NONE of Najib Razak’s supporters knew he would be a “Jekyl and Hyde” kind of prime minister when he succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said former Kedah menteri besar Mukhriz Mahathir.
Those who backed him, including Mukhriz, thought Najib would lead “with the kind of principles and rigour his late father had”, referring to Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister.
“We had such high hopes for him. He was a man of the world, politically savvy, quite a smooth talker…none of us realised that there was a Jekyl and Hyde situation here,” said Mukhriz, who is now deputy president of opposition party, Bersatu.
In an hour-long interview with The Malaysian Insight, Mukhriz reflected on why he had turned on the man whom he supported for prime minister over Abdullah, who was pressured to step down after leading the ruling Barisan Nasional to its worst-ever electoral performance in 2008.
But for a man who was forced to give up his post as menteri besar of his home state and then be sacked by Umno for criticising its president, Mukhriz doesn’t harbour ill feelings towards his former party.
Throughout the interview, the 52-year-old talked about the love he had for Umno and BN.
And although he could have ended BN’s rule in Kedah, Mukhriz said he chose not to dissolve the state assembly when he lost a vote of confidence by state lawmakers, as BN would have lost if elections were held.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to do it,” he said at the Bersatu office in Alor Star on Friday.
Unlike his father, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Mukhriz comes across more like a CEO rather than a vengeful politician.
What father and son have in common, though, is a soft spoken demeanour and the same goal of ending BN’s rule.
“The hardest lesson for me is the realisation that you may be in government and may aspire to be of service to the people but the powers that be don’t keep their promise,” said Mukhriz.
But he insists that he would not have done things any differently or been less critical, even if it meant he would stay as MB.
“No, I don’t think so. People who know me would know it’s not my style.”
Excepts of the interview:
Q: What were the hard lessons you learnt after you were forced to step down as MB?
Mukhriz: The hardest lesson for me was the realisation that you may be in government and may aspire to be of service to the people but the powers that be don’t keep their promise.
When it dawns on you that people are not the first priority and instead, the interests of certain individuals, especially the top leadership’s interests take precedence over other people’s interests, it takes a toll on you.
I began to realise this when the issue of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) came about. It didn’t seem to be that there was enough engagement with non-governmental organisations and bodies representing the people. We were given all kinds of assurances, particularly since I was in government as the head of Kedah. I had a tough time explaining this to the people.
When I got adverse feedback, it started to worry me about how my party would fare in the next elections. That was a wake-up call for me.
I was the only MB who went on record in the state assembly to request that the federal government bring down GST to 3%.
I had to do that because the sentiments on the ground were so bad.
If I didn’t say something it was as if I was condoning the policies that harmed the people. I had to do something despite being in the ruling party at the time.
Q: What caused your downfall?
Mukhriz: That could have been one of the factors.
Despite what they say in public, there were 26 of them representing Umno divisions, including the current MB, who stated their loss of confidence in me as MB and chief of Kedah Umno.
At that time, they said it was because I had lost the support of the people, and that I didn’t put in enough effort to prepare BN for the elections. More telling is that they said I didn’t take care of the division chiefs, implying that I was not a unifying factor in Kedah Umno.
When I met Najib in Langkawi just a few days before I stepped down, he didn’t bring up any of those issues. He said he could not have an MB whom he had appointed being so critical of him as PM, especially about 1MDB and the money that ended in his account.
So, that’s the real issue, actually.
Q: When did you decide to form a new party?
Mukhriz: Initially, I thought that I could still effect change from within. If you look at my statements after I stepped down as MB they were, Najib had to go so that we could save Umno and BN.
The other side was saying that I was trying to overthrow an elected PM and government. But the logic behind that is if Najib steps down he will be replaced by another Umno leader. That has always been the way. We have never had a PM who stepped down after losing an election because BN has never lost an election at the federal level.
If you look at my dad, at Abdullah (Ahmad Badawi), they all stepped down in the middle of term. Transition has always happened smoothly.
I had no desire at that time to see Umno and BN being ousted. The opposition said I was trying to strengthen Umno and BN by having Najib removed. I must say that during the early days, that was my intention.
But Umno just refuses to rid itself of this corrupt leader. It then became clear to me that Umno was not a party that could be saved. It’s not just the leadership but the culture of money and patronage and power that was (so) strong. But it has gone to a level that is unprecedented that they could turn a blind eye to the real issues and still support a leader who was clearly a kleptocrat.
By that time, the idea of forming a new party became a necessity.
Q: Along with leaders like Mazlan Harun, Puad Zarkashi and others, you played a role in publicly calling for Abdullah to step down in 2008. And during one of the first meetings in Petaling Jaya, there were many who turned up too. How different is that from today, when you hardly hear of any Umno leader doing the same?
Mukhriz: The common factor then and now is still Najib. When we then said that Pak Lah (as Abdullah is affectionately known) had to go, what was not said but was obvious, was that Najib was the one to take over.
What we were doing at the time was to save Umno and BN by removing a leader we saw as weak and to hand over (the leadership) to Najib. And at that time, no one could foresee that Najib would be like this. We thought he was the one who would take on the leadership with the kind of principles and rigour his late father had. We had such high hopes for him.
He was a man of the world, political savvy, quite a smooth talker… none of us realised that there was a “Jekyl and Hyde” situation there.
There was a lot of support for Najib and less for Pak Lah. Although we were criticised for trying to push Pak Lah out, as soon as Najib’s supporters began saying the same things, it swung very quickly.
Najib still has that kind of support in Umno. He has a grip over them. It’s a carrot-and-stick situation where he’s willing to use the carrot method – whatever you need, you get. But at the same time those who are independent or make a bit of noise, the stick comes down quite hard (on them). And he makes examples (out of people) – Muhyiddin (Yassin), Shafie Apdal and me. This is what happens when you don’t toe the line. And the others are quite afraid that similar action would be taken against them.
Some people say that we have been trying to overthrow the government even when we were in government. That all these things were being planned by Dr Mahathir to help me become prime minister, since 2014. That we were the enemy within and have now left Umno to start a new party.
People forget that when I stepped down as MB, I had one other choice, which was to dissolve the state assembly. I could’ve done that. I knew if I had done that… when I was informed that I had lost the “support” of the assembly by just one vote. It was not directly suggested to me that I had to step down. It was implied that I should understand that I had lost the support and I needed to step down.
So I did the only thing that was honourable. No one talks about this other thing I could’ve done, that is to dissolve the state assembly. What that would have meant would be a state election, and the thinking at that time was that BN would’ve lost.
So, somehow what they did to me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
It was clear that it was Najib and (his) cronies who were forcing my hand to step down. But at that time my love for Umno and BN was still very strong, I just didn’t have the heart to see them lose in a big way.
I also figured that I would have been seen as the bad guy for stabbing Umno in its back. So, I decided to bite the bullet and see what happens.