29 March, 2007

Mahathir returns to political arena with scathing attack on government

Former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad returned to the political arena Thursday after a five-month gap forced by illness, renewing his attacks on the government by accusing it of corruption, nepotism and weakness.

"We have corrupt leaders who favor their relatives," Mahathir, 81, said in a speech, apparently referring to his successor-turned-foe, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

It was Mahathir's first public speech at an event organized by a ruling party branch since November when he suffered a heart attack and was forced to suspend a yearlong campaign against Abdullah.

Mahathir has alleged that Abdullah's son and son-in-law have benefited in their business because of his office but has offered no proof. Abdullah has denied the allegations.

The vitriolic attacks by Mahathir, who was in power for 22 years, had shocked the nation given that Abdullah was his hand-picked successor.

Mahathir chose to resume his campaign in Kulai, a small town of palm oil traders and other business people in the southern state of Johor, a stronghold of the ruling United Malays National Organization party. His audience was about 300 UMNO members and other town residents.

While it was clear that he still has the capacity to draw crowds, the small number also was proof that people may be getting tired of his repetitious allegations that Abdullah is corrupt and that his government has compromised national sovereignty by bowing to demands by neighboring Singapore.

Mahathir explained the small crowd by saying his supporters were afraid of being harassed by the government. "Before there were thousands who would assemble and kiss my hands," he said.

Mahathir's anger against Abdullah stems from his decision last year to abandon a project to build a bridge from Johor to Singapore across the narrow strip of sea separating the two countries.

Abdullah's government says it decided to scrap the project — a Mahathir brainchild — because of unacceptable demands by Singapore. Mahathir says the administration had no guts to negotiate properly with Singapore.

"We see that our country has no courage to build something in our own territory because we are scared of other people," Mahathir said Thursday.

He also picked a new topic to criticize the government — a special economic zone being planned in Johor where investors would be given a range of incentives and concessions to set up industries. The aim is largely to attract investors from Singapore.

"If we surrender our territory to foreigners we will lose our rights to foreigners," Mahathir said, adding that the country's ethnic Malay majority will not be able to compete with the foreigners who will come equipped with better business skills, money and government incentives.

Mahathir asked if Malays were willing to become "slaves" in their own land by becoming drivers and servants to foreigners in the special economic zone.

Mahathir's previous allegations about corruption and inefficiency in the government have been made without any proof, but to some extent have fed on people's disenchantment with the government over rising prices and a seemingly lackluster economy.

Still, Abdullah has refrained from retaliating against Mahathir while vehemently denying the accusations.

In an interview earlier this year, Abdullah said he remains "energized to fulfill Malaysians' ambitions" and would silence his critics by ensuring that plans for economic and social development succeed.



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