Ku Li: Mahathir didn't keep his promise to make me DPM [NSTTV]

KUALA LUMPUR: Former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah revealed that there was an agreement between him and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to appoint him as Deputy Prime Minister when the latter assumed leadership from Tun Hussein Onn in 1981.

However, Razaleigh said the agreement fell apart when Dr Mahathir announced in a press statement that he would leave it to Umno to name the candidate for deputy president so that he wouldn't have to choose a deputy prime minister himself.

The agreement between Razaleigh, otherwise more commonly known as Ku Li, and Dr Mahathir was shared by Razaleigh in his book 'Ku Li: Memoir 205', which was launched by former deputy prime minister and Razaleigh's political rival, Tun Musa Hitam, yesterday.

Razaleigh said the agreement was made while Hussein was struggling with health issues. He noted that Hussein's frequent illness was not a secret to the public, as the media had reported his month-long heart bypass surgery abroad, during which Dr Mahathir acted as prime minister.

He added that rumours of Hussein's resignation were widespread despite his denials. At that time, Dr Mahathir was already being considered as Hussein's successor.

However, Razaleigh mentioned in his memoir that Dr Mahathir's position was still not secure despite having been deputy prime minister for four years, mainly due to Hussein's good relationship with Razaleigh, which worried Dr Mahathir.

Razaleigh recounts in his book the day Hussein summoned both he and Dr Mahathir to his home, a day after returning to the country after receiving treatment abroad.

"We arrived at 4pm. Tun Hussein said he had bad news to share and asked both of us if we could work together. We both replied that we could, as we had no issues at that time," said Razaleigh.

Hussein continued, "I want to resign, and I want you to take over," pointing to Razaleigh and saying, "You take over as the Prime Minister."

"I was shocked and immediately said it couldn't be done. Changing the leadership suddenly would cause chaos in the party and affect the stock market and other matters," Razaleigh responded.

However, Hussein was adamant, saying, "I'm going to announce my resignation, and you'll take over," despite Razaleigh's reluctance.

"I said, how could it be done when Dr Mahathir had been Deputy Prime Minister for over one term? I mentioned that it would cause turmoil within Umno, but Tun Hussein insisted that I should think it over as he was going to announce it very soon. Dr Mahathir then said we needed to discuss the party matters," Razaleigh said.

After the meeting, he said that Dr Mahathir thanked him for his response to Hussein.

Dr Mahathir said: "I'm ready to take over," to which Razaleigh replied, "You should take over. You're the deputy."

Dr Mahathir responded, "And you'll be my deputy. When we face the general assembly, I will take over from Hussein as president, and you will take over as deputy," offering the position to Razaleigh.

Razaleigh responded that the decision was up to Hussein and that the position was not his priority.

However, at that time, Umno branch meetings nationwide were already in progress, naming candidates for the upcoming party election on June 26, 1981.

By April, Hussein remained silent, leading to much speculation. Although it was assumed that Dr Mahathir would succeed him, the nomination process was not yet complete, making Dr Mahathir's position uncertain.

Razaleigh later announced that he would not challenge Dr Mahathir.

"I will not challenge Dr Mahathir, even though I have received many nominations. As long as he sits in the deputy president's chair, I will not contest the position," Razaleigh is quoted in his memoir.

A few days after Razaleigh's announcement, another Umno vice president, Tun Musa Hitam, also said that he would not challenge Dr Mahathir.

Razaleigh believed this provided a safe space for Dr Mahathir.

In the first week of May 1981, the media reported that Hussein would announce his resignation on May 15 at the opening of the Umno Johor Baru division meeting.

The media also disclosed a three-way meeting between Hussein, Razaleigh, and Dr Mahathir to reach an agreement on the power transition. Razaleigh confirmed the meeting took place.

"It's true. We met– six eyes. And because I did not want to replace Tun Hussein, the final consensus was that the Prime Minister's position would be handed to Dr Mahathir, with the promise that I would be appointed as his deputy," he said.

Meanwhile, Musa's growing popularity began to influence several Umno divisions to nominate him as Dr Mahathir's running mate for the Umno presidency and deputy presidency.

On May 12, 1981, Dr Mahathir announced that if Hussein stepped down and he was chosen as the replacement, the candidate for the deputy prime minister's position would be decided by Umno members.

Thus, the June 26, 1981 Umno general assembly would determine the party's deputy president, and the winner would be appointed deputy prime minister.

Razaleigh added that Dr Mahathir said he would remain neutral in the contest for the position.

According to him, this announcement effectively nullified the agreement between himself, Dr Mahathir and Hussein.

"Dr Mahathir dared to make such an announcement because he was already 'safe' after I announced that I would not challenge him.

"He knew he would lose if I decided to contest against him, and from his announcement, I understood that he did not want me to be his deputy, even though that was the agreement with Tun Hussein.

"I accepted it and welcomed the decision. I didn't care much about it, and I thought, if that's Dr Mahathir's attitude, let him deal with it later," he said.

In his memoir, Razaleigh mentions that Dr Mahathir reiterated his stance by reminding Umno that it would never practice a 'cadre system,' where only certain members were chosen to hold power.

"Once his position was secure because the nominations had closed, he 'installed' Musa to run against me. That's what you call double-dealing.

"Musa himself came to see me and said, 'I'm offering myself as the candidate to oppose you as deputy president.'

"Although surprised, I said, 'Good for you.' Musa and I were close. We had dinner together almost every weekend at the Merlin (hotel), talking about all sorts of things. When I asked why he did so, he said Dr Mahathir asked him to. Once again, I said, 'Good for you,'" Razaleigh said.

In the 1981 election, Dr Mahathir won unopposed as president, while Musa garnered 722 votes to become deputy president, defeating Razaleigh who received 517 votes.

However, by the late 1980s, internal conflicts within Umno intensified, and the party was declared illegal by the court on Feb 4, 1988, following the leadership crisis in 1987 where Razaleigh narrowly lost to Dr Mahathir in the Umno presidential election.

Following the rivalry between Dr Mahathir and Razaleigh, which was supported by Musa at the time, Razaleigh led the formation of Parti Melayu Semangat 46. Musa did not join.

In May 1996, Semangat 46 was dissolved and Razaleigh rejoined the new Umno.

The 338-page book 'Ku Li: Memoir 205' was written by Datin Zinitulniza Abdul Kadir.

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