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This year's Umno general assembly will be surely remembered as one in which long-time party president and prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad stunned delegates with his announcement to resign from all posts only for them to coax him into changing his mind later.

One hour after Mahathir announced his shock resignation, his deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the veteran leader had retracted his decision, thanks to the persuasive powers of party leaders and delegates.

And two hours later, at about 9pm, Abdullah, this time with the presence of all the supreme council members, told a hastily held press conference that Mahathir was still their chief.

However, still baffling is the reason for Mahathir wanting to resign.

There was no indication as to the drama that was going to unfold when Mahathir started his winding up speech at the 56th Umno General Assembly at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur at 4.30pm.

For almost 90 minutes, Mahathir, in power for almost 21 years, told the 2,000-odd delegates attending the assembly the government's plans on the implementation of meritocracy, lambasted PAS' proposed hudud bill and explained how he was managing the economy.

But just shortly before 6pm, he said, "Umno is strong today. The young and the old who deserted Umno a few years ago have now come back to the party fold."

Moments later, Mahathir, stopping first for a sip of water, said he had an important announcement to make.

Teary announcement

He was almost in tears at this stage, something which had not surprised the delegates as he had cried in the past three AGM's over various issues.

With all delegates and party supreme council members in attention, Mahathir slowly and choking back tears, said he had decided to resign from his party posts.

Then he paused for more water, and with tears swelling in his eyes, announced that he was resigning from being the chairperson of ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.

Party top leaders, delegates, as well as everyone watching the proceeding live on television, were at first too stunned to react.

However, before Mahathir could continue further, the women's wing chief and a devout Mahathir supporter Rafidah Aziz, Youth head Hishammuddin Hussein and party secretary-general Khalil Yaakob rushed to the podium.

With Rafidah on his right and Hishammuddin on the left, both asked Mahathir, "Why? Why?"

Standing behind Mahathir, Khalil was seen calling the other party leaders to come to Mahathir, resulting in almost all supreme council members mobbing Mahathir, begging and persuading him to stay on.

In between the flurry of activities, Abdullah took the microphone and told Mahathir "we hope you will change your mind."

By now, a sobbing Mahathir said, "I've decided a long time ago".

Abdullah also told the astounded crowd that the supreme council was proposing an emergency resolution rejecting Mahathir's decision. The delegates responded with a resounding "Yes".

However, Mahathir, now surrounded by almost all key Umno members, was seen shaking his head as if indicating that he would not budge from his decision.

Reality also finally dawned upon the delegates some still puzzled, most in tears began shouting "long live Mahathir".

The delegates and observers in the venue also started shouting "Withdraw. Withdraw. Long Live Mahathir. Long live Mahathir". Some of them emotionally sang the Umno song and the national anthem.

Back door dealing

While the party leaders were still trying to persuade Mahathir to change his mind, party permanent chairperson Sulaiman Ninam Shah ordered everyone not involved to leave the hall and adjourned the meeting for 10 minutes.

An hour later, Abdullah emerged on the stage and announced that Mahathir had agreed to retract his decision, evoking a tremendous applause from party leaders and delegates.

Later when interviewed by TV station RTM, Abdullah said Mahathir was overwhelmed by the response shown by all the delegates who begged him to stay.

"The delegates were firm on their stand and when I proposed the resolution, they all unanimously approved it."

He added that he and other party leaders then met with Mahathir in a special room to indicate the support he still has in the party.

"We told him that the party wants him to continue to lead us and the government."

Abdullah added that Mahathir finally relented and agreed to heed the wishes of party members.

Days before the beginning of the AGM, Mahathir told Mingguan Malaysia of his disappointment over his failure to change the attitude of the Malays even though various efforts had been made.

Even in his opening speech, Mahathir said Malays were still weak and backward after three decades of preferential treatment, and warned that they were "far from being safe" and would not survive if privileges under the New Economic Policy were withdrawn.

Seeking forgiveness

He apologised at least four times to the delegates for publicly exposing Malay weaknesses and sought forgiveness for his failure to change their mindset.

"I have tried my very best... but mostly I feel disappointed because I achieved too little result from my principal task of making my race successful. I beg your pardon because I have failed," he had said.

Mahathir never came back to face the troubled Umno delegates after his shock announcement and his subsequent retraction. He had instead gone back home to be with his family.

The prime minister is expected to take leave immediately and would be visiting Thailand and Venezuela next week.

Meanwhile, the Umno delegates will return to their respective hometowns tomorrow, still puzzled as to why their president had wanted to resign.

Photos are TV images from RTM