‘Mahathir’s legacy’, in contrast to the sycophantic accolades he received on the eve of his retirement.

If he can’t have it

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For Mahathir, Umno had ignored him after he retired, stopped him from being elected a delegate of Kubang Pasu division which he’d headed for 22 years, and wouldn’t back his call to revolt against Abdullah.

In the assessment of Mahathir, whom Maznah Mohamad once described as the ‘last Malay rebel’, Umno was simply not brave enough to assert itself even when its survival was at stake. Hence, he was ‘compelled to leave a party that was known as Umno but was actually no longer Umno’.

In effect, he disowned it, leaving himself party-less for the third time in his political life.

The first time was his expulsion from Umno in 1969–72. The second was a mere legalistic interlude in 1988, between Umno’s deregistration and Umno Baru’s formation. This third time is a self-imposed exclusion that will remain unless and until Abdullah is replaced as Umno President.

One might say that, as usual, Mahathir’s offered ‘leadership by example’. He’s urged Umno’s elected representatives and leaders to follow him out of the party to force Abdullah out of the leadership.

He wants those embittered by 8 March, disenchanted with Abdullah, or courted by Anwar not to hop over to Pakatan Rakyat. They should exit Umno, stay independent, wait for someone ‘braver’ to replace Abdullah, and then return to Umno to reconstitute the BN government.

What a tortuous tactical option that is!

It ill befits the man’s reputation as a master of manoeuvre. What with one son, Mokhzani, quitting, but another, Mukhriz, remaining in the Umno Youth Exco, if there is method to this madness, nonetheless it is madness of a sort.

Still, Mahathir makes a crucial point. He’d made the point thrice before – in 1969 when he attacked Tunku, in 1988 when he permitted Umno to be deregistered, and in 1998 when he smashed Anwar: if he can’t have the party, he’s prepared to have no party.

Detecting no clues

Against that singular resolve to go for broke, Abdullah pales, clueless as to how to get others to work with him, let alone work for him.

He’s blithely played down the scale of BN’s electoral setback, the erosion of Umno’s legitimacy and the disquiet among Umno’s BN partners. That doesn’t stanch the leakage of confidence in his performance as Umno President and as Prime Minister.

Rebuffed by many quarters, he alternates between keeping an ‘elegant silence’ and making flip-flop responses that observers regard to be evidence of a multi-dimensional disconnect from reality.

Abdullah yielded to the royal rejections of his nominees for Menteri Besar in Perlis and Terengganu. But he makes a show of directing the Attorney-General to investigate Karpal Singh for allegedly making seditious statements over the Perak Sultan’s prerogative in matters of Islam.

Abdullah concedes that Pakatan won the ‘cyberwar’ in the general election. But, mistaking the medium for the message, he bypasses the deep, deep grievances that sustained the cyberwar to begin with.

As before, he warns everyone, including Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, not to play ethnic politics. As in past years, he’s unwilling or unable to curb Umno’s more and more aggressive ‘defence of Malay rights’.

He tries to appease the Sabah parliamentary bloc he needs to keep the BN government intact. For his pains, he meets rising regionalist demands in the ‘crossover’ sandiwara (drama).

No reform or reinvention

When he embarks once more on reform as the solution to voter unhappiness, he runs aground in different ways.

By now, it’s evident he lacks a vision – for better or worse, something like the 2Ms’ vision, as Musa himself intimated – to ennoble his reform measures. As the composition of his Cabinet shows, Abdullah also lacks a paragon of propriety who can credibly lead a reform drive.

As such, when Abdullah refurbishes his 2004 promise of reform, talks of unshackling the judiciary, or speaks of tackling corruption, it’s mostly too little too late, as if he’s largely mounting a convenient counter-attack against Mahathir.

The BN sorely requires reinventing, not least because the MCA, Gerakan and MIC have blamed Umno’s arrogance and excesses for their defeats. But Abdullah can neither assuage Umno’s partners’ demoralisation nor reduce Umno’s power within the BN, without which there can be no revitalization.

Fearing impending irrelevance, Umno itself badly needs change. It could start by abolishing the nomination quota and liberalising its party election procedures to allow an infusion of new, young and untainted blood into its leadership. A move in that direction, however, is likely to lead to Abdullah’s own exit.

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