Cold war between Najib, Mahathir

Both men celebrated their birthdays within a fortnight of each other but neither sent greetings to the other. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad turned a golden 90 on July 10 while Datuk Seri Najib Razak celebrated his 62nd birthday on July 23.

On Friday, Berjaya Corp which is owned by tycoon Vincent Tan - 14th-richest man in Malaysia, according to Forbes - hosted its annual Mahathir birthday bash. When reporters pressed Dr Mahathir for his birthday wish, he flashed his famous ironic smile and said his wish was for Mr Najib to "retire pleasantly" and to "enjoy his retirement". A common refrain among many Umno politicians is that they are unsure whether Dr Mahathir is trying to save or destroy Umno. They say that although Dr Mahathir claims he is criticising Mr Najib out of love for Umno, they are not feeling the love. They understand he wants Mr Najib to resign because of the 1MDB saga. But they argue that Dr Mahathir has to accept that the party has chosen to stand by Mr Najib.

Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's swift exit from the premiership was possible because the party went along with Dr Mahathir. But it is a different story with Mr Najib and they want the investigations into 1MDB to be completed before passing judgment on their leader.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, surrounded by his bodyguards, at his Putrajaya office. PHOTO: REUTERS
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad has been calling for PM Najib to step down. PHOTO: THE STAR PUBLICATION

Besides, there have been so many confusing twists and turns in the 1MDB issue that they are no longer sure where the truth really lies. They respect Dr Mahathir as one of the cleverest prime ministers ever but they doubt his real motives. "The way he is doing it, he is not helping Umno. It is as though he wants to destroy our party. Even if he has disagreements, he can do it in a more constructive way," said Kelantan Umno information chief Alwi Che Ahmad.

Umno supreme council member Johari Ghani, who often describes himself as a product of the Mahathir era, made an impassioned appeal: "I respect Mahathir and what he has done for the country. But I am also pleading to him to be fair and not to undermine the system. There is a high-level investigation on, we cannot pass judgment without clear-cut evidence."

Mr Alwi said the 1MDB issue was too complex for most people and that state Umno leaders were more concerned about how to deliver the election promises they had made and about PAS and the new Gerakan Harapan Baru group. He said Kelantan Umno is standing by Mr Najib in this crisis, just as it had stood by Dr Mahathir when the latter took on the Malay rulers and tried to change the Constitution.

"We supported Mahathir through one crisis after another. It is only fair we do the same for Najib. This is not a football game, changing a prime minister is not like changing players on the field," said Mr Alwi.

He also pointed out that Mr Najib is the third premier Dr Mahathir has gone after. The first victim, said Mr Alwi, was Tunku Abdul Rahman, who went from being the "happiest prime minister in the world" to former prime minister of Malaysia after the 1969 race riots. Dr Mahathir, then an Umno young Turk, played a leading role in that episode.

But Dr Mahathir also had more than his share of troubles with former prime ministers. He had to face the combined wrath of two predecessors when Tunku and Tun Hussein Onn ganged up with Semangat 46 to campaign against him in the 1990 general election.

The average Umno member is generally unclear about the complexities of the 1MDB issue. What they do know is that it has created a crisis of confidence about the government, especially among the urban and thinking class.

Umno has more or less written off the Chinese vote, given the way almost every issue is polarised along the race line. Its concern is with young Malay voters. There will be some 5.2 million new voters by the next general election and Umno is worried about the impact of issues like GST and 1MDB on the new voters.

The ruling coalition is not in the best of shape and it can take comfort only in the fact that Pakatan Rakyat or whatever remains of it is in greater disarray and does not have a prime-minister candidate.

Mubarak, the Malaysian council of former elected representatives, is one of those groups which have been stuck in a conflicted situation. Its patron is Dr Mahathir and its adviser is Mr Najib. Mubarak president Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman said: "Let me put it this way: Najib is not going any time soon." Or as a former prime ministerial aide put it: "It is delusional to think that Najib will step down. The bulk of Umno is with him and, for as long as that is the case, it is hard to buck him."

Moreover, the 1MDB issue is still unfolding, producing dramatic exposes every other day and lending credence to claims of hidden hands, power play, foreign meddling and a conspiracy to topple the government.

Malaysians have seen how the opposition has pulled out every trick in the bag to inch its way to Putrajaya. Likewise, Mr Najib and his coalition will do what it takes to hold on.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline Cold war between Najib, Mahathir. Subscribe