Mahathir, those who financially bled the nation are the disloyal ones!

The nutty nonagenarian’s noxious narrative masks the truth

Malaysia Building in Hong Kong - MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

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By M Santhananaban

Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s paternal grandfather arrived in then Malaya from the Malabar Coast of India.

Decades later, Mahathir served as the prime minister of Malaysia on two occasions – first from 1981 for over 22 years and then from May 2018 for almost 22 months.

In a recent interview with Chennai-based Thanthi TV, Mahathir made some controversial statements. To him, the ethnic minorities in Malaysia do not measure up to his (arbitrary) standards of loyalty to Malaysia.

The ex-PM implied he perceives it as a defect if someone is from one of the many minority groups in Malaysia. In his mind, only the majority ethnic Malays are capable of being loyal to Malaysia.

But the people of Sabah and Sarawak, including their indigenous communities, rarely see themselves as ‘Malay’. Surely, they cannot be a lesser component of the nation’s population.

It was not Mahathir’s startling invective in that interview that surprised me. What was startling was how easily the seasoned Indian interviewer, Hariharan SA, drew the nonagenarian politely out of his comfort zone to show that the man was spewing plain baloney and bigotry mixed with some small sparks of brilliance and bombast. 

Unfortunately, Mahathir thinks that ‘Malayness’ is the essential attribute of loyalty to Malaysia. His suggestion that ‘being Malay’ is better than being a Malaysian is facetious and flawed. 

No doubt, character is a far more important criterion for the ideal person in Malaysia than the need to belong to any ethnicity. After all, Malaysia was governed wisely by its founders based on equality, unity and mutual trust.

More significantly, the integrity and high-mindedness of the nation’s pioneer leaders greatly contributed to its early success. From 1955 to 1981, Malaya and then Malaysia found joy in the strength of its peaceful and diverse ecosystem.

Mahathir does not fit the mould of such high-minded leaders, although he was PM for almost a quarter of a century. The country is still haunted by his foibles and follies. His prejudices and proclivity to assume the bully pulpit and hurl insults periodically at the ethnic Malays and others in Malaysia showed up clearly in this interview.

READ MORE:  Mahathir, we are bona fide Malaysian citizens! We don't need to 'become Malay' for that right!

The country’s minorities can opt to say and do nothing about Mahathir’s despicable diatribe.

But I have decided not to exercise that option. I consider myself one of this nation’s many courageous and loyal citizens. There must be millions of others in Malaysia who share this sentiment of indisputable innate loyalty to our beloved Malaysia.

The eminent sociologist Prof Syed Hussein Alatas analyses methodically the quality of Mahathir’s specious scholarship in his magisterial The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977).

Ethnic stereotyping has affected many in Malaysia, including me. It has to be stopped as it continues to bedevil our multi-ethnic country.

Mahathir’s insinuations of the suspect loyalty of some of us are uncalled for, ugly and upsetting.

I myself had aspersions cast on my loyalty during the early part of my career and was put under a year-long surveillance. When I was 28, the security authorities in Malaysia suspected I had Soviet sympathies. They came to this preposterous conclusion because, in November 1977, I had reported to the relevant authority several approaches made to befriend me by a Soviet diplomat.

I promptly informed the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I worked about my unhappiness over this surveillance. He then directed a senior official and the authorities to put a stop to this pressure, as there was no misconduct on my part. (The Soviet diplomat, along with two of his colleagues at their embassy, were later expelled in 1981.)

So, to have aspersions cast on my loyalty to Malaysia is not something new or startling for me.

But for the entire Indian or other minority community in Malaysia to be subjected to this mischievous mischaracterisation is a bit of a stretch, to say the least. It is particularly offensive when it comes from a long-standing so-called leader of the country.

The head honcho in Wismaputra went even further to rescue me from this pressure and surveillance: in August 1978, I was given an overseas posting to Hong Kong.

During my stint in Hong Kong, I blocked scandal-tainted BMF financiers from sabotaging a lucrative Malaysian investment – the purchase of a commercial building, Lap Heng House, that was meant to house the consulate general and all related government agencies. Of those BFM financiers, four went on to do jail time.

READ MORE:  A satirical take on Mahathir's worry that the Malays face 'extinction'

The suspected ‘disloyal’ Malaysian – me – took great personal risks and made this deal possible. The building has since earned over RM2bn in revenue for the Malaysian government – mainly from rental income derived from Lap Heng House from an initial investment of just RM96m.

I highlight this episode from my own experience to debunk Mahathir’s claim that the minorities have received rewards in line with their contributions. “For what they do, they have gained a lot,” he said during the Hariharan interview.

The reality is I received no reward or acknowledgment for my role in securing this lucrative Hong Kong investment.

Perhaps some anecdotal evidence may be cited to call into question the ‘gains’ that the so-called migrants have supposedly received.

The work on railroads, roads and rubber cultivation was carried out with indentured Indian and some Javanese labour from the 19th Century.

Many perished while carrying out the back-breaking job of slashing through dense jungles, infested with malarial mosquitos, with basic implements.

Up to 1955, rubber tappers did not even have a minimum wage.

In 1955, an Employment Act was introduced to provide a ‘living wage’ to rubber tappers. It provided for daily paid tappers to be paid for a minimum of 24 days, so that they could be paid even for rainy days when tapping could not be carried out.

Some estate owners refused to comply with this rule.

In 1974 Govinda Pillai, a rubber tapper filed a case in the Kajang labour court for seven days’ wages amounting to RM22.40.

The court ruled in his favour.

Pillai’s employers, Kinrara estate, appealed against the ruling by filing an appeal at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur.

A respected judge heard the appeal. At the end of June 1994, just a day before his retirement, the judge ruled in favour of Pillai, and Kinrara estate had to pay the RM22.40 that was claimed.

READ MORE:  Mahathir, what does citizenship mean to you?

Pillai’s case involved in principle some 100,000 rubber tappers. Had the case been decided in 1974, estate owners would have had to compensate each tapper about RM150 per year – or about RM15m a year. By the time judgment was delivered in 1994 – two decades later – both Pillai and his lawyer DP Xavier had died.

Worse things happened to the rubber tappers and their families under Mahathir’s watch. In planning and building his Putrajaya pet project, the workers of Perang Besar Estate and the nearby estates were displaced with minimum consideration.

This took place while Mahathir was speaking up gallantly at the international level against the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing of the Bosnians in then Yugoslavia. This is the kind of man he is.

During his watch too, the Bumputra Malaysia Finance chaps lost more than a billion dollars in Hongkong. (The subject of the BMF fiasco has been covered brilliantly in separate published works by Ian Robinson, Chooi Mun Sou and Aliran’s Dr Teh Yik Koon.)

Mahathir took no action against the perpetrators because he was more preoccupied with his own political survival than in properly administering the country. The BMF scandal was much larger than the 1MDB scandal as its ultimate cost was about 3% of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 1985.

Had there been a firm action, right from the start to indicate that there would be zero tolerance for any breach of fiduciary duty, the 1MDB fiasco would probably not have occurred.

Naive Najib Razak, of near noble pedigree, must have believed that with the relaxed handling of the BMF scandal, he could do no wrong.

Mahathir uses convoluted reasoning to imagine that some people – whether from the majority or minority communities – are disloyal to our beloved country. But remember, it was those of his own chosen ilk who caused the BMF, Maminco, Perwaja and countless other financial disasters.

So who really are the disloyal ones?

Dato’ Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
29 Jan 2024 10.30am

The old …. needs a place in our K.L. Museum. A nonongerian is past the vintage point.

Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
23 Jan 2024 11.50am

Enough said of this … Pendatang from Kerala….

Phua Kai Lit
Phua Kai Lit
23 Jan 2024 5.56am

Thank you Sir for speaking up and informing the Malaysian public about all these cases of misgovernance under Mahathir. It is amazing that some Malaysians still continue to look up to and respect this man. I’m reminded of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins, one of which is “Politics without principles”.