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Asiaweek: Rebranding Mahathir
By Arjuna Ranawana, Penny Crisp

23/6/2001 9:52 am Sat

[Mahathir kelihatan bersungguh mahu membanteras politik wang tetapi kerana baru sekarang selepas 20 tahun bergelumang dengan dosa dan rasuah yang lalu lalang. Tidak mungkin Mahathir tidak tahu Daim menyuap Harun Idris untuk menjadi hartawan. Mengapa Mahathir memberi kepercayaan kepada seorang penyamun dan peniaga garam yang sudah kecundang ini? Mengapa dia berkawan dengan Daim sekiranya dia benar-benar ikhlas dan membenci korupsi dan wang?

Isu Daim adalah isu yang boleh memusnahkan Mahathir - sebab itulah dia begitu takut untuk menyebutnya dalam ucapan itu. Kata orang kawan penyamun adalah penyamun juga nampaknya ada benarnya. Dia hanya berpisah bila sudah terdesak sahaja. Kalaulah tiada yang bising, Daim akan dikekalkan sahaja. Sekarang ini pun Daim masih memegang kerusi Merbok kerana kesungguhan Mahathir cuma setakat di dalam dewan PWTC itu sahaja. Kes Khalil Yakob nampaknya tiada apa-apa sedangkan bukti sudah cukup sehingga mengadap Sultan akhirnya. Itu sudah menjawab beberapa teka-teki tanpa perlu pening kepala siapakah Khalil yang sebenarnya. Dan inilah juga kawan Mahathir yang erat juga...
- Editor
] nations/0,8782,132147,00.html

JUNE 29, 2001

Rebranding Mahathir

A few months ago, Malaysia's helmsman sounded like he was headed for retirement. Now he's shaking up the ruling party and making it clear he's still in charge


If all the contradictions in life and love could be rendered in stone or paint, Mahathir Mohamad would make a fine artist's model. This is a democrat who has ruled for 20 years by the force of his own will; a free marketeer who imposed capital controls; a physician-turned politician who wounded more naysayers than he healed. Now in the twilight of his extraordinary political career, Mahathir last week pulled one more paradox out of the hat. At perhaps his weakest ebb in two decades, the Malaysian Prime Minister came surging home like a spring tide. At his most vulnerable, he was at his best.

What a difference a show of strength makes. As the crucial June 21-23 general assembly of Malaysia's dominant United Malays National Organization loomed, there was talk of mutiny in the ranks. Malay voters were disillusioned with the ruling coalition, party hacks resentful of the waning support. But in one fell swoop Mahathir grabbed a few controversial issues by the throat and throttled them. There would be no more money politics in the ruling UMNO coalition, the party president announced. He had already sacrificed his ties to his closest ally and party fund-raiser, Daim Zainuddin. Then he lopped off the heads of 15 UMNO members found to have breached disciplinary rules, putting the fear of God into the rest. Mahathir even insisted that his coalition partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association, put its house in order. The rebranding of UMNO had begun in earnest. The Great Survivor was back.

Will it work? Certainly the party men were impressed. "It has sent a shock wave," says Mohamad Feizal Sharif, an UMNO delegate from Penang. "We can see that the PM is very serious." Moreover, nary a peep of dissent leaked out from Mahathir's fiercest critics within UMNO. Supreme Council member Shahrir Abdul Samad, who had claimed that the prime minister embodied all the party's problems, backed off smartly.

The resignation of Daim, who was perceived to be using government funds to bail out failing businesses, was a Mahathir coup that few expected. "During Daim's tenure [as finance minister], money was not spent properly and we have been complaining," says Shahrir. "Now there is more hope for greater transparency and accountability so that the image of the government and the party can be improved." Indeed, as rumors of Daim's impending arrest swirled around Kuala Lumpur - soundly scotched by both Mahathir and his deputy, Abdullah Badawi - one veteran UMNO politician summed up the mood. "I never thought I would live to see the day when we would hear rumors of Daim's imminent arrest under a Mahathir government," he observed. "It just goes to show how much Mahathir wants to stay."

Voters may be harder to sway. Their rejection of the ruling coalition candidate at a by-election in Mahathir's home state of Kedah last year triggered the party rethink. But the first rumblings of unrest in the electorate came during the last general election in 1999, when UMNO's share of parliamentary seats dropped from 94 to 72. Then, the opposition campaigned on two primary issues - the first, its claim that Mahathir was tolerating cronyism, corruption and nepotism. Renowned UMNO watcher A.B. Shamsul, an anthropology professor at the National University of Malaysia, says Mahathir's heavy- handed crackdown on money politics will quiet some critics. "This is not mere window dressing," Shamsul says. "Disciplinary action has been taken and that has caused the prime minister to risk losing some friends."

But the second prong of the opposition attack is harder to blunt. Led by Parti Islam SeMalaysia, opposition politicians worked hard to foster revulsion over the treatment meted out to sacked deputy prime minister and heir apparent Anwar Ibrahim. Currently serving a 15-year jail sentence on charges of corruption and s###my, Anwar consistently has accused Mahathir of using the courts to railroad him. In response, Mahathir approved the appointment of the widely respected Dzaiddin Abdullah to the position of chief justice in December (see following story). In no way could Dzaiddin be construed as the prime minister's tool. "But the Malay public at large is not yet convinced," says Shamsul. "What will truly convince them will be the way Mahathir deals with Anwar in the future." A more humane approach will translate into increased support, Shamsul believes.

Other Mahathir tinkerings have already won kudos. He initiated moves to allow new UMNO members to stand for election immediately, rather than waiting for five years. He also cut though the red tape for approving membership. Hoping to attract more women into the fold, he set up a new UMNO women's wing and put an outspoken feminist lawyer in charge. Next month the prime minister will chair a brainstorming session with 22 leading Malay intellectuals to devise a strategy to deal with the country's increasingly rebellious youth. Thousands of new young voters are expected to play a crucial role in the 2004 general election, and many are already leaning toward the opposition. Mahathir is seeking the means to woo them.

Burnishing the party's image will take more than a brainstorming session. His second son, Mokhzani, sold his shares in two companies with government contracts, then surrendered an UMNO position. The prime minister pushed the UMNO disciplinary board, set up early this year, to investigate six senior members on money politics charges. They were subsequently suspended for six years. On the eve of UMNO's general assembly, nine more party officials were disciplined. Says Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi: "The perception that UMNO is a corrupted institution must be changed. UMNO needs to take firm steps to restore its credibility and image so that some people no longer view it with contempt or disgust."

That won't be easy, particularly because even Mahathir admits that no cleanup can be complete. He described to the press the contents of his pre-assembly briefing to the 2,000-plus delegates: "I explained the process of determining who was guilty or not guilty regarding money politics. I explained that in matters such as these there might be people who got away, while those who were unlucky got caught." Among those before the disciplinary board - still sorting through 368 complaints - is UMNO secretary-general Khalil Yaacob. A fellow UMNO member had claimed in a report to police that Khalil acted corruptly when he served as chief minister of Pahang state.

Mahathir will likely spend the next two years trying to further sanitize UMNO, before leading the party into the 2004 general election. Some think he might then step aside as prime minister but stay on as the UMNO president - delinking for the first time the two positions. A senior advisory role could be in the cards. For that to happen, though, Mahathir needs to ensure that the ruling coalition hangs on to power.

Asked if the anti-graft moves will improve UMNO's standing, the prime minister replied only: "Rejuvenate or not, I don't know." But with a 20-year legacy on the line, he's unlikely to let up any time soon. And in Malaysian politics, only the strong survive.