The Prime Minister Misses The Point Again

The Prime Minister, now on his Pilgrimage to Mecca, continues to muddle the public about the palace in Putra Jaya that is to the official residence of the Malaysian prime minister. Dr Mahathir Mohamed now puts the blame on the then finance minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, for the excesses, suggesting ingeniously that since the latter has six children, he needed six rooms and, since he would be the next occupant, he had ordered it built to fit. It is when he makes statements like these that one wonders about the state of his mental faculties. Why was this explanation not given in parliament when a deputy minister in his office blithely lied when he put the cost at RM17.6 million? Simple. This is part of the new spin: that Malaysia's problems was caused by He Who Must Be Destroyed At All Cost himself, without or defying cabinet approval. In Malaysia, the cabinet, it seems, does not have collective responsibility, except to fix the price of chickens.

But a prime ministerial residence -- Is Dr Mahathir saying that Seri Perdana has only two rooms? Is he saying he was not responsible for its more than RM20 million cost 17 years ago? -- is not built for the incumbent but for all incumbents to come. The building of Putra Jaya is a Mahathir project. He had active oversight of it, closely involved in every stage of construction, involved in the planning of construction of the residence. The finance minister's role, as it turned out, was to cut down cost at every level, even eschewing a RM40 million residence for the deputy prime minister. The prime minister needs a decent official residence. Malaysia has had four. The Residency, where Tengku Abdul Rahman stayed, is now the Department of National Unity. Seri Taman was where Tun Abdul Razak and Dato' (later Tun) Hussein Onn lived. Dr Mahathir moved to Seri Perdana. At that time, the rebuilding of the graceful wooden residence of chairman of the London Tin Corporation. (I knew this old house: I have had occasion, as a Reuter reporter in the 1960s, to have dined there several times when Sir Douglas Waring was chairman of LTC, which is now the Malaysian Mining Corporation.) That rebuilding came when the roof collapsed when the inside was gutted for remodelling.

Dr Mahathir's explanations about his non-involvement in the Putra Jaya palace does not wash. He and his wife supervised every stage of the construction, even paying close attention to the furnishings. He often chaired the meetings of the committee overseeing its construction to its minutest detail. Cost was no object. He wanted a prime ministerial residence fit the hype he spread about the country's role in the world, one that out-White House the White House. It was he who decided that the new capital would not have a new palace for the Yang Dipertuan Agung. The Prime Minister wanted an official residence that would be cosetted from all physical external pressures, protected by electronic gadgetry so modern, that costs inevitably mounted. The converted Chinese mansion that Istana Negara was considered more than fit for a head of state. The government had planned to build a new Istana Negara in the Taman Duta area, but that has been in abeyance since 1964. The government has decided that Istana Negara and Parliament would remain where they are. The King will stay in Kuala Lumpur, the Emperor in Putra Jaya.

For the Prime Minister to say he was in the dark points not to his hands-off approach but his dereliction to duty. He presides over the cabinet which discussed the project; he cannot say it did not approve it; the finance minister which approved the funds is not Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim but his predecessor, Tun Daim Zainuddin (who has come back to be incumbent once again). Surely, he is not saying that Tun Daim is the cause of this furore? The cabinet cannot have not discussed this when even the price of onions is a matter weighty enough for its oversight. When things go wrong, the prime minister always has an explanation: he did not know. So, he did not know about the cost or opulence of the Putra Jaya prime ministerial residence; he did not know, until the commission held its sessions, that the sacked Inspector-General of Police did not beat up the former deputy prime minister; he did not, as home minister, realise that five new stadia was too much for the Commonwealth Games until after it was all over. In all three, he was directly involved in the result. But then, he has a view of the public that Hitler had for the Jews.

M.G.G. Pillai