For 22 years Malaysia’s political and economic fortunes were determined by the authoritarian and tough-minded Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
A succession of Australian prime ministers had angry exchanges with Dr M, as many Malaysians know him, but these days his barbs are aimed at his chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi.
Bob Hawke was among the first to get bilateral relations off on a wrong footing when he infuriated Dr Mahathir by describing as “barbaric” Malaysia’s hanging of two convicted Australian drug addicts.
More famously Paul Keating brought relations to a low by describing Dr M as “recalcitrant” after he had refused to attend the first APEC Summit in Seattle, US.
One Malay language newspaper picked its best equivalent term as “kurang ajar”, which translates into a highly derogatory equivalent of “ill-educated and ill-mannered”, infuriating many Malaysians at the time.
When he stepped down as prime minister three years ago, he had been dubbed “Father of Modernisation” and was widely admired by Malaysians for his outspoken criticism of western mores and attitudes.
Australia’s leadership was relieved when Dr Mahathir made way for his long-standing deputy, Abdullah Badawi, known to be friendlier towards Australia.
Dr Mahathir, who turned 80 last December, has turned his acerbic tongue on his anointed successor, publicly stating that he had made a wrong choice. The affable and mild-mannered Abdullah has tried hard not to get caught up in a war-of-words but a recent meeting between them has failed to achieve a peaceful outcome.
In Dr Mahathir’s eyes, Abdullah has been failing the nation because he is not an adherent to his predecessor’s penchant for grandiose projects such as the troubled Malaysian-made Proton car, the country’s fibre optic information technology backbone and the highly successful Petronas twin towers that for a brief period was the world’s tallest building.
Most of all he is annoyed that Malaysia’s fifth prime minister - August 31, 2007 is the country’s 50th independence anniversary - has refused to complete a futurist bridge linking the southern state of Johore to neighbouring Singapore.
Following the peace meeting recently, Dr Mahathir issued an open letter to the citizens of Malaysia signed by “Malaysian citizen and commoner”. Dr Mahathir does not hold back, accusing his successor of creating a police state with “action taken against anyone who criticises the prime minister” and adding that “a climate of fear has enveloped this country”.
“The current prime minister cannot at all be commented upon, criticised or advised. He is almost a saint who is free from any human weaknesses or wrongs.
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