Mahathir was prime minister of this Southeast Asian country for 22 years until 2003, and his attacks on his successor Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi helped catalyse opposition to Abdullah in the main ruling party which led to him quitting office early.
Najib will take power at the end of March and will have to deal with the worst economic downturn since the Asian financial crisis of 1998 as well as rebuilding a party tainted with corruption and still bruised by last year’s big election losses.
“A lot of people are uncertain. Having watched Najib’s performance as deputy (prime minister), he did not shine,” Mahathir said a week before the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the main party in the ruling coalition, holds internal polls.
“Najib can do well, but we will have to see, because when I asked Abdullah to appoint him as deputy I had a lot of hope for him, but he did not perform the way I expected,” Mahathir said today.
Najib is standing unopposed to be Umno president, a post that traditionally carries with it the premiership, but there are tough battles for the deputy presidency and other top posts.
Mahathir did praise Najib’s action as finance minister in putting together a 60 billion ringgit package of spending to try to offset the looming recession, contrasting it with Abdullah’s performance as the previous finance minister.
However, Najib does arrive with the kind of baggage that no other Malaysian leader had on entering office.
He has been linked on the internet blogs to a brutal murder of a Mongolian model, Altantuya Shariibuu. Although he has firmly denied involvement and there is no evidence to tie him to the death, he was challenged again in parliament last week over the issue by an opposition lawmaker.
His popularity rating stands at just 41 per cent, according to a recent poll by independent pollster the Merdeka Centre, and that is less than the 46 per cent enjoyed by Abdullah.
“Legally he has cleared his name (over Altantuya). But whether people will perceive that he has cleared his name or not is something he cannot decide,” Mahathir said.
One of the ways that Najib can fight back against negative perceptions is to stamp out corruption in Umno and the 13-party National Front coalition, Mahathir said.
“Today the problem with Umno is that people see it as a corrupt party and it has no credibility and they really look down on Umno as being irrelevant.”
If Umno fails to tackle corruption, Mahathir warned that it would lose power to the opposition and its leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar was Mahathir’s chosen successor until he was sacked as deputy prime minister and convicted on what he says were trumped up sodomy and corruption charges at the end of the 1990s.
Anwar faces new sodomy charges in court that could see him jailed for 20 years, ending his political career.
“He (Anwar) is not to be trusted. He will do anything to become prime minister,” Mahathir said.
“During the time when he was my deputy, he was involved in cronyism. He supported a lot of his own people, they became very rich, because he gave contracts to them,” the former prime minister said. — Reuters