Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamed’s disdain for the press, particularly the western media, is legendary. He despised Malaysian journalists who worked for the British, Australian and American press, publicly calling them “pet poodles of their colonial masters” because they often gave him a bad press. But the 82-year-old octogenarian, who brooked no dissent during his 22-year-reign as Malaysia’s longest serving premier, has become an online dissident of sort — enlisting Malaysian bloggers and online news websites to help him in his campaign to oust Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 67, his hand-picked successor, from office.
Abdullah has become his adversary just because he refuses to be dictated by him. His main grievance against the Malaysian premier is that he has betrayed him by scuttling his well-laid ambitious plans to turn Malaysia into an industrialized nation by 2020.
Surrounded by a handful of loyalists and bloggers who are disenchanted by the Abdullah’s administration, Mahathir, who has recently recovered from a second minor heart attack four years into his retirement, is trying very hard to depose his nemesis.
“You have to gather force. You have to talk to people. Even if you are arrested, you go and talk …,” Malaysiakini, the online news website quoted Mahathir as telling about a hundred bloggers and online journalists at a recent meeting.
Mahathir certainly knows the power of mass communication: “… If you have only one person doing that (talking), it’s not good enough,” he told the meeting.
In his heydays, he could count on the government-controlled news media to carry his message to the people. But times have changed. He no longer has them at his disposal. And even Astro, Malaysia’s only satellite television, refuses to air Mahathir’s grievances against Abdullah. Astro is owned by T. Ananda Khrisnan, 68, Malaysia’s second richest man with a net worth of ₤3 billion ($6 billion, €4.5 billion). He owes much of his business success in Malaysia to his friendship with Mahathir.
The once powerful authoritarian who curtailed the powers of Malaysia’s constitutional monarch and the judiciary has belatedly realized, to his chagrin and regret, that retirement has made him an impotent bystander in Malaysian politics. He no longer yields the power and influence that he once enjoyed. As honorary advisor of the Proton national car company which he created in 1983, his advice is not sought and his presence at Proton functions is grudgingly tolerated by company’s executives. Mahathir snubbed the recent launching of Proton Persona, a stylish new model which Malaysia hopes would turn the loss-making carmaker around, because bankers were invited to the launch ahead of him.
Still, Mahathir isn’t quite sure if cyberspace will give him the clout that he yearns. Although Malaysia has about 14 million Internet users out of a population of 25 million, no one is certain what influence they will have over the coming general election expected next year. Almost three-quarters of the population live in rural Malaysia where the Internet may not be accessible. These are the rural Malay voters who are crucial to Abdullah’s election success, according to political analysts.
But the growing political dissent on the Internet is enough to worry Abdullah who has cracked down on political bloggers like Raja Petra Kamarudin whose Malaysia-Today website has been highly critical of him. The New Straits Times, which belongs to Abdullah’s Umno Party, is suing two bloggers, Jeff Ooi of Screenshots and Ahirudin Attan of rocky’s bru for defamation.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Malaysia’s main opposition, is taking its election campaign to cyberspace.
For now, Mahathir can only console himself with his decision not to censor the Internet while he was prime minister.