Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Mahathir vs Pak Lah: A Problem of Leadership

Written by johnleemk on 1:02:29 pm Apr 1, 2007.

One of the most heated issues in Malaysian politics at present is who you support — Mahathir or Pak Lah. Your first allegiance may lie with another personality or party, but in the end, generally things boil down to who you'd go with: Mahathir or Pak Lah.

On the one hand, Pak Lah (as the present Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is known) came to power with a strong anti-graft campaign. His policies since have been lacklustre, but for a number of people, he is seen as a welcome respite from the abrasive and controversial stands taken by Mahathir, especially in areas such as foreign policy.

Mahathir, on the other hand, oppressed the media, threw dissidents in jail, institutionalised a culture of corruption, and created a Malay dependency on their special privileges. Nevertheless, he is now making his mark by making a near-180 degree turn on most of these issues.

Mahathir now accuses Pak Lah of worsening the status of media freedom (while Pak Lah claims he has loosened the reins of government control over the media). He claims that Pak Lah is now nepotically abusing his position of power. The only thing he has yet to do is fully renounce his support for this Malay dependency on their special position.

Some people, mainly those who were absolutely and totally traumatised by the authoritarian regime of Mahathir, are ardent supporters of Pak Lah. They may or may not acknowledge his flaws, but they insist that he is a far better choice for premier than Mahathir. They just cannot stomach another man like him.

Meanwhile, the Mahathir camp has large numbers of people who agree with what Mahathir is saying at present, without regard for what he has actually said in the past, or the context of his present actions. The reason is simple; for them, the pendulum has swung the other way. Now they simply cannot stomach a man like Pak Lah — a man who falls asleep at government functions, and reportedly delegates much of his responsibilities to his son-in-law.

What I wonder, though, is whether that anti-Pak Lah movement really needs to coalesce around Mahathir. After all, Mahathir was little better than Pak Lah in his own time. He might have been far more capable than Pak Lah, but the actual results of his policies weren't too different from what we see now.

Moreover, there's no sign that Mahathir has actually had a change of heart. He just seems upset that the culture of corruption he worked so hard to build has been taken over and usurped by Pak Lah's cronies rather than his own. After all, Mahathir promised to stop criticising the government if it continued work on the infamous "crooked bridge" to Singapore (a project that would benefit many of his cronies) — hardly principled behaviour.

It's an unfortunate fact that the typical man needs a human leader to look up to. Our society is innately based on rank and hierarchy, and if we did not have some leader for our cause celebre, we would simply not be motivated to fight for it.

I remain concerned, nevertheless, over the potential for effecting change through Mahathir. His complaint is not so much about the system, but about the fact that he is no longer benefiting from the system. He had no qualms about silencing the media when he was in power, since it benefited him. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, he is more than happy to champion freedom of the press.

There's no reason we can't use this support — we need all the support we can get for changing our country. But we need to look beyond the simplistic Pak Lah-Mahathir dichotomy. Neither man is worthy to lead our country; one has the calibre but not the principles, while the other has neither the calibre nor the principles.

It's time we found a leader worthy of our support. Some postulate that Anwar Ibrahim could be this man. I am almost as skeptical about him as I am about Mahathir. It's a sad fact that we have yet to identify a single charismatic leader who can truly lead us to change, without having been tainted by past involvement in corruption at the highest levels.

This problem of leadership is something that has to be solved if we want to change our country. It's time we found ourselves a better leader.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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