Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s fiercest critic today is not found in the ranks of the opposition. Rather, it is a former ally: Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir is Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, and served as mentor to Najib. Despite his retirement from government service, Mahathir has remained an influential political figure. At 89, Mahathir continues to be a newsmaker, especially when he candidly shares his views on domestic and even global affairs through his widely read blog.
Since last year, Mahathir has been criticizing the administration of Najib. But it was early this month when he launched a more comprehensive tirade against what he thinks were the fundamental blunders committed by Najib.
Writing on his blog, Mahathir pressed for clarifications on the following issues: 1) the 2006 murder of a Mongolian translator who purportedly had personal knowledge of a corruption scandal involving the defense department; 2) the reported mismanagement of the country’s investment fund (1MDB); and the 3) implementation of a cash distribution scheme to marginalized groups (BR1M).
Najib is linked to these issues through some of his former subordinates and relatives. Mahathir called on Najib to come clean on his role in investigating these issues.
Najib eventually made public a recorded video interview in response to some of Mahathir’s allegations. But Mahathir was disappointed with what he heard. Writing again on his blog, he admonished Najib for being evasive, especially on the issue of the investment fund mess.
“I asked Najib simple questions but instead of answering the questions he asked people to support him. I would like to ask the supporters whether their support means the disappearance of 42 billion Ringgit is okay, that there is no necessity to at least explain where the money is,” Mahathir wrote.
Najib hinted that his relationship with Mahathir soured when the government was not able to build a new bridge between Malaysia and Singapore. Mahathir denied this, and insisted that his real concern is the unexplained loss of taxpayers’ money in the 1MDB.
“I don’t advocate the removal of a prime minister because he is too afraid of Singapore to build a crooked bridge. But when you lose money and cannot explain where the money is, I think you are not competent to become prime minister,” Mahathir said in a press conference.
Mahathir warned the ruling coalition that it will lose in the next general election if Najib does not step down immediately.
For his part, Najib claimed he still respected Mahathir but he also emphasized that his duty is not just to listen to an individual opinion.
“Whatever the individual opinion, in the end, I will be responsible to the people and the party. It is quite healthy if there is a difference of opinion but, regardless, in the end I have to be responsible to the people and party. And most of these matters, I bring to the Cabinet and the Cabinet decides,” he said in a TV interview.
Najib added that criticisms are welcome, especially those made with “prudence and responsibility.”
“The criticisms this time are more than usual, more intense than usual. But I have to accept the political ups and downs which, under all circumstances, will not be peaceful and comfortable all the time. I take the criticisms, no matter how painful. As long as the people and the party give me the mandate, the trust, I will continue to lead the country and party,” he said during the interview.
Najib also defended the programs of his government like the BR1M and reminded the public that there were also economic problems during the term of Mahathir.
“We should not allow certain issues to be highlighted as though our economy is collapsing, or that we are having problems to the point that they cannot be resolved. This is not true at all. Tun Dr Mahathir’s era was not perfect either, nor is my era. But we must know that we are open, we improve the situation, so that tomorrow will be better than today,” Najib said.
Finally, Najib urged the public not to believe everything that is published online. “A lot of information is blown out of proportion and twisted until it is misunderstood. The majority of accusations and ‘spins’ do not reflect the reality of the situation of a particular issue or the statements made by leaders, be it the opposition or government.”
We should expect Mahathir to issue a more biting rejoinder. But Najib’s allies are also starting to hit back at Mahathir. Whatever the case, Malaysian politics has become more interesting. Will the opposition benefit from the bickering within the ruling coalition?