KUALA LUMPUR, April 6 ― Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation as Proton chairman has further defanged his campaign against Putrajaya that remains ineffectual despite his vitriol, according to political watchers.
Forced to leave the company most associated with the industrialisation policies of his administration, they added the former prime minister’s exit from Proton and all other official posts will signal to observers his increasing isolation from the establishment.
While Dr Mahathir last week quit from four posts over his long-drawn acrimony with Putrajaya, it was his resignation from Proton that was most significant: the firm was his brainchild and he continued to champion its interests well after his retirement.
The loss-making national carmaker is desperate for a RM1.5 billion grant from Putrajaya for its continued financial health, leaving Dr Mahathir in an untenable position for as long as he remained with the firm.
“It may seem to be an admission that he can't hold on to these positions while seeking the PM's removal,” Centre for Policy Initiatives director Dr Lim Teck Ghee told Malay Mail Online.
“However the more important, unstated reason is his realisation that Proton is going to need further bailouts, which would make him lose more face and respect. Hence it seems an opportunistic time for him to jump off the Proton ship that he has been helming!” Lim explained.
Up until last week, the Proton chairmanship had remained the last high-profile post for Dr Mahathir, who was last month dropped as Petronas advisor over his continued bid to remove Datuk Seri Najib Razak as prime minister.
On March 31, Dr Mahathir announced that he was relinquishing all his government positions including his role as Proton Holdings’ chairman and chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Petronas.
For Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Dr Mahathir relinquishing these posts was simply reinforcement of the latter’s impuissance.
“Before August of last year he was a little bit of a nuisance to them. But with the mass firings in late July, he no longer figured that high, because Umno rank-and-file have been shown who's the boss!” Oh added.
But Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) Yusof Ishak Institute, said that while the resignations may have diminished Dr Mahathir’s influence, it could also make him more dangerous from desperation.
Having already resigned from Umno in protest, he said isolation could both bolster Dr Mahathir’s resolve to war against Putrajaya and encourage more co-operation with Umno’s critics and enemies, of whom there are many.
“This puts him in the same camp as a lot of other prominent people who are opposed to Najib, including more and more at the international level. I doubt the government will try to ignore him. Instead, he will be closely watched,” Ooi said in an email to Malay Mail Online.
Back home, Dr Faizal Hazis said it would be folly to discount Dr Mahathir’s sway with the public, with the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia saying the former prime minister was still held in high reverence in rural areas
The caveat, however, was that Dr Mahathir would only be a resource to Umno’s rivals only insofar as he was willing to dethrone the ruling party, a notion that he appeared unwilling to entertain.
Proton was set up by Dr Mahathir in 1983 and remains the poster child of the former prime minister’s industrialisation policies.
It had once dominated the local car market with over 70 per cent of sales, but this has since fallen to under 15 per cent and behind younger carmaker Perodua; it now also faces the ignominy of being overtaken by a foreign carmaker for third spot.