If Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had succumbed to the pressure applied by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to spend without a care and continue with some of his pet mega-projects, Malaysia would be bankrupt by now.
This frank assessment was offered by Abdullah in a book covering his years as the prime minister of Malaysia.
Titled, "Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years In Malaysia", it was scheduled to come out earlier but there were some concerns in Putrajaya that the fifth prime minister’s comments and observations could spark a war of words between Abdullah and Mahathir and split Umno before the May 5 general election.
Putrajaya need not have worried. Abdullah lobbed a few barbs here and there, and threw a few zingers in the direction of his chief critic but did not reveal state secrets or offer juicy and humiliating anecdotes about the country’s longest-serving PM.
And he could have, he said. Referring to the constant attacks against him by Mahathir and other critics when he was in office, he recalled that some people asked why he did not clarify in detail the role of his young advisers, his son’s involvement in business and the influence of son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin.
“Perhaps I should have been more vehement in defending and explaining these issues. I could have retaliated by exposing Mahathir. But what good would have come out of this for the government and party?” he said.
He noted that Mahathir is very set in his ways and believed that his is the only way. And this fact is why Abdullah believes he has been on the receiving end of vitriol from mid-2006 till today.
After all the layers of biting comments from Mahathir are peeled away, it boiled down to just one thing: Mahathir’s inability to accept any other view except his own.
For example, Abdullah remembered that he went to see Mahathir and explain that he had to postpone several projects, including the double-tracking rail system that the latter had initiated because of the bulging budget deficit.
“He, however, disagreed with me as he felt the government should continue to spend. But how do we do it when the deficit was at such critical levels? It would be highly irresponsible for me to continue spending.
“So we had no choice but to reduce the deficit by postponing some of the mega-projects like double tracking and this made Mahathir furious. I suppose he viewed them as his pet projects.
“Can you imagine, if I had succumbed to Mahathir’s continued pressure to spend when the deficit was already so high, how could Malaysia have weathered the oil and financial crisis which subsequently came in 2008?
“The deficit which we brought down to 3.2 percent crept up again due to subsidies for oil and essentials and hovered again at the 5 percent level. If we had not been prudent then, continued to spend, I can tell you we would be bankrupt by now."
In the book, edited by Bridget Welsh and James Chin, Abdullah also said that when he left office in 2009, he was determined not to be like Mahathir. He wanted Datuk Seri Najib Razak to establish himself as the prime minister.
“That is why I have remained silent all this time. I believe that once you retire, you are retired. You should not interfere with your successor. If there is anything you are unhappy with, you can always offer your views privately. Why bring it up in public and make life difficult for him?
Abdullah earned the biggest mandate from the electorate in 2004 but squandered the historic opportunity to reform the country and carry through many of his election pledges. As a result, in 2008 he led Barisan Nasional to a poor showing, losing its customary two-thirds control of Parliament.
In the book, he accepted blame for not meeting the expectations of the voters but said that Mahathir could not walk away from the 2008 results unscathed.
“When we did well in 2004, he said such a strong mandate was not good for the country. When we did not do so well in 2008, he heaped all the blame on me.
"He is doing it even today… Mahathir cannot deny that he contributed to the erosion of Barisan Nasional’s support in the 2008 elections through his open and unwarranted criticisms and attacks, calling my administration, which included a majority of people from his own Cabinet, as a ‘half-past six government’ and accusing us of corruption and all sorts of things,” said Abdullah.