Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

False Heroes and Demigods

Written by johnleemk on 12:13:19 pm Jan 11, 2007.
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I have noticed that there is an odd tendency amongst people to glorify leaders once they are past their prime, i.e. out of power. This tendency appears to be universal. In the former Soviet Union, many people longingly remember the days of communism, and contrast it with the failures of the free market in Russia. In the United States, several once-unpopular Presidents such as Harry Truman and Gerald Ford have seen their reputations rehabilitated after the passage of time. In Malaysia, many former leaders are remembered fondly, with time apparently concealing the blemishes on the records of these dignitaries.

For example, Dato Onn Ja'afar is near-universally acclaimed for his attempt to de-emphasise race in politics by forming a non-racial party, the Independence Party of Malaya. Observers at the time, however, considered this a shrewd move driven by political concerns, rather than any idealism. The IMP was considered the pre-eminent political party, and its views given the most weight by the British, until its stunning defeat in several elections. After the IMP's failure, Dato Onn betrayed his ideals (assuming they were his ideals) by forming the Parti Negara - an ostensibly multiracial party, but one with a very hard line concerning the special position of the Malays. (Some historians actually attribute the extremist positions of the Parti Negara for swaying UMNO towards more radical policies as well.)

The same can be said for almost any other leader. Tunku Abdul Rahman, another fondly-remembered man, is occasionally hearkened to by opposition supporters, seeking an example of a man who favoured moderation in racial and religious policies. The problem is that the Tunku's true positions are very difficult to ascertain. My own research has turned up quotes such as "For those who love and feel they owe undivided loyalty to this country, we will welcome them as Malayans. They must truly be Malayans, and they will have the same rights and privileges as the Malays", "Malaya is for the Malays and it should not be governed by a mixture of races", and "The Malays are not only the natives but also the lords of this country and nobody can dispute this fact". So just what did the Tunku truly believe? Furthermore, those who advocate a more equitable distribution of the country's wealth would do well to remember that the Tunku cannot be cited as a supporter of such a policy. The Tunku's original conception of the social contract was that the Chinese would run the economy, and the Malays would run the government. This is what led to the great Chinese discontent resulting in the pre-May 13 racial rallies, and the great Malay discontent resulting in Dr. Mahathir's Malay Dilemma.

This is not to say that we should tar and feather the reputations of Dato Onn or the Tunku. Despite their human shortcomings, these men remain great leaders whose contributions to the country's history are inestimable. The point is not to deify them and pretend that they were always the champions of policies and proposals and ideals which in reality they were more ambivalent about.

A similar thing, however, cannot be said for Dr. Mahathir, who for some reason has now become the darling of many anti-government politicos. Yes, Dr. Mahathir is slamming the government and giving it hell, but is it enough for someone to be the enemy of our enemy to be considered our friend? We should not reject his support - but we should be very careful about giving him our support in return.

For some reason, many people seem to overlook Mahathir's terrible political history. The same people who would have denigrated him 40 or 20 or 10 years ago now look at him as some hero who can save the country by pointing out the government's obvious failings. Let's start at the beginning then, and examine just the kind of leader Mahathir was when he was a mere backbencher in UMNO.

In 1965, guess who contributed to the separation of Singapore? Besides the obvious culprits such as Syed Jaafar Albar, check out who said this in Parliament: "[The Singaporean Chinese] have never known Malay rule and cannot bear the idea that the people they have so long kept under their heels should now be in a position to rule them." Mahathir's conception of the country, even then, was that we are all under "Malay rule". He apparently could not even conceive of a country where no single ethnicity holds the reins of power, presenting the situation as a simple false choice between Malay rule and Chinese rule. That's who Mahathir was in 1965.

Then in 1969, who wrote an open letter to the Tunku accusing him of "giving the Chinese what they demand ... you have given them too much face"? Who did Home Minister Tun Dr. Ismail say "believe[s] in the wild and fantastic theory of absolute dominion by one race over the other communities, regardless of the Constitution"? Who wrote in his seminal book, The Malay Dilemma, "that the Malays are the original or indigenous people of Malaya and the only people who can claim Malaya as their one and only country. In accordance with practice all over the world, this confers on the Malays certain inalienable rights over the forms and obligations of citizenship which can be imposed on citizens of non-indigenous origin", and expressed his discontent with "far too many non-Malay citizens who can swamp the Malays"? That's right - Tun Dr. Mahathir.

Well, perhaps things might have changed with a decade or two, right? Surely this man couldn't hold the same views forever. In 1981, upon assuming the Prime Ministership, who told Tan Chee Khoon, the former MP nicknamed Mr. Opposition, that he had not changed any of his views since writing The Malay Dilemma? Right again - Tun Dr. Mahathir.

Now, who as Prime Minister promoted economic policies favouring the development of "towering Malays"? Who promoted the development of Malay tycoons, without consideration for the interests of the average Malay? Who continued to preserve the civil service as a Malay-controlled institution, violating the New Economic Policy's stated purpose of eradicating identification of race with economic function? Who aided the growth of a system of political patronage which firmly embedded political corruption in our country's culture?

And let us see - who rendered the judiciary subservient to the executive by sacking the top judge in the nation when he refused to comply with the Prime Minister's wishes? Who had the Constitution amended to remove any references to the "judicial power of the federation" for fear of this preventing the government from implementing unjust and unfair laws? Who showed an utter disregard for the spirit of the Constitution and the rule of law by substituting a rule by law? Who kept the press and the people quiet and complacent, leaving the only serious political discussion to furtive conversations in coffee shops? Bingo - Tun Dr. Mahathir. (In truth, all past Prime Ministers are guilty of similar transgressions - any decent legal history of Malaysia can tell you that. None of them, however, ever stooped to Dr. Mahathir's level.)

Well, he can't possibly have been that insanely evil forever. Perhaps he changed his tune. After all, who developed the Bangsa Malaysia policy? Who built the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Putrajaya, the Multimedia Supercorridor, and the Petronas Twin Towers? Who led our country through the 1997 economic crisis? Why - it was Tun Dr. Mahathir! Perhaps he wasn't such a terrible chap after all!

Or was he? In a candid moment, this is what one UMNO Youth leader told a Korean political scientist about Bangsa Malaysia:

The Barisan government's flexible move ... only shows that we are enjoying the highest level of tolerance purely based on the level of confidence in terms of political and economic position of the Malays. We share the political power with the Chinese. When [they] need to increase their political support from their community it is very important for them to serve the main concerns of the Chinese. So, why shouldn't we allow that? We can ... achieve a win-win situation. This is a purely political move. ... Similarly we [UMNO Youth] have to be often seen as a very racialist political group fighting for the Malay interests. ... However, those finished agendas that we have done, such as Islam, Bahasa Melayu [the Malay language] and the special status of the Malays, should not be questioned in any circumstance because these are very sensitive issues.

Notice, after all, how this policy was soon ignored after the 1997 economic crisis, and how it has come to the point where the only Malay leaders willing to defend Bangsa Malaysia are those who suggest (as Najib Razak did) that "It does not question the special rights of the Malays, our quota or anything of that sort." Notice how that despite all the platitudes about multiracialism (as a platitude is all that "Bangsa Malaysia" is), we remain racially polarised both at the social and political levels. Mahathir was all talk and no action.

And as for those supposedly wonderful achievements such as economic development? The country's path was set by Tun Abdul Razak already when Tun Hussein Onn and Mahathir took power. Read accounts of the country from the 1970s, and you can see that all the key basic plans were in place. All Mahathir had to do was not touch anything, and we would have been carried along by the rising tide.

Putrajaya and the KLIA were also conceived by earlier Prime Ministers - and it is not like a couple of megaprojects are enough to rehabilitate the image of a clearly horribly misguided man. Similarly, the Twin Towers have only been good for tourism, and little else. They haven't even raised the profile of the country that much - nobody I met in the US who wasn't from Southeast Asia knew what on earth "Malaysia" was. Mentioning the tallest twin towers in the world didn't ring a bell. Guess what did? "We're just north of Singapore." "Ohhh!" I'd rather have spent all that money used for the Twin Towers on developing something like, say, our rotten education system. (We spend millions of ringgit making "smart schools" and yet our smart education ministry makes teachers with degrees in physics teach biology, and IT teachers teach history. We could have a well-trained force of teachers with all that moolah we spent on white elephants like the KLCC.)

And as for that brilliant move of propping up Mahathir's crony-owned enterprises during the 1997 crisis? As many wags noted, the success of this appears to be solely serendipitous. It is quite unlikely that Mahathir had the economy at the front of his mind when he was preventing foreign investors from pulling out of his cronies' companies. Still, despite all his ridiculous actions during the crisis (such as blaming a Jewish conspiracy to upset the currency markets - despite Bank Negara itself speculating heavily in currency markets during the early 1990s), Mahathir did save the economy, so that remains something to be credited to him.

Yet, on the balance, is Mahathir a great man? Was he a great leader? No. He was of great calibre, of great potential - but he abused that potential. He could have, would have, should have led Malaysia to a new dawn. Instead, he set it on the path to decades of a judiciary pliant to the will of the executive. He placed the press firmly under the thumb of the government. He maintained a ridiculous set of quotas and subsidies to prop up an artificial class of Malay millionaires instead of nurturing a natural set of Malay entrepreneurs. He ingrained corruption firmly within the halls of government.

So why is he so looked up to these days by many within the opposition? Simply opposing Abdullah does not suddenly reprieve him of his earlier mistakes and missteps. If anything, the only reason he seems upset about Abdullah's regime is that now instead of Mahathir's cronies getting the goodies, it is Abdullah's and Khairy's cronies riding the gravy train. Who was it who said he'd shut up about the government if they just went ahead and approved one last megaproject - a crooked bridge to Singapore to be constructed by his cronies? Right again - Tun Dr. Mahathir. So, tell me, why must we look up to this man? Why must he be our hero? Why?


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