Oct 26, 2006

PM Abdullah Badawi in combative mood against Mahathir: officials

As long as Tun Mahathir's children have more government contracts than PM's son, then everything will be ok?

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has upped the ante in a bitter feud with ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, hitting out at the former leader for the first time, officials said Friday.

But even as Abdullah signalled a gloves-off approach, Mahathir issued a stinging assault over the Internet, saying a "climate of fear has enveloped the country" and asserting his right to criticise Abdullah.

Abdullah has for months delivered only muted responses to attacks from Mahathir, 82, who has accused his hand-picked successor of nepotism, corruption, economic mismanagement and wrong-headed policies.

But showing his frustration, Abdullah said late Thursday he was "disappointed and sad" over the row, and blamed Mahathir for continuing a dispute that has shocked the country's ruling party and many Malaysians.

"God knows," he was quoted as saying by the state Bernama news agency, when asked what would happen next, and if the row would end. "I don't know, it's up to Dr Mahathir."

Abdullah's comments were his first since a failed attempt at making peace with Mahathir in a two-hour meeting on Sunday, which was immediately followed by fresh attacks from the elder statesman.

In an unusual riposte, Abdullah said during the talks he refuted Mahathir's claims of nepotism involving his son Kamaluddin and Malaysian company Scomi, and accused Mahathir's sons of benefiting more under the ex-premier's tenure.

Kamaluddin is a major shareholder in the Scomi Group.

"The projects awarded to Dr Mahathir's children were far bigger than what Scomi received," said Abdullah.

Officials from the prime minister's office Friday said Abdullah's allegations of nepotism against Mahathir demonstrated a more combative mood from the premier.

"He was still jovial with reporters, he was composed, but he's in that fighting spirit," an aide told AFP.

Answering back Friday, Mahathir, calling himself a "Malaysian citizen and commoner" wrote a letter which an aide told AFP was sent to a number of websites, alleging he was being victimised because of his criticisms.

"Why did I criticise the prime minister? Because no one else is able to criticise the prime minister," he said in the letter addressed to the "citizens of Malaysia".

"Attempts are made to disparage me so badly that I am made out to be of unsound mind," he added in the letter, a copy of which was on news website Malaysiakini.

"Repeatedly, allegations were made that the administration during my time was worse," he said.

Mahathir, who has accused Abdullah of running a "police state" and curbing his right to speak, warned anyone criticising the premier would be blocked and accused the police and government of issuing threats to critics.

The threats includes "sacking, transfer to remote areas like in Sabah, retraction or cancellation of contracts, harassment by the banks, call-up by the police, the Anti-Corruption Agency and other government enforcement agencies," he said.

"No one dares to comment, criticise or oppose anything that is done by the prime minister," Mahathir said.

With no end in sight to the feud, analysts said the row was beginning to wear Malaysians down, while adding to growing uncertainty about Abdullah's leadership amid fears of an economic slowdown.

Maznah Mohamad, visiting senior research fellow with the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, said the crisis showed the "feel-good factor" around Abdullah's leadership was dissipating.

"Before, people felt it was good Abdullah Badawi was replacing Tun Mahathir and he was a breath of fresh air," said Maznah.

Now, "most Malaysians share the view that Abdullah Badawi is not an astute prime minister". - AFP/ir

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