KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 31 — When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad retired on Oct 31, 2003 after 22 tumultuous years in power, he was the only prime minister many Malaysians ever knew. A decade later, his critics and supporters alike would not be faulted for wondering if he ever intended to leave the political scene.
Or is he even capable of letting go?
The evidence suggests not. After all he was a significant factor in the downfall of his immediate successor and a major reason why the country’s current prime minister came to power.
The man, now a sprightly 88-year-old, has spent a notable number of years in his 10-year retirement making splashes in the media, headlining events and even taking on the political stage for Barisan Nasional (BN) during the just-concluded May 5 general election.
Despite being retired, observers still accuse Dr Mahathir of leading a faction in the ruling Umno through his son Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, even if the latter’s loss in the vice-presidential race recently led to the conclusion that Team Mahathir’s influence has waned.
His former protege and all-time bitter rival Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim too has agreed that Dr Mahathir still commands a significant following in Umno, if not in Malaysian politics in general
But he blamed this on Dr Mahathir’s successors, saying they had allowed his former boss to remain “in power”.
“Of course Dr Mahathir has done a lot for the party, but today, he is still a very strong force to be reckoned with because there is a lack of courage and leadership in Umno,” the Opposition leader said when approached recently.
He noted it was natural for leaders, when they assume power, to be respectful of Dr Mahathir due to his contributions to the party and the nation.
“But they don’t need to be fearful or submissive to Dr Mahathir because in actuality, he does not represent the Umno ideal,” the Permatang Pauh MP said.
“Any Umno member knows Dr Mahathir, today, continues to represent the same cronyism, corrupt system and family interest but why there is no courage to speak up against him?” the PKR de facto leader said.
He then compared Dr Mahathir to Mahatma Gandhi, saying they were total opposites, calling the former the voice of corruption, cronyism and worst excesses.
“Gandhi’s influence is strong because his is the voice of conscience but Dr Mahathir’s influence is strong because there is no courage, no political will power to stand up against him and his corrupt ideals,” he said.
Dr Mahathir helmed the country for 22 years between 1981 and 2003.
He may have retired but has remained vocal on current issues and often speak out against his successors if he disagrees with their policies.
Just recently, Dr Mahathir took a swipe at Najib’s administration by calling it weak while accusing the administration of bowing down to “unreasonable demands” from extremist groups, especially from the opposition, to remain relevant to the public.
He blamed it on weak support from the people that had resulted in a weak government which led to a “lunatic fringe” holding sway over politics in the country.
His political rival and DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang pointed out that it was Dr Mahathir who was holding sway over politics in the country.
“He is the de facto political leader of Umno and indirectly, the country. Since his return to Umno in the last four years, there are viewpoints that he is the most powerful political figure in Umno, and that Najib will have to take into account his wishes and objectives,” Lim said.
The Gelang Patah MP noted that Dr Mahathir may not exert as much influence when it comes to Malaysians generally as proven by his win in Gelang Patah in the May 5 polls despite Dr Mahathir’s vow to “kuburkan” (bury) him there.
Lim believed Dr Mahathir’s continued influence in Malaysian politics is a bane and not a boon to Malaysia’s nation building in its goal to become a united, successful and competitive nation.
“We can see since the last elections, the country has never been more polarised thanks to him and since he rejoined Umno, his growing influence has impeded the recovery of national institutions and he has been an obstacle for the country to achieve Vision 2020 of a modern and democratic nation,” he said.
“That is the greatest irony of all, he is the greatest obstacle to achieving what he preached and what he advocated,” Lim added.
Dr Mahathir’s supporters, however, beg to differ.
A former civil servant who used to serve in the Prime Minister’s Department during the Mahathir administration said the latter was still influential as he was a visionary leader who thinks ahead of others.
Aiza AR, 42, pointed out that Dr Mahathir had placed Malaysia on the world map due to his iconic skyscraper, the Petronas Twin Towers and his other ambitious projects.
“He launched ambitious projects such as the new administrative centre in Putrajaya and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA),” she said.
“He saw that if we don’t do something such as from the aspect of development, the future will be difficult,” added the civil servant, who had also served during Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s time in government.
She believes the country still needs Dr Mahathir’s advice as “no leaders have been able to match his vision and ideas yet”.