He helped rid two PMs, will Pak Lah be next?

Is Pak Lah the third prime minister to be brought down by Dr Mahathir Mohamad?

Not only did Mahathir send off three of his four deputies – Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim – in his half-a-century political career, he has contributed to the downfall of two of the three Malaysian prime ministers – Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn. The second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, whom Mahathir is closely aligned to, died in office.

Mahathir is poised to doing it again with his latest outburst, despite claiming that he had no intention to bring down Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whom he accused of betraying his trust.

How did Mahathir contribute to the Tunku’s downfall?

In the aftermath of May 13 incident Mahathir wrote a bitter, ostensibly confidential, letter to the Tunku urging him to resign from office. The letter was distributed “by the thousands”, according to the Tunku, and resulted in student demonstrations.

Ironically, Anwar Ibrahim, then a University of Malaya student leader, was instrumental in both the distribution of letter and demonstration – the first collaboration between the two arguably most interesting politicians in Malaysian history.

The Tunku initially blamed the May 13 incident on the communists and Chinese secret society elements but Home Affairs Minister Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman thought otherwise, “we found that they (the communists) were as surprised as we were”.

Mahathir’s letter placed the responsibility for May 13 squarely on Tunku’s shoulders. The Tunku, according to Mahathir, gave “…the Chinese what they demand The Malays, whom you thought will not revolt, have lost their minds and ran amok, sacrificing their lives and killing those whom they hate, because you have given them [the Chinese] too much face. The responsibility for the deaths of these people, Muslims and infidels, must be shouldered by a leader who was under a misconception.”

[Original text: Orang2 Melayu yang Tunku fikir tidak memberontak telah-pun menjadi gila dan mengamok sehingga mengorbankan nyawa mereka dan membunoh orang yang mereka benchi kerana Tunku terlangsong bagi muka. Tanggong-jawab tentang mati-nya orang2 ini, Islam dan kafir, terpaksa di-letak di-atas bahu pemimpin yang salah pendapat.]

Though this ‘major bruise’ inflicted on the Tunku was retaliated with the expulsion of Mahathir from Umno, his interpretation of events has since become government policies. The Tunku stepped down a year later. And, as they say, the rest is history.

But what about third prime minister, Hussein Onn?

While debatable, the late MGG Pillai’s version of 1978 Umno elections may have some truths. An Umno lightweight Sulaiman Ahmad aka Sulaiman Palestine challenged Hussein for the Umno presidency and received more than a quarter of the total votes. While not intending to defeat Hussein, it was the first time that the Umno president was challenged in an election. The move undermined Hussein’s legitimacy. Citing ill-health, he resigned in 1981 to make way for Mahathir.

Most believed that Harun Idris, then imprisoned for graft, engineered Sulaiman’s challenge but Pillai thought that it was set up by Mahathir. Whether or not Mahathir had a role in it, he was the clear beneficiary of Hussein’s departure.

Despite being the second-in-command, deputy prime minister Mahathir was constantly under threat from various quarters, particularly the then home minister Ghazali Shafie (left), who wielded a lot of influence on Hussein. The ambitious Ghazali attempted to implicate Mahathir as a communist agent. Failing which, three days before Mahathir sworn in as prime minister, Ghazali detained Mahathir’s top aide, Siddiq Mohamed Ghouse, who was alleged to have been a KGB agent.

Thus, Mahathir was desperate for an end to the Hussein era so that he could consolidate his power as the new PM.

Khairy the real target

While a single incident of outburst will not bring down a prime minister, Mahathir’s recent declaration of war has crossed a psychological barrier. It was previously hard for political opponents to attack Pak Lah the person, and the Islamic party PAS learnt it in the hard way in 2004.

Mahathir’s censure comes at a time when Pak Lah’s popularity is slowing fading. The high hopes placed on Abdullah for his transformational potentials declines as he flip-flops on police reforms, anti-graft and other policy matters. There is no sense of change for the better.

Further, Abdullah is no longer immune from accusations of cronyism as his son and son-in-law expanded their influence in the business and political arenas. Indeed, some believe that Mahathir’s barb against Abdullah was in part targeted at Khairy Jamaluddin, who has at various occasions portrayed the Abdullah administration as distinctively different from, and less corrupt than, Mahathir’s.

And, the economy is not doing well either, at least from the perspective of a layperson. Inflation, fuel, interest rate and utilities have all surged. Mahathirnomics, for all its faults, did allow some money to change hand and thus keep the economy going, though at the expense of future generation.

Abdullah’s neo-liberal economics is heading nowhere. A vicious cycle of high inflation, a drop in consumption, reduced business confidence, thus domestic investment, and ultimately lesser jobs seems to have taken place. Worst still, interest rate is on the rise, which may well dampen new investments. All these do not bode well for the Abdullah administration. And, if the US economy were to crash, Malaysia will be hard hit.

It’s time for Abdullah to be bold in fulfilling his reform agenda to rescue himself from a precarious position which could create the conditions for Mahathir to bag his third scalp.

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