From the September 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 9)

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Surprise Resignation

Malaysia: Dramatic Exit

Debora Kuan, World Press Review assistant editor

Mahathir Mohamad
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur on July 16, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s June 22 resignation announcement on national television came as a shock not just to the nation, but even to Mahathir’s closest party and family members. The bizarre display of tears, exhortations, and hysteria that followed led more skeptical Malaysians, as well as international observers, to speculate that perhaps Mahathir, who has always used his flair for dramatics to his political advantage, was simply trying to shore up support for his regime.

They were wrong. On June 25, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) announced that Asia’s longest-serving leader was indeed giving up the helm. According to reports, Mahathir was persuaded, during intense backroom efforts by party leadership, to stay in office until October 2003 instead of immediately resigning. The compromise gives his hand-picked successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a 16-month transition period.

As the country wrestled with the news, newspapers in Malaysia and across Asia lavished praise on Mahathir and waxed sentimental for the end of an era.Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, group editor in chief of the New Straits Times, wrote (June 26), “[Mahathir] has...created a legacy so monumental that no one could have presumed his mantle.”

Stephen Gan, editor in chief of Malaysiakini, however, was neither as favorably impressed nor as nostalgic: “There is indeed life without Mahathir,” he wrote (June 24). Gan went on to say that the road ahead for Abdullah would be formidable: “Abdullah will need to quickly consolidate his position within the party. He has a few rivals who are considered prime ministerial material, and they will be quick to point out that Abdullah has not faced a popular contest for his second in command position in UMNO.”

Anil Netto, writing for the same Web site (June 29), agreed with Gan that Abdullah “will have to contend with many challenges, including possible factional infighting within UMNO as well as within the second-largest party in the ruling coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association.”

The primary concern of Netto’s editorial, however, was the ramifications that Mahathir’s resignation will have for Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister and reform advocate who fell out of favor with Mahathir in 1999. He was subsequently convicted and imprisoned on sodomy and abuse-of-power charges. Anwar, who had a broad popular following, was widely regarded as a rival for the prime minister post and his prosecution was viewed as motivated by political vengeance.

Raja Petra Kamarudin, director of the Free Anwar Campaign, told Malaysiakini (June 29): “There is going to be a realignment of loyalties within UMNO. Whoever takes over as prime minister, the Anwar issue is not going to go away.” According to Netto, there is hope that Mahathir’s departure may mean a pardon for Anwar.

As for Mahathir, he has made clear to Bernama (July 7) that he does not intend to bow out completely. Asked about his plans, he said he would speak at various forums and “be a sort of spokesman for the many good ideas in Malaysia that need...publicity.”

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