Dr M turns up the heat on Malaysian PM

Dr M turns up the heat on Malaysian PM
Dr Mahathir ’s attacks on Najib (right) are being closely watched by the Umno rank and file but somehow they have not had the same effect as his criticisms of Pak Lah.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad likes it hot.

The air-conditioning in the dimly lit Putrajaya office had apparently been switched off even though it was a brilliant day outside. On top of that, Dr Mahathir was wearing a grey long-sleeved jumper under his dark bush suit. Yet he looked as cool as a cucumber.

He seemed mildly amused as I dabbed sweat from the top of my nose. Initially, I thought it was because I was nervous sitting before the big man but Dr Mahathir in person is not as intimidating as his larger-than-life image in the media.

He is actually quite slight-built, there is an understated elegance in the way he moves and his self-deprecating wit can be very charming. He rarely puts down reporters even if he does not appreciate their questions and, for someone famous for blasting off everyone, he is surprisingly soft-spoken.

Well, the man is not only adept at taking the heat, he can also punch and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has been at the receiving end of some of these punches the last couple of months.

Dr Mahathir caused quite a stir back in August when he announced he was withdrawing support for Najib, citing reasons that included government policies and decisions, foreign affairs, handling of race and religious issues and, of course, Najib's failure to do better than Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in the general election.

It sent shock waves through the Umno rank and file. There were those who thought it was about time somebody of stature "speak and tell the president" what was wrong with his policies.

At the same time, there were also those who could not accept that the former premier was trying to topple yet another sitting Prime Minister, or what one of them called "a sequel".

Many in Umno were deeply worried for Najib but, more than that, they were also worried for themselves.

Shaking up the Umno president would unsettle the party and they would, ultimately, be the big losers. None of them, especially the divisional level leaders in Umno, wanted that to happen and their instinct for self-survival kicked in.

There has been more criticism since, through Dr Mahathir's ever-popular chedet.cc blog.

But it is clear by now that Dr Mahathir's strategic "unfriending" of Najib is turning out quite differently from that of Abdullah's.

Najib is nowhere near from being pushed from his perch. His footing in Umno may have become even more secure since the attacks began because there has been some circling the wagon phenomenon, so to speak.

Professional photographer Minag Jinggo, who was tailing Dr Mahathir when the latter began his campaign against Abdullah, said there has been lukewarm interest from Umno members compared to when Dr Mahathir had criticised Abdullah.

"Back then, even Mubarak (organisation of retired wakil rakyat) was all worked up. They were holding secret meetings, they could see Pak Lah was not in control and they were fully behind Tun Mahathir. But nothing like that is going on now," said Jinggo.

Jinggo's take is that Umno does not want to remove another president this way.

Mubarak, whose patron is Dr Mahathir, is on Najib's side. Mubarak president Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Rahman is a rather polished former assemblyman. He is also from Pahang and everyone knows where his loyalties lie.

"It would be better if Tun Mahathir whispers directly to Najib. We are in the same family, it is not good to go public like this," he said.

It is also evident by now that Dr Mahathir's intentions do not extend to toppling Najib. He is critical of the things Najib is doing, he thinks certain things should be done differently and he wants Najib to do better.

Asked to elaborate on what "withdrawing support" for Najib really means, he said he would have to hold his tongue if he supports Najib.

"I am now free to speak my mind, to say what I want. I can criticise him, his policies. I don't want to cause the downfall of another leader, as if I am the only leader. But when a policy is wrong, if they acknowledge and correct the mistake, I have no wish to bring them down," he said.

He said he will only comment on Najib's policies, he will not go into personal matters and that includes the First Lady who has been a target of the Opposition. In fact, his tone actually softened when speaking of Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

Dr Mahathir admits his words seem to have fallen on deaf ears and he blames it on the culture of Umno to "clap and give standing ovation" to what the leader says.

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