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Pak Lah had little time to dismantle all the wrongdoings of Mahathir during the 22 years he was PM

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By Moaz Nair

“Former premier Mahathir Mohamad has yet again expressed regret over his choice of successor,” said a report, referring to Abdullah Badawi (Pak Lah) he chose to become the 5th PM (prime minister) of the country.

To many political observers, Mahathir did choose the right man to replace him. It was only that Abdullah had little time to dismantle all the wrongdoings of Mahathir during the 22 years he was PM.

Abdullah underwent a tough time dismantling Mahathir’s legacies, as back then the debauched culture of money politics in UMNO had already been fossilised by Mahathir. Many of Mahathir’s men were not ready to see Abdullah “clean up” UMNO from dirty politics involving money.

Ousted as PM

Many in UMNO who could not accept Abdullah’s reformation on “clean” politics and “dirty” politicians sabotaged him and worked over-time to throw him out. He was unceremoniously ousted as PM in 2009 for Najib to take over. And today the nation sees the same kind of money politics like what they saw during Mahathir’s era.

Money politics had become the mother of all corruption in the country during Mahathir’s time. And after Abdullah, Najib lacks the political will and is too weak to make any “transformation” to curb money politics for fear that he will be pinned by Mahathir and ostracised by ambitious and wealthy UMNO warlords and their cronies.

It is archetypical of Machiavellian Mahathir to never admit his faults. To him, “admitting one’s fault is akin to admitting one’s weakness”. This was how he had shrewdly strived in politics. His political thoughts could be scanned from his 843-page semi-fictional memoirs (A Doctor in the House) where he unremittingly blamed all his archenemies who he found to be a political threat to him.

Just recently Mahathir was reported to have said that “one of the ways to progress and correct the mistakes made is by ‘accepting’ the mistakes done”. “When you refuse to accept that you were wrong then you cannot correct your mistakes,” he added.

In actuality he is pointing one finger at others and four fingers at himself. Was Mahathir ready to accept his mistakes during his tenure as PM when his lax policies on corruption brought unbridled money politics to the country? Or does he still believe that corruption is a form of lubricant – a well-known term he used to utter in those days to get things done speedily?

Kicked out three of his deputies

To politicians, shifting thoughts on matters of politics is Machiavellian but to the psychologists it can be a form of psychological disorder.

Unprecedented anywhere else in the world, Mahathir kicked out three of his deputies during his era as premier (1981-2003). In his memoirs he blamed all his deputies for their misfortune. Well, this is his way of manoeuvring in politics.

He lost his first deputy, Musa Hitam in 1986.  Musa resigned as deputy prime minister, citing “irreconcilable differences” with Mahathir. He lost his second deputy, Ghafar Baba in 1993. Ghafar was challenged by Anwar Ibrahim with Mahathir’s blessings and was defeated by Anwar and subsequently lost the deputy premiership. He lost his third deputy, Anwar in 1998.

Not only that he could not get along with his deputies during his tenure as PM, there was also “bad blood” between him and the two prime ministers that preceded him – Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn. Unhappy with Mahathir, Tunku and Hussein later left UMNO.

Mixing politics and business

Money politics has tainted UMNO. As a matter of fact, it was Mahathir who introduced money politics into UMNO when he was the premier – mixing politics and business. Abdullah could not do much to curtail this menace affecting UMNO office seekers.

Money politics has now become the standards for UMNO to stay relevant. Internal money politics is not stanched by those higher up in the party and the people continue voting for candidates with the greatest access to funding and this is rotting UMNO. Money when given out to bribe voters in the party or general elections is tantamount to corruption.

Aspiring leaders would start looking for money through deceitful means for subornment and this has led to financial leakages and abuse of power. To hold a high post in UMNO today a person must have the fund to flush around. In fact, the deployment of money to seize senior party positions has seen protests within UMNO itself. But the majority seems to rule.

Abdullah tried hard to assuage this misdemeanour but he could not get the support of party members.

Businesses look forward to have cordial relations with politicians and oftentimes money, kickbacks and bribes become the vogue to get huge contracts from the government. It all began when Mahathir allowed business and politics to flourish alongside each other and today the country see UMNO cannot survive without money politics.

Even to put a simple party poster for party campaigns there must be money transaction done. UMNO thus has burdened itself with money politics and just cannot function without huge funds.

Started during Mahathir’s time

Money politics was one of Mahathir’s legacies to the nation that Abdullah found hard to stamp out. Widespread money politics started during Mahathir’s time. Money politics was never heard of during the era of the three prime ministers before him – that was when UMNO was at its finest moments.

It was during Mahathir’s time that politics and business were allowed to thrive side by side, and as a consequence corruption soon took roots in party, state and general elections. Corruption rippled through to cover a broad spectrum of the society uninhibited from 1981 when Mahathir took over as premier until today.

Abdullah’s short stint as PM could not do much to stop this murky wave.

The ethos of corruption and money politics still dominated Abdullah’s government despite Abdullah’s stand against it. Many UMNO stalwarts who had high aspirations in politics could not get away with the values inherited during Mahathir’s era that without money one cannot make it in UMNO and politics.

As a consequence, corruption was rife and it has now crept into every level of the society with money politics determining who could win posts within the party and thus dominate UMNO politics. UMNO postulants could not get rid of this disorder.

When money politics become the norm businessmen start to use political cables and will start to bribe politicians to get licences and permits. Kickbacks from businesses would go into party and individual funds for personal and political activities. Money can even be stacked in foreign banks for personal and political campaigns.

The culture of money politics

As long as party funding is not officially regulated nothing is transparent as far as UMNO is concerned. For instance, it was reported that “when a politician was accused of stashing huge funds in the Swiss bank, he readily put it back to the party that he is beholden to saying that the money is not his but for the party”.  This really smacks of venality.

“As long as there is no demarcation between politics and business the country will see unbridled corruption rearing its ugly head,” said a former UMNO lawmaker.

This lax norm created during Mahathir’s era emerged into the culture of money politics that soon had its roots deeply embedded within party, state and general elections. The perception today is that UMNO has become synonymous with corruption and money politics. The many cases of alleged corruption involving UMNO leaders and their cronies today can be attributed to the political culture during Mahathir’s rule.

This culture or value system is destroying UMNO.

The defining moment of the influx of money politics to Malaysia’s political landscape was during the UMNO elections of 1981.  That was the year Mahathir took over as PM. It worsened during the UMNO elections of 1984 when Musa (former deputy prime minister) and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah (former cabinet minister) battled it out for the deputy presidency.

But money politics truly reached its pinnacle in 1987 when the presidency was contested by both Mahathir and Razaleigh. And from then on money politics simply spiralled out of control.

If truth be told, Abdullah must be the only UMNO leader after 1981 who won his post as deputy UMNO president as a “poor” candidate. His religious background must have made him not engage in dirty money politics to seek party posts. But UMNO since 1981 is no more meant for “clean” politicians.

Arrested several figures

Abdullah was rather “clean” but could not do much to stop money politics that was already spreading like cancer in UMNO. Those within UMNO were still using money to scale for posts. Upon coming into power as prime minister, Abdullah tried hard to clamp down on corruption, thus empowering anti-corruption agencies and providing more avenues for the public to expose corrupt practices.

He also arrested several public figures from the Mahathir era for corruption, a move which was widely commended by the public but not UMNO leaders who were equally corrupt. Mahathir was not quite happy to see many of his former trusted men scooped by Abdullah to be charged in court.

This included Eric Chia the one time Perwaja Steel boss who was appointed by Mahathir in 1988 to take charge of the indisposed company.

In the 2004 general election, Abdullah’s first as prime minister, he delivered a landslide victory for Barisan Nasional by winning 198 out of 220 parliamentary seats. The victory was widely perceived as an approval of his vision of moderate Islam as well as support for his anti-corruption policies and the dislike people had for Mahathir who had to let go power in 2003.

Anwar – upon his release from prison in September 2004 – overtly credited Abdullah for not interfering with the court’s overturning of his sodomy conviction.

Be that as it may, the swells of corruption are still felt until today when alleged vote-buying practices, political patronage, cronyism and kickbacks have become synonymous with UMNO culture.

Malaysia’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) keeps on slipping with its political parties rated the second most corrupt institution after the police force. This is what Mahathir has given to the nation.

Unless politics and business are separated, corruption will go unrepressed in the country. Political financing in the form of kickbacks and corruption will not go unrewarded. This is when contracts are given out to those generous financiers through negotiated tenders.

Mahathir could not always be right

Mahathir could not always be right. He just has to admit this. The people’s perception of his administration was at the lowest ebb just before Abdullah took over as PM and this gave Abdullah a landslide victory in the 2004 general election.

The so-named “LingamGate” scandal tarnished his name and the judiciary. Corruption led to the rise of crime rate in the country. Cronyism and money politics further heightened corruption where kickbacks were too common a practice.

Failed crony companies and banks were bailed out with the hard-earned Petronas dollars. Corruption at the enforcement level triggered the swarming of illegals into the country. Race relations deteriorated with race politics. The poor Malays and other minorities were affected most with poverty, the lack of job opportunities and proper education.

This has now led to a gulf of difference in terms of household income between the rich and poor among all races.

The perception is, being a non-Machiavellian, Abdullah found it an arduous task to dismantle these legacies of Mahathir. Najib too has failed to take apart the culture of money politics that has ossified UMNO. Indeed, seeing the problem of corruption rearing its ugly head in Najib’s administration he has actually lurched more than Abdullah had.

Najib is too weak to regulate money politics and get all his “transformation” agenda implemented and just like Abdullah he is facing a lot of resistance from within his party. It looks like toothless Najib has to emulate Mahathir’s approach in politics for fear that he will be vetoed by the latter.

The perception is money politics has stippled UMNO and the country’s politics will be riddled with corruption for decades to come if UMNO is still chosen to helm the country.  The conviction is that when politics and business are compounded it breeds corruption. Seemingly, UMNO will keep on breeding corrupt leaders who are in politics to make money for themselves.

Blame not Abdullah but Mahathir for all this sickening culture in UMNO. -hornbillunleashed