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FEER: Another Man Down?
By Simon Elegant
16/5/2001 8:24 pm Wed
A politically cornered Mahathir takes aim at an old friend, Finance
BY SIMON ELEGANT Kuala Lumpur
Why is Mahathir throwing veiled barbs at his old pal?
Apparently because he has his own back to the wall. Faced
with hemorrhaging support in his core constituency, the
country's indigenous Malay population, Mahathir is setting out
on a major cleanup campaign aimed at refurbishing his own
image and that of his party. Both have long been tainted by
allegations of cronyism, corruption and arrogance. For many
observers both in and outside of the party, the Prime Minister
will almost surely be forced to jettison some of his closest
political allies. "He will do things that no other politician will do,"
says Sharir Samad, a senior UMNO member and frequent
Many among the party faithful concede that the Prime Minister
has to take action or risk losing the next election, which has to
be called by early 2004. The party has been in power for 44
years; critics say it is neglecting its mission to serve the people.
"The image is that UMNO is a party of rich people, with
ostentatious wealth both at the bottom and the top," says Sharir.
Just how far the Prime Minister is willing to go to restore the
party's image will become evident in the next few weeks. "We
are definitely at a major turning point," says Manu Bhaskaran,
chief Asian economist at SG Securities. So far, most of the
casualties have been relatively small fry: six party functionaries
were suspended for practicing "money politics" during recent
party elections. But a clear indication of Mahathir's resolve will
come when the party's Supreme Council decides whether or not
to take disciplinary action against UMNO secretary-general
Khalil Yaacob. Although accusations of corruption against
Khalil were brought by a lowly state assemblyman, they have
received extensive coverage in the tightly controlled press,
potentially a bad sign for Khalil.
But most of the discussions taking place in Kuala Lumpur's
smoke-filled rooms center on the Daim-Mahathir split. Daim is
currently traveling in the U.S., following the Prime Minister's
announcement in mid-April that his longtime confidant was
taking an unusual three-month break from his job. When asked
whether the decision to take leave was a precursor to Daim's
resignation, Mahathir declined to elaborate, saying: "If you ask
me and I answer, he might get angry."
Officials, meanwhile, are said to be attacking the absent
Finance Minister freely, particularly his recent decisions to bail
out-with public funds-businessmen regarded as protEgEs. Just
how far Mahathir will go to distance himself from his old friend is
unclear. Political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say they are
watching closely to see whether Daim's business associates
come under intensified official scrutiny. But the Prime Minister
might decline to escalate the rift to the public sphere.
Conspiracy theorists say he wouldn't dare. "Daim just knows too
much, all the political and financial secrets of the past 20
years," says a veteran observer who knows both men well. Both
have repeatedly denied there is any bad blood between them or
that Daim plans to leave office. Many political pundits expect
Daim to quietly resign after a decent interval. That would allow
him to return to private life-something he has been talking about
for years-and allow Mahathir to show that he is serious about
reform. "He can say, 'You see, I am getting rid of my closest
friends as well as my enemies,'" says Sharir.
But the Prime Minister's high-stakes political strategy is fraught
with danger. If figures like Daim and Khalil are in trouble, other
politicians in Kuala Lumpur can't help but feel nervous. That's
surely the case with Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi. Three previous Deputy Prime Ministers have fallen by
the wayside, including his imprisoned predecessor Anwar
Ibrahim. And now, with the Prime Minister apparently renewing
contacts with perennial contender Razaleigh Hamzah, the last
thing Abdullah needs is to get caught in the middle of a political
earthquake. "Mahathir had better make sure that while he's
trimming the deadwood he doesn't saw off the branch he's
sitting on," says a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. But, then,
Mahathir is the great survivor of Malaysian politics.