Sunday, April 26, 2009

The X-factor in government

By JOCELINE TAN, THE STAR
TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad is back in the loop.

The invitations are flowing in again, his remarks are widely reported and a staggering 18 million visitors have been to his blog which he started only last May.

He caused a stir when he insisted that Umno should contest the Penanti by-election.

On Thursday, his view that a couple of politicians were not fit to be in the Cabinet was the talk of the town.

His remark about “friends of the foreign media” was another ouch! moment for those implicated. Those who had bitten the chilli felt the heat and complained that Dr Mahathir was at it again.

Actually, he is not at it again because he had never stopped. But for quite a while, what he said did not make it into the mainstream media, so it seemed as though he had been quiet.

Talking, as he had once said tongue-in-cheek, is his stock in trade.

The adulation that greeted his surprise appearance at Umno general assembly marked his return to the political mainstream. He was still a non-Umno member at that point yet he was feted like a returning hero.

“To me, he is one in a trillion. Now the party is complete,” said Tanjong Malay Association president Fadzil Shuib who had asked Dr Mahathir to speak at his AGM when people were still shying away.

There is a huge crowd out there who loves him and there are also those who love to hate him.

All this has led to talk of the return of Mahathirism which, for some, harks back to a more controlled style of politics and administration, or what political scientists know as guided democracy.

Dr Mahathir’s 22 years in power gave rise to a definite political culture and mode of governance. Some hanker for it, others are glad to have moved on.

But said Mahathir admirer Zakhir Mohamed: “People who treat Mahathirism as some sort of bogey are talking rubbish. To me, Mahathirism was about policies like Look East, Vision 2020, privatisation and Malaysia Inc. It was about big ideas and projects, bold decision-making, and the public and private sectors working to achieve economic growth.”

It is quite ridiculous to think that Najib would even think of trying to replicate Dr Mahathir’s political style.

Najib has been in politics 33 years and his first month in office has shown that he does not wish to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors nor will he ignore the good that has come out of their administration.

Dr Mahathir has said that he would not mind dispensing advice if invited. He knows that unsolicited advice can be taken as well as disregarded.

But the aura of the man is such that even if he is merely expressing his personal views in his blog, it is seen as no less than advice.

But he does not envisage a formal role and has said he is not interested in becoming Senior Minister or Minister Mentor as in the case of Singapore. He is shrewd enough to know that Malaysian politics is much more real and fluid than in Singapore and that it would not be accepted here.

There is a certain dynamics between the two men. They are not exactly friends, their age gap is too wide for that. Nor do they fall neatly into the mentor and mentee category.

However, there is genuine mutual regard and feeling for each other, maybe more so on the part of the younger man given that he is just starting out in a post that the elder man had been so unparalleled at.

Dr Mahathir had flown back from London so that he would be there to see Najib take his oath of office before the Agong. He sat stoney-faced through the formal ceremony but once the formalities were over, he beamed like a proud father. Some joked it was only then that the ever sceptical Dr Mahathir was convinced the power transition had happened.

Dr Mahathir’s sense of pride at Najib’s elevation was best demonstrated the next day when the former Premier, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali and their three sons and spouses arrived at the Prime Minister’s residence for brunch.

That was Significant Gesture No. 1 – Dr Mahathir was calling on the new Prime Minister. It was his way of saying that Najib had his blessing. Najib was waiting on the porch to greet Dr Mahathir. They shook hands, then Najib, taller by half a head, bent down to kiss Dr Mahathir on the cheek.

Then, to everyone’s amazement, Dr Mahathir held Najib’s head with one hand and kissed him back on the cheek.

These were not air kisses but lip-to-cheek contact. That was Significant Gesture No. 2 because as everyone knows, Dr Mahathir is not touchy-feely when it comes to non-family members. When he was Premier, he was notorious for pulling back his hand when politicians tried to kiss it.

The two families had a leisurely brunch, then Najib showed Dr Mahathir around the grounds. The highlight of the get-together was, of course, Dr Mahathir rejoining Umno. That he chose to hand in his application form the day after Najib became Prime Minister was Significant Gesture No. 3.

It was also a form of closure for Dr Mahathir after battling Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the key personalities around him the last four years.

There was also a poignancy to the moment. Dr Mahathir had left Umno twice. The first time he was expelled and, the second, in protest against Abdullah. Back then, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein had brought him back to Umno and now it was Razak’s son. These are bonds which cannot be underestimated.

Najib, said a political insider, is aware that Dr Mahathir supports him but, like a father figure, will not always praise him. Credit will come when it is due.

“I don’t think Tun expects Datuk Seri Najib to follow everything he says. He would want Najib to be his own man,” said the insider.

He did not hesitate to defend Najib recently when he slammed what he perceived as an orchestrated demonisation of Najib in the foreign media.

Prior to the Umno leadership transition being brought forward, Dr Mahathir had been frustrated and angry over Najib’s refusal to push Abdullah off the stage and had called him names to that effect.

But Najib did not lash back unlike some Umno politicians who were jumping on the bandwagon to criticise the elder man.

“He sees Dr Mahathir as an asset. His experience and world view is something money cannot buy and the PM would want to tap into that when needed. Even if there is disagreement, I can see the PM disagreeing without being rude or making Tun Mahathir feel hurt or sidelined,” said the political insider.

Najib’s deft touch in navigating the touchy ties between the two Tuns was evident in his winding-up speech at the Umno general assembly.

He paid a heartfelt tribute to the outgoing Prime Minister as the former Premier watched on from the gallery seat above. Then glancing up at Dr Mahathir, he said he was confident that Dr Mahathir in his heart of hearts had never really left Umno.

He said he aspired to stand alongside the two statesman but admitted with a smile that any meeting of hearts between the two men would take a while.

“I don’t see Datuk Seri Najib walking in anyone’s shadow. Tun Mahathir will give his views but the PM will not swallow everything and he will not be kurang ajar because he has too much respect for Tun,” said Juhaidi Yean Abdullah, a former ministerial aide and now a full-time restaurateur.

Dr Mahathir will remain a big factor to the new administration not because of the shadow of Mahathirism but simply because when he speaks, people listen. He is still a powerful voice.

The former Premier’s problems with Dr Mahathir had partly to do with the people surrounding him. Najib’s boon is that a large number of the people and staff around him are partial to Dr Mahathir.

This buffer group will help ensure that relations with the country’s No. 1 political icon stay as smooth as possible.

But the bottom line is that Najib is a polished politician and that will dictate his relationships with party elders like Dr Mahathir.

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