On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The velvet gloves come off

IT has been brewing for close to a year now. He made known his unhappiness – in his usual sardonic and sarcastic way – to a small circle of listeners that the Abdullah administration has not run the country well.

But on Wednesday, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad took off his gloves to launch what the media has termed his strongest criticism against the Prime Minister.

He accused Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of dismantling many of his policies and projects, and said that Abdullah was not his first choice as his successor and that the mild-mannered politician had betrayed his trust.

These were harsh and hurtful words which shocked ordinary Malaysians, who until now had little inkling of the pent-up frustrations of the former premier.

Sharp remarks against the leadership earlier were given scant coverage, but media space grew following his recent criticism of the government's decision to scrap the Johor bridge.

Abdullah, aware of the stinging comments, had maintained his calm and refused to let himself be drawn into a verbal war. At Cabinet meetings, he told his ministers he would not do so, although at least one minister had strongly urged him to defend himself.

It may just be the most effective tactic. It has helped Abdullah maintain his dignity while at the same time, prevent an escalating fight between the two respected figures.

For Dr Mahathir, the immediate verdict among ordinary Malaysians and Umno members, is divided. Many feel he should act more like a statesman and let his handpicked successor carry on the job of running the country, while there are those, especially businessmen, who have compared his legacy to that of Abdullah.

Some business and political groups claimed he had stronger economic fundamentals and that Malaysia was falling behind in the region.

Last week, Abdullah pointed out that Malaysia had done well and improved its competitiveness rating, calling for faster implementation of the Ninth Malaysia Plan.

With the open fallout between Dr Mahathir and Abdullah, the question now is where does it go from here?

Dr Mahathir, at 81, is still robust and out-spoken. No one can stop him from speaking out as he has done all these years, no matter how irritating it may be to the powers that be.

We have all applauded him many times as the spokesman for the Third World, for his tough words against the United States. No one should be surprised if he does the same for domestic issues. That is the Dr M that we know and love. Nothing will change.

For Malaysian journalists, the first blow against Abdullah came on Aug 8, 2005, during a private dinner with 10 senior editors to celebrate his 80th birthday.

It was arranged by a prominent businessman, among others, for me to patch up with Dr Mahathir following his unhappiness with me.

On May 30, 2005, he had called a press conference to tick me off for my comments that during his 22 years tenure, he could have done more to combat graft.

At the same press conference, where he spoke on the Approved Permit (AP) issue of importing cars against Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, Dr Mahathir said he wished he could have done more, such as carrying out anti-corruption campaigns. He also expressed disappointment with my article.

We patched up all right but during the dinner that lasted over two hours, he startled, if not shocked us, with his no-holds barred comments against Abdullah. Journalists, as the saying goes, are witnesses to history.

What he said affected us so much that we compared notes as he left, to make sure we got our quotes right so that we could include them in our memoirs.

With over 10 people present, there could never be a secret and word went out on what Dr Mahathir had said.

Later, the press was to witness similar expressions of unhappiness from Dr Mahathir.

One sore point with the former premier were allegations that he had used up money for mega projects and that the country had no more money. He would always rattle off figures to argue his case.

"The Government has lots of money and Putrajaya is built largely from Petronas funds. Petronas made a profit of RM50bil last year and this year it made RM83bil and spent RM13bil to subsidise petrol prices of the public," he said on Wednesday.

"It still has about RM70bil. It will pay tax of RM30bil and have RM40bil left. Petronas must give, as it belongs to the Government. So to say the previous government has spent all the money is not supported by facts."

What has happened on Wednesday has been deja vu for older Malaysians. Dr Mahathir was sacked from Umno in 1969 for his criticism of Tunku Abdul Rahman. When Dr Mahathir was prime minister, the Tunku campaigned for Parti Melayu Semangat 46 against Dr Mahathir during the elections.

Writing in his As I See It column, the Tunku was critical of what Dr Mahathir did and it must have disturbed Dr Mahathir, who would probably have seen it as interference from a retired prime minister.

Unfortunately, history has repeated itself. This time, it has become more complicated because Dr Mahathir has a larger than life image for many Malaysians as he had been the only Prime Minister they had known for a long time.

It will not be easy, even unfair, for anyone to compare Abdullah's three years against Dr Mahathir's 22 years of leadership. It will be something Pak Lah has to live with.

But Pak Lah has incumbency on his side. Pledges of support from Barisan Nasional and Umno leaders have been immediate and are surely a boost to his firm grip of the coalition and party.

Just in case anyone missed a remark by the Prime Minister on Tuesday, he said he has been given the tag of Mr Nice Guy. But not anymore and that's a loaded remark!