Thursday, July 27, 2006

Looking for the Next Better Player

The ongoing rift between Tun Mahathir and PM Abdullah has all the ingredients needed to keep conspiracy theorists awake a little longer each night. Aside from the two key actors, we have three PMs-in-waiting (Najib, Anwar and Khairy), and four Malaysian corporations (Proton, Petronas, MAS and Gerbang Perdana) against a backdrop of issues ranging from approved permits, sale of MV Augusta, the (non) bridge and sale of sand to Singapore.

The cover story is that Mahathir and Abdullah have differing visions for Malaysia. Looking into the past, many observers uncover clues as so why this rift was inevitable -- different approach to fiscal policies, different groups of loyalists within UMNO. The less polite would simply point out that Mahathir was unhappy that Abdullah's failure to continue with the mega projects meant that Mahathir's biggest fans would suffer financially.

I think we should look forward instead. This is the window during which the future premier of Malaysia will be decided. Until recently, Najib was the heir apparent. Anwar was out of jail, but also mostly out of town. Khairy -- for all his apparent intellect and oratorical skills -- is still way too young.

The traditional view was that Najib belonged to Mahathir's camp. (Actually, the traditional view was that Mahathir and Abdullah were in the same camp ... but look how things have changed). Now Najib -- and the rest of the Cabinet and anyone else who matters -- has to take sides. Najib, albeit not vigorously, has publicly sided with Abdullah. Not surprising since there is very little that Mahathir can do for him now.

Anwar has apparently been back in town and taking pot shots at both sides, so much the better to bolster his image of being independent and uncorrupted. There was little doubt that he had enough charm left in him to make a re-entry into UMNO when he wanted -- Opposition politics is never an option if you want to be PM -- but the ongoing exercise in (re-) alignment of loyalties by UMNO members might provide an even more promising context for Anwar.

Khairy may stand a chance of being PM if Abdullah were to serve two terms; he would still be rather young, being slightly south of 40, but it is not unthinkable if his stars are in alignment. However, Abdullah may not serve out two full terms. If media appearances are anything to go by, he seems rather unenergetic since the death of his wife, Endon. It might well be that his response of ""elegant silence"" to Mahathir's remarks reflect a lack of fight rather than strategic spin control. If this is so, Khairy will need to build an alliance with either Anwar or Najib if he harbours the big office in Putrajaya someday.

Straits Times
July 22, 2006 Sat
Big welcome expected at airport; ex-PM to give public talk in opposition-held Kelantan next Friday

KUALA LUMPUR - AFTER a three-week vacation, Tun Dr
Mahathir Mohamad will return home this morning amid
widespread expectations that he will pick up from where
he left off in attacking the Abdullah administration.

The 80-year-old former prime minister is slated to give
a public talk in Kelantan next Friday in a move that
will set tongues wagging because he is following in the
footsteps of rebel politicians who head to the east
coast state to gain support.

Kelantan is the only Malaysian state that is ruled by
the opposition and is often used as a test bed when
trying to gain the hearts and minds of Malays in times
of political trouble.

In 1998, after then Prime Minister Mahathir sacked his
then deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the latter went
to Kelantan. There, he received an indication of the
popularity of his cause when more than 30,000 people
listened to his speech at the Kota Baru stadium and
shouts of 'reformasi' were heard.

'Kelantan is where Umno is weakest and the Malays are
more willing to hear alternative views. The culture of
rebellion is strong,' said a leader of Parti Islam
SeMalaysia (PAS), which rules the state.

The return of Tun Dr Mahathir today is expected to bring
on a show of force by his supporters.

A group calling itself Gen M, or Generasi Mahathir, is
organising the homecoming via SMS and e-mail. It said it
expects between 300 and 500 people to be at the airport
in Subang.

Some expect even more people to turn up.
'I heard a lot of Umno guys are going on their own as
obviously this is not sanctioned by the party,' said an
Umno Youth official.

A rough indicator of how hot the issue has become is
this: A Gen M leader said its website, which advertised
free 'I support Dr M' T-shirts, has received 9,000
requests. It has sent out 300 T-shirts and will give out
another 300 today.

Holding welcome ceremonies at airports is a long-held
Umno tradition for top leaders who return from abroad.
In times of crisis, these are often turned into a show
of force.

Supporters of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi turned out
in force when he returned from Australia last Saturday.
More than 2,000 thronged the Subang air force base in
Selangor with banners and buntings showing they were
behind him.

Many will therefore be watching how big a crowd will
gather for Tun Dr Mahathir's return today.

But more than this, his plan to speak in Kelantan is
worrying Umno leaders as it could expand his views of
current issues outside Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs.
Besides the public talk at a hall that can hold 700
people organised by a group of Umno veterans, several
hundred people are said to have been invited to attend a
dinner that same night.

Tun Dr Mahathir has claimed the mainstream media was
selective in giving him coverage or had portrayed him as
an angry old man when it did report on him.

So, the Kelantan visit makes sense as he wants people
there to be able to listen directly to his views.

Helping him circumvent the mainstream media are several
bloggers, who have been at the forefront of giving his
views maximum publicity.

Additionally, VCDs of his talk at a private club in
Selangor last month have started appearing. The two-set
VCDs do not have a broadcast permit, usually found on
political speeches given by opposition leaders.

'The talk gave interesting insights into what the media
left out,' said one Madam Nor, who bought the RM10
(S$4.30) VCD titled Krisis at a stall outside a mosque
in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Such views worry the government. Especially since there
is talk that if the Kelantan visit goes down well, more
Mahathir road shows may be held in other states.