by Bakri Musa
6th April 2015
Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stunned his followers when he announced his resignation at his UMNO’s General Assembly in June 2002. He had been in office for over 22 years. The unexpected announcement triggered mass hysteria among his followers. Senior ministers and party leaders openly wept, and pandemonium broke out in the hall.
The scene resembled a chicken coop at dusk when the birds were settling down in their comfort zone when suddenly their head rooster flew the coop, or attempted to. The cacophony settled down and calm returned only after senior leaders cajoled Mahathir to delay his retirement until October 31st the following year, and he agreed.
That collective hysteria and mass crying were reflective of how dependent UMNO members were on Mahathir. He was their messiah, and now he was abandoning them.
Mahathir anointed Abdullah Badawi as his successor, and five years later Najib Razak took over from Abdullah. The handover from Mahathir to Abdullah went smoothly, with both formally dressed in their traditional Malay baju and samping sutra as they smiled and shook hands while exchanging the instrument of office in front of the King. The next day Prime Minister Abdullah awarded Mahathir and his wife the nation’s highest honor, the Tunship.
The shift from Abdullah to Najib five years later also went smoothly, at least on the surface, with beaming smiles all around. Prime Minister Najib also awarded Abdullah his Tunship, as well as one to his new wife who had no discernible service to the nation. That seeming cordiality and civility however could not mask the earlier intrigue and shadow plays engaged by both.
Abdullah and Najib may have been consumed with their own shadow play nonetheless there was no mistaking who was the master puppeteer. Mahathir directly picked Abdullah, and then forced Abdullah to choose Najib.
Soon upon assuming office, Abdullah sought a mandate and secured an overwhelming victory in 2004, eclipsing and embarrassing Mahathir’s less-than-stellar performance in 1999. Abdullah’s boys (his advisers were all males) made sure that no one missed the comparison. Being amateurs and new to the game, they treated their victory as the ultimate trophy and failed to capitalize on it.
They or rather their patron Abdullah paid dearly for that neglect. In the following election of 2008, his coalition suffered a humiliating setback. It was returned to power but with a hugely reduced majority at the federal level, while losing five states to the opposition.
Mahathir saw his error with Abdullah soon after the latter took office. Even Abdullah’s 2004 impressive electoral win did not persuade Mahathir otherwise. That victory however, blunted Mahathir’s withering criticisms, reducing him to a grumpy old man. With Abdullah’s subsequent electoral setback, Mahathir was emboldened and his criticisms gained traction, amply aided by Abdullah’s own inept performance. His forced ignominious resignation in October 2009 gave way to Najib, with enthusiastic support from Mahathir, at least initially.
Mahathir is a poor judge of talent and character. His initial enthusiasm for Najib, as with Abdullah, was misplaced and soon soured. When Najib subsequently suffered an even worse electoral humiliation than Abdullah in the May 2013 election, Mahathir ratcheted up his scorn for Najib, labeling him a “weak leader.” He openly expressed his regret for his earlier support for Najib and publicly rebuked him. To date, a much older and less vigorous Mahathir has yet to be successful in undoing his error with Najib. Malaysia remains cursed with Najib’s clueless and rudderless leadership.
Next: The Decay That Was Long in the Making