The Malaysian budget for the next year is, we are told, proof of how well our economy is, and our finances in good shape. The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, who is also finance minister since his once close confidant, Tun Daim Zainuddin, flew the coop after unanswerable answers were demanded by those who do not look too far beneath the surface if their pockets are kept full at public expense.
Tun Daim could not answer: either for the treasury of which he was in charge as finance minister or of the UMNO treasury of which he was head. He took two months leave from his two jobs when UMNO supreme councillors demanded to know the state of UMNO finances. And disappeared from the political scene. He is no where to be found. Dr Mahathir is furious with him for what he did, and the two men are barely on talking terms. He who used to drop in for a chat with the boss three or four times a day has not seen him for months.
What we see is how important politicians are squeezed out of power and office once they fall from grace. This is not the first time a prime minister got rid of one who is now an embarrassment. Dr Mahathir has had much practice: he removed three deputy prime ministers The Malay rules of conduct requires silence and acquiescence when removed, and stomach the indignities heaped on him, and the pressures his aides, friends and business colleagues face. After Tun Daim departed, his business proteges -- Tan Sri Halim Saad, Tan Sri Tajuddin Ramli, to name two; there are, of course, others -- found their empires scrutinised so thoroughly that there is now doubt if they could ever be let off without spending some time in the company of the former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in His Majesty's rest house in Sungei Buloh.
He, you would recall, was sent there when he refused to resign as the feudal lord demanded, and fought back. He is lucky Malaysia now is not the 17th century: he would have been despatched with a kris between his shoulder blades. Tun Daim has taken leave from the current sitting in Parliament and is, depending on who tells you, in Bali, in London, in Washington, in his fortress home on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Dr Mahathir could have wished away Tun Daim and none would dare question him. No would now either. But the seeds of revolt is nevertheless to be seen. Confrontation is not the Malay way, as Dato' Seri Anwar would tell you, when you disagree with the feudal lord. No UMNO state assemblyman in his right senses would put his mentri besar at risk, but the Selangor state assembly did just that when they demanded answers from the Mahathir-backed mentri besar, Dato' Seri Mohamed Khir Toyo. You do not attack the man you want destroyed: you attack his aides. In other words, incipient rebellion is on the cards. Not in the manner of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, but rather more subtly.
It cannot be in a form political scientists could write tomes about, but in such subtlety that the man is out even before he realises it. It is this that Dr Mahathir fights off. Tunku Abdul Rahman was effectively out of office with the May 13, 1969 racial riots, but he did not resign until two years later. Tun Hussein Onn, Malaysia's third prime minister, was a lame duck for the last three years in office; he could rule effectively after he was challenged for the UMNO presidency by Dato' Suleiman Palestine, an uncle of Dato' Seri Anwar who was encouraged by Dr Mahathir to challenge.
The wide gulf between the feudal leader and the flock is there for anyone with the right pair of glasses to see. Dr Mahathir's sudden interest in a Malaysian Islamic state is his way of diverting the attention of those upset and unhappy with him. It is, I would argue, the direct response for UMNO members demanding an accounting of its finances. And not just party finances. There is only statements of intent of the tens of billions available for wasteful and ill-thought out public projects. Since they would be distributed through UMNO members, that ought to have kept them quiet.
But public confidence is so low, no one believes there is either the money available or that the projects would take off. Since the award of these contracts involve an "upfront" money of a percentage, which these days could be as high as 20 per cent, which is forfeited if it is not eventually awarded, it is, as I have noticed in several cases, an excuse to cage money out of unsuspecting business men of tens of millions of ringgit. Even UMNO members now realise the cat could be skinned only once. They now look for the man responsible. Which is why they desire the appearance of the invisible man so that they could ask him a few questions.