Oct 30, 2008

Tun Mahathir is back with a vengeance

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 — With a hit count reaching almost nine million in just one year, it would not be wrong to describe former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Malaysia's most successful blogger.

His blog, chedet.com, routinely attracts hundreds of comments, and is frequently quoted by the mainstream media. Ironically, he started the blog only because he was blacked out in the media for his harsh criticism of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Five years to the day since his retirement in 2003, Dr Mahathir's influence seems to be growing steadily as Malaysia readies for a new prime minister by the end of March next year.

His every move is dissected for its significance. When he showed up at International Trade Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's Hari Raya open house last week, it stirred much excitement as it was perceived as an endorsement of the minister. This can count for a lot in the upcoming election in Umno, whose members still love him.

Is Dr Mahathir making a political comeback? Not exactly. But there is a strong belief that his influence is on the rise.

Observers suggest that he could have a big say in the next administration after he played a key role in securing the early retirement of Abdullah, who was blamed for the poor showing of the Barisan Nasional in the March polls.

Many believe that Dr Mahathir's skilful manoeuvres behind the scenes were instrumental in getting Deputy Premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak to persuade Abdullah to retire earlier than his original plan of June 2010. The whiff of resurgent power has sent Umno leaders and the media flocking to Dr Mahathir again, and he is back in the limelight after five years of being out in the cold.

“His views are being reported more widely, precisely because many people think that he will make a comeback,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.

Professor Agus Yusoff, from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, agreed that this was one perception, but felt that the bigger reason was the weakness of the current leadership.

“His views are being heard now because people are looking for better leadership. They see Dr Mahathir as experienced, and his views relevant,” he said.

Things have come full circle for Dr Mahathir, 82. His star dimmed soon after his retirement when Abdullah won a massive mandate in 2004. But the former premier soon sprang back into limelight after he began to give voice to public misgivings about Abdullah's weak administration.

His attacks gripped Malaysians for months in 2005, but they soon wore thin — until the March election that saw the BN suffer heavy losses. His campaign to topple his successor gained unstoppable momentum, returning him to a position of influence. Dr Mahathir's recent blog entry criticising the reach of vote-buying, or “money politics”, in Umno was debated widely in Umno circles.

His most recent acerbic comments on Najib's alleged young advisers sparked even more talk.

In a blog entry on Tuesday, he warned Najib not to repeat the mistake of cloistering himself with young advisers as Abdullah had, to the anger of Umno.

Dr Mahathir named consultancy firm Ethos as the Deputy Premier's adviser, and claimed that it also had links to Abdullah's young advisers.

“They (Ethos) are interested in getting a portion of the EPF worth RM300 billion to manage its investments, apparently with returns of up to 40 per cent,” he wrote, referring to the Employees Provident Fund.

The management of Ethos was quoted in The Edge business weekly recently about their interest in managing part of EPF investments. Najib has not responded.

Political observers believe that he will not marginalise the former premier, especially after seeing how Dr Mahathir's constant sniping damaged Abdullah's reputation.

“Najib will certainly prefer to have Dr Mahathir inside as an adviser rather than outside lobbing criticism at him,” said Ong.

This has led some people to predict a return of Mahathirism, suggesting a stronger hand on government than Abdullah's looser style. But Najib's supporters have denied this perception.

“Najib is not a puppet, he will have his own way and will want to make his own mark,” said Agus.

Meanwhile, Dr Mahathir's every move and word will continue to be watched, and his blog can expect to hit the 10 million mark very soon.

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