On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

No sitting on the fence now

THE words have become harsher and louder. There is no longer talk of getting Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to come together to end their feud. 

Over the past one week, both sides have taken their slugging to a different height. For the former premier, the tone has become more personal. No one is spared, not even family members and minor players in the high stakes political spat.  

The usually soft-spoken Pak Lah, too, has become more combative. His choice of words has also become more powerful. He has used words like iblis (devil), fitnah (slander) and hina (insult). Last week, he challenged his critics to prove their allegations and "if there is none, then be prepared to face the consequences". 

He has also served notice to bloggers and political websites who had attacked his leadership on a daily basis. 

The volume has been turned up because the fight has become more intense, even vicious. In short, it has now reached a point of no return. 

There is no more elegant silence as Pak Lah, Khairy Jamaluddin and their supporters take off their gloves. Pak Lah had initially allowed the ministers to do the talking but he has now adopted a forthright approach, taking on even the most difficult issues, including allegations against his family members. 

The many issues brought up on websites were at first ignored but as the rumour mill went overboard, creating doubts and confusion among Umno grassroots members, Pak Lah must have felt that he needed to tackle these head-on. 

On Aug 7, the Umno president appeared on TV3 to answer several allegations that had been hurled at him. His critics have, however, said the answers have created more questions. 

Pak Lah and Dr Mahathir have now taken their cases to the Malay heartland, as Umno's 191 divisions hold their annual general meetings. 

Dr Mahathir has even started to send letters to Umno members to state his case against the administration. 

The campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Umno delegates is crucial as these are the 2,000-over delegates who will attend the annual general assembly. 

Khairy, who has one of the highest numbers of invitations, is certainly one of the most sought after speakers. 

Not only has he answered the allegations directly, bringing these rumours into the open, but he has taken on two key backers of Dr Mahathir – Kelantan politician Datuk Paduka Ibrahim Ali and former political aide Matthias Chang, accusing them of influencing Dr Mahathir. 

In Khairy's own words, answering the allegations has formed a critical part of his presentation, as party members "want to hear it from the horse's mouth". 

Not only do Umno members want to hear from their leaders, many also want to pose questions to those named in websites and blogs. 

But there are also those who want to hear Dr Mahathir. Petaling Jaya Utara division did just that last Saturday. 

They circumvented the directive that only supreme council members and mentris besar could open their meeting by getting Dr Mahathir to speak before they started their meeting. 

Dr Mahathir's backers have pushed for him to speak at the assembly while Pak Lah's men have blamed him for splitting the party. 

His strongest supporter, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, has for the first time described Dr Mahathir as Umno's biggest opposition, pointing out that even PAS, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat have stayed out. 

On Saturday, Nazri called on Dr Mahathir to refute a report in a Singapore newspaper, which alleged that Dr Mahathir wanted to topple the Prime Minister. Not one to mince his words, Nazri revealed there was disunity in Umno now. 

Even certain senior Umno leaders who have been cautious in their remarks, as they had worked under Dr Mahathir previously, now feel that they need to rebuff Dr Mahathir openly. 

The biggest worry is that if Dr Mahathir were left unchallenged, the opposition would benefit the most in the next general election. 

Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muyhiddin Yassin said the opposition could play the tapes of Dr Mahathir's criticism in the next polls. They need not even make speeches, Muhyiddin said. 

They also do not want cracks to appear in Umno, although delegates have traditionally supported the incumbent. 

There have also been worse scenarios previously when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim brought his campaign to the streets. 

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah went even further. He took several senior Umno leaders to form Parti Melayu Semangat 46, which was supported by Tunku Abdul Rahman. 

What is different this time is that the fight is from Dr Mahathir, a leader who has led Malaysia for 22 years. For many in Umno Youth, this is the only leader they know. 

They have been taught to revere him. He was a man who could do no wrong and now, they find themselves in an unusual position of having to rebuff him. Worse, some who have apple-polished him have taken a different role. 

But there are also those who used to criticise Dr Mahathir for his seemingly dictatorial ways have now paired up with him. 

As they say, there are neither permanent enemies nor friends in politics. The incumbent will always have the upper hand – that is the reality. 

Over the next few weeks, as Umno leaders criss-cross the country, the decibels will get louder. There will be no room for fence-sitters and Umno leaders will be expected to make their stand known.  

But for outsiders, they will follow the statements of Umno leaders closely, even nervously, hoping the feud will not get out of hand. 

The general consensus is that if the squabble is prolonged, the country's economy and political stability will be affected. 

Given the softening of the economy in many sectors, the hope is that we can get on with our attention on the economy. Time waits for no one.