Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Mahathir: Neither Mamak Nor Mastermind

Written by johnleemk on 11:34:39 am Jun 16, 2008.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is more and more of a polarising figure these days: you love him or you hate him. I personally cannot stand the man; his accomplishments as Prime Minister are hardly worth the praise many lavish on him, while his present antics smack more of selfishness than patriotism. In spite of this, I cannot stand almost in equal measure Mahathir's opponents — or at least, those who seem to think it is an insult to continually call Mahathir out on his ethnic heritage.

Let's start with why Mahathir was no mastermind of prosperity or development. We all know about the economic woes our country finds itself in. Inflation is on the rice. Government-controlled companies monopolising their various industries are increasingly unable to provide decent service at a reasonable price. The Malays, as Mahathir would say, are weak. They are lacking in entrepreneurship and clearly remain at the back of the pack when it comes to economic heft. These present problems we have can all be traced back to a failure on the part of Mahathir's leadership.

Many of them are simply the result of policies Mahathir enacted as Prime Minister. Foreign reserves which could have helped strengthen the ringgit were wasted on speculation in foreign currencies during the early 1990s. The fact that Bank Negara lost billions under Mahathir's orders directly contributed to our present inflationary woes. Government-linked companies were all the rage under Mahathir's economic regime; rather than encourage the markets to promote worthy entrepreneurs, Mahathir decided that he and his cronies would appoint "towering Malays" to head huge conglomerates. Most of these are presently atrophying and failing, if they are not dead yet; Petronas is the exception that proves the rule. And lest we forget, Mahathir was the main man behind increasing preferences for the Bumiputra in a variety of fields. If anyone is to blame for making them lazy and weak, it is him. Mahathir is the man directly responsible for our present economic problems.

Mahathir of course would rather blame his chosen successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, for our problems. But what could Abdullah really do? Could he reverse twenty years of the subsidy mentality in a quarter of the time? Probably not. Could he turn around our poorly captained ship of state, rejuvenate the economy? Possibly, but unlikely. It's true Abdullah hardly tried. But even if he had, the odds were really against him. Now, who stacked the odds against Abdullah?

Mahathir is trying to claim the mantle of statesmanship by admitting he erred in appointing Abdullah to replace him, and campaigning for Abdullah's resignation. The problem with this is that Mahathir did not merely err in appointing Abdullah; he erred in drawing up a succession plan, in exercising leadership. Every time he felt threatened by a credible and competent deputy, he acted to remove the man. UMNO's top leadership has fallen to the point that today we are talking about people like Muhyiddin Yassin or Najib Razak as potential Prime Ministers, and why? Because Mahathir gave every competent and capable leader in UMNO the boot, from Musa Hitam to Tengku Razaleigh to Anwar Ibrahim; to keep his grip on power, he rendered all his potential successors impotent.

Mahathir then is no mastermind of prosperity and stability. If not for his policies, we would be in a better place today. His leadership did not bring development to the country; we have succeeded in spite of, not because of his leadership. For all his wisdom and for all his smarts, Mahathir failed to live up to his promise as a leader. Today, he seems more intent on dragging his own good name through the dirt, spewing racist rhetoric meant to drive home the myth that Malaysia is a house permanently divided, and that half the people of Malaysia pose a threat to the other half.

So the response on the part of Mahathir's numerous critics has been to label him...a mamak? As much as Mahathir's poorly-argued rhetoric gets on my nerves, I find it harder and harder to take Mahathir's critics in the blogosphere and alternative media circles seriously. As long as they think it is fine to take potshots at Mahathir for his Indian heritage, I will keep tuning them out, no matter how well-reasoned their arguments may be.

That some think you can score points by bringing this up out of nowhere is strange since in the first place, not many people even know that Mahathir's father is Indian. On Wikipedia not too long ago, several editors got into a protracted argument about whether Mahathir actually was half-Indian. (Practically any biography can confirm this fact.) A brief edit war ensued when it turned out someone was intentionally changing Mahathir's official name in the article to a strange Indian version, giving him appellations like "son of Iskandar Kutty", etc. For some reason, this is supposed to discredit Mahathir and his ideas.

Indeed, enter any forum for political discussion, and when Mahathir's name comes up, someone is bound to make a comment about his mamak heritage. In one of the most popular websites dedicated to Malaysian politics, two of the first three comments in an article about Mahathir call him out for being "genetically Indian" and "ashamed of being Indian. You evil, disgrace to humanity!" Since Mahathir has run away from his Indian heritage, somehow it has become anonymous internet commentators' duty to bring it back home to him.

I hope it is obvious why this is a ridiculous and insulting line of argument — it is preposterous for precisely the same reason Mahathir's present fomenting of racial sentiment is unfounded. Someone's race has nothing to do with the validity of his or her ideas. Mahathir is ashamed of his father. So what? Does that make his thoughts on politics and economics any more or less valid? Mahathir denigrates non-Malays as an inferior class of citizens to Malays. Why should that make our ideas and our opinions any less valid, when the Federal Constitution grants us equal suffrage, equal voting rights as our fellow Malay citizens? If this is not a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I honestly don't know what is.

I don't like Mahathir or his crackpot ideas. I don't like how we blow up his reputation and attribute much of our nation's successes to his poor leadership. But I don't like blatantly groundless criticisms of him either. Mahathir, like any of us, deserves to be judged on his own merits. Let's do that rather than fall prey to the same kind of flawed thinking he has succumbed to, shall we?

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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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