Dr Mahathir dissects kleptocracy

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Photograph: zaid.my

Khoo Boo Teik was intrigued to find Mahathir displaying his medical method in full at a Pakatan Harapan ceramah.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma is mostly known for its controversial views of the ‘Malay race’ and the bitter ethnic politics of the 1960s.

Overlooked is the author’s ‘medical method’ of social investigation with which he constructs his political argument. In fact, the book can be read as a postmortem of the perished political order of the Alliance regime.

Forty-eight years have passed since the book was published, 23 since I analysed it in Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad.

Hence, I was intrigued to find Mahathir displaying his medical method in full at a Pakatan Harapan ceramah in Temerloh, Pahang, on 9 April 2018.

In a 30-minute speech he scanned the ‘state of the nation’ and detected a national crisis and a crumbling kleptocratic order.

Watching the doctor

In Temerloh, Mahathir began by observing symptoms: endemic corruption, financial haemorrhage, feverishly high debt, and a choking GST. He compiled a case history, using key findings from overseas investigations.

Then he diagnosed the problem as a disease of the body politic. The disease, called kleptocracy, was contracted from an insidious laundering of unclean money. The offending virus was a kleptocrat named ‘MO1’ by the US Department of Justice.

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Mahathir ticked off several failed trial cures – private counselling, police reports, no-confidence vote in Parliament, and a public million-signatory People’s Declaration. He was certain such forms of treatment were impeded by “dedak” (animal feed) blockages of high points in the system.

The patient suffered great stress, pain, and demoralisation. There was no time to lose in flushing out the virus and the sources of its potency. Only then could a new team institute a regime of rehabilitation to staunch the bleeding, overhaul the system and restore the patient to its former health.

Of course, Mahathir did not speak in this manner of mixing metaphors of medicine with criticisms of political conduct.

But this stylised reconstruction of his Temerloh speech (which ironically recalls Shahnon Ahmad’s literary devices in his reformasi novel, S***!) has a point beyond showing how formidable Mahathir is in political argument.

With his method, he constructed a powerful narrative that eased what was regarded as a difficult task of the opposition – how to make 1MDB and kleptocracy ‘real’ for non-urban constituencies.

Intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing souls such as Tony Pua, Rafizi Ramli, and Zunar exposed and mocked 1MDB, other scandals and their complicit figures. Their principal urban audiences understood the issues of transparency, accountability, corruption, concealment and so on.

Amanah leaders, including Mohamad Sabu, Husam Musa, Khalid Samad, and Mazlan Aliman spoke on 1MDB and kleptocracy to their constituencies. But the ‘rural Malay mindset’, some lamented, was focused on everyday concerns, dulled by the controlled media and fobbed off with cash handouts.

Mohamad thought it difficult to grasp 1MDB because its dealings were ‘invisible’, unlike Mahathir’s projects of old, such as Proton, KLIA, Putrajaya, and KLCC which one could visualise and therefore criticise.

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Mahathir created a coherent narrative for the masses. He crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s of the 1MDB affair, and produced four logical chains that matched crimes, evidence, suspects, and action.

One chain strung together financial and economic items – 1MDB, rising public debt, losses by Felda and statutory funds, deals with companies from China, cuts in social services, depreciating currency, rising costs of living, and the burden of the GST.

A second chain had political links: suppressed domestic investigation of 1MDB, cover-ups of official reports, dismissals of senior officers, sackings of Umno leaders and widening repression.

The chains that bind

Illegal acts formed a third chain – the kleptocracy of MO1, the plugging of potential critics in Umno and Parliament with dedak, and “tipu” (cheating) in the next general election.

There was a fourth chain of sentiments and calls to action that bound “malu” (national shame), “lawan” (fight), “tumbang” (defeat the regime), and “selamat” (the goal of saving the nation).

At ceramah after ceramah, especially in rural constituencies, Mahathir steered his audience along his logical chains. He usually began with ‘Cash is King’ Najib and 1MDB and finished with endemic corruption, institutional degradation and national shame.

At some point, he had only to utter four Malay keywords – ‘penyangak” (pilferer), “perompak” (robber), “pencuri” (thief), “penyamun” (highway robber) – and the public, no less the rural, imagination would equate them with ‘culprit words’, like 1MDB, MO1, the wife of MO1, the stepson of MO1, Jho Low… all the way to GST and popular suffering.

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Mahathir did not need any ideological twist to shape such a damning discourse of misconduct, suffering, and shame. Against his narrative, how can a defender of Najib in Umno and government not be taunted: “Are your ears, eyes, and mouths plugged with dedak? When your nose is plugged, too, you will die.”

One similarity connects The Malay Dilemma and Mahathir’s narrative chains: Mahathir’s political status. At 45 in 1970 he was an Umno dissident who was thrown out of the party.

Now 92, he is again a dissident who quit Umno and wants to defeat it. It is as much his dissent as his technical prowess that gives power to his medical method.

But there is one crucial difference between his old book and his new narrative. The book came out in print and was promptly banned. His present narrative is ‘viralled’ through the smartphone and social media.

By the time Mahathir covered the rural areas with his discursive chains of wrongs and culpabilities, the super-expensive yacht of Jho Low, the 1MDB mastermind friend of MO1, had sailed into the Felda imaginary once impenetrable to all but Umno.

In Temerloh, part of which is Felda country, Mahathir mentioned the Indonesia-impounded yacht by its name, Equanimity, and the crowd of several thousand people hooted and jeered.

Is there any reason to believe that only urban residents understand kleptocracy and the urgent task of ousting it?

This piece first appeared in Malaysiakini.

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Khoo Boo Teik
Dr Khoo Boo Teik, an Aliran member, is the author of Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad and Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents. He is also the editor of Policy Regimes and the Political Economy of Poverty Reduction in Malaysia.

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