Several government ministers and party members criticised Mahathir on Thursday, a day after he harshly attacked his self-chosen successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Such open criticism of Mahathir would have been unusual before he stepped down in 2003 in deference to his position as a nation-builder who presided over Malaysia's growth and development for 22 years as prime minister.

"They were my cabinet ministers. Before they agreed with me," Mahathir, 80, said on Friday, adding that he has often been wrong in judging people and has been too trusting.

"For the next 10 days I believe there will be lot of stories in the papers trying to demonise me, make me appear bad," he said.

Mahathir surprised Malaysians on Wednesday when he suggested that he may have made the wrong choice in choosing Abdullah, a respected Islamic scholar and politician, to be prime minister.

Disputed bridge

His anger stems from the government's recent decision to scrap one of his personal initiatives - a plan to build a bridge to neighbouring Singapore.

He has also offended at what he said were government charges that he wasted public money on massive infrastructure projects during his tenure, although Abdullah's cabinet has made no such public accusation.

Abdullah has been praised for his
restraint in the face of criticism

"What is disappointing is that instead of explaining about the subjects that I raised, all the talk is about whether I am right in making the criticism or not," Mahathir said.

"But the questions that I raised have received no answer. Maybe it is because they don't have an answer. That is why they try to demonise me, make me appear very bad," he said.

While cabinet ministers have rejected Mahathir's tirade, Abdullah has refused to be drawn into the debate, saying the former prime minister is free to speak in a democratic country.

"I have more important things to do, like repaying the trust given to me by the people," Abdullah said late on Thursday, drawing praise from his supporters who called the response an "elegant silence".

Crude person

Asked to comment on Abdullah's demeanour, Mahathir replied: "I admit I am not elegant. I am a very crude person."

The row has raised fears of a split in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party, which if real could affect the stability of the government and throw the economy into turmoil.

But the resounding support shown by ministers for Abdullah has eased some of those fears - although Mahathir's power in Umno cannot be underestimated.

Syed Hamid Albar, the foreign minister, said on Friday: "Umno cannot afford to be divided or have its attention diverted to other things."