Were there no Mahathir now, would we not have to invent someone like him for his present role, wonders Khoo Boo Teik.
When Anwar Ibrahim returned to politics around 2006, his detractors called him a “chameleon”. They said he often switched sides (which was an exaggeration) and was untrustworthy (which was debatable).
Right up to the 2008 general election, the late DAP MP Sim Kwang Yang recalled, “I was constantly bombarded with the question of whether Anwar would return to Umno, just like Ku Li did in the 90s after fighting Umno in vain with Semangat 46 as his political vehicle.”
Kwang Yang decided that Anwar could be trusted because prison had changed him and the public badly needed him to lead a struggle for democratic reform.
The rest is history but, funnily, history is back with a twist. Quite a few people worry that Dr Mahathir Mohamad will not change. They ask, “If Mahathir becomes prime minister again, will he be the same old Mahathir?”
Will “Mahathirism”, which some only understand as Mahathir’s sins, return? Can one answer such questions by reference to Mahathir’s character alone?
Mahathir has been a mystery to citizens and analysts alike. He expresses contradictory ideas and projects paradoxical images. He embodies F Scott Fitzgerald’s “test of a first-rate intelligence [which] is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.
Most people, especially his adversaries, only saw one side of Mahathir. Lee Kuan Yew, who clashed with him in the era of the second Parliament, labelled Mahathir a “Malay ultra”.
Australia’s Paul Keating dismissed him as “recalcitrant” for boycotting the 1993 Apec summit meeting in Seattle.
When Mahathir blamed the 1997 currency crash on George Soros, the hedge fund manager called him a “menace to his own country”.
And, yes, he was dubbed “Mahafiraun” and “Mahazalim”.
Branding Mahathir in these ways made him seem like a one-dimensional man. It was as if he wrote only one book (The Malay Dilemma), followed only one policy (New Economic Policy), and ruled in only one way (with a fist).
But an image of an unchanging Mahathir grates against his record of promoting learning, adaptation, improvement, and advance.
The “Malay ultra” produced a concept of Bangsa Malaysia as part of Vision 2020.
The author of The Malay Dilemma declared that the Melayu Baru’s success invalidated his ideas of Malay flaws.
The ideologue of the New Economic Policy “held the NEP in abeyance” in 1986.
The deputy prime minister, whose appointment in 1976 unsettled the Chinese, became their hero after being prime minister for a decade.
After the 1997 financial crisis, the “Malay nationalist” who attacked “Chinese economic hegemony” in the 1960s, praised local Chinese businesspersons as the world’s best for succeeding despite discrimination against them.
Besides, public reaction to Mahathir’s 22 years in office did not follow a linear path of “likes” or “dislikes”.
His early reformism received popular support but that was replaced by disenchantment at the recession and financial scandals of the mid-1980s.
He received rapturous approval for six years from 1991 but people were uncertain if he could steer the economy through the 1997 financial crisis.
With Anwar’s maltreatment, a lot of people were disgusted with Mahathir.
Now, Mahathir adopts Anwar’s language of dissent, reform, democracy, and the rule of law. Is he expressing the desperation of the times? Does he accept that the flaws which have festered out of control began in his time? Has the original target of Reformasi become its spearhead?
At the popular level, Mahathir’s appeal to voters has grown as Najib Abdul Razak’s has fallen. Mahathir’s appearance at the Harapan ceramah in Pasir Gudang, Muar, Temerloh, and Bukit Kayu Hitam just this month drew large and apparently appreciative crowds.
That is not shocking. Like Anwar, Mahathir brings a combative air to campaigning, and popular anger at Najib and Umno-BN has reached fighting levels.
Again like Anwar, Mahathir enjoys residual affection in society, crucially among the Malay grassroots. The Anwar-Mahathir reconciliation might have brought closer their supporters, who sometimes belonged to different demographics and constituencies.
No one in Harapan is inclined to reopen old wounds or revive past quarrels. Mohamad Sabu and Azmin Ali have joked about their detentions under the ISA during Mahathir’s time. But they were making a virtue of forgetting the past.
Mahathir has publicly apologised for the suffering he inflicted on them and others. He did not suffer to a comparable degree for rebelling against Tunku Abdul Rahman but he could not have forgotten its consequences. Maybe that explains why, when third parties asked him if ancient fights mattered, he merely asked, “Which of us did not sin?”
Necessity of reinventions
We are left with images and hunches. Mine are derived from Bersih 4 and Bersih 5.
There was Mahathir, with Dr Siti Hasmah, sitting unattended at Bersih 4. He had not received a warm welcome from the Bersih organisers. Yet he went to civil society’s largest and longest mobilisation of dissent. That was not his kind of politics before. Did he appreciate, then, that one struggled for the rights to freedom of assembly and expression?
And there he was in the thick of Bersih 5, speaking from the back of an open truck. It was startling to hear him thank and praise the thousands of young marchers for supporting reform and democracy.
Had he not come a long way, this old man, from denouncing an earlier generation of Reformasi demonstrators? Had he “embraced the reform agenda”, as Anwar reassuringly said after their meeting in September 2016?
There was Nurul Izzah Anwar, too, at Bersih 5. At one point she declared, “We have a reform agenda. You must follow the reform agenda.” She was addressing the crowd closest to her. But she could just as well have tossed that as a reminder to Mahathir.
Harapan’s joint use of PKR’s logo conjures a picture of the opposition’s unity on the eve of electoral battle. One can be cautious without being pessimistic. Mahathir and his new allies have probably gone too far with their cooperation for any side to renege on the reforms adopted in the Harapan manifesto.
One has to be hopeful without being naïve. Where each of the Harapan partners stands after the coming general election will be shaped as much by the detailed electoral outcomes as by personal intentions and collective goodwill.
How does one think dispassionately about a man whose politics has stirred much passion?
When a journalist asked him to comment on Mahathir, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah replied, “Can a leopard change its spots?” But just as one expected Razaleigh to say “No”, he continued, “For me, Mahathir can, with the guidance of all the leaders in his party.”
‘RealityCheck’, a Malaysiakini reader, had this comment: “Our country is like a patient with Stage 4 cancer. Dr M is the only medication we have. The medication is toxic and may harm the patient.
“Without it, the patient will die. Time is of the essence because the medication is about to expire. So, stop bickering and start the therapy. We can deal with the side effects and complications as they arise.”
The situation has gone beyond talk of keeping a two-decade struggle pure without Mahathir. In Anwar’s absence, but with his and his family’s blessings, Amanah, DAP and PKR made common cause with Mahathir and Bersatu. They know, as others should know, that, as Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.”
Our circumstances are dire. Were there no Mahathir now, would we not have to invent someone like him for his present role?
Would it not have to be someone who had lived our entire political history and regarded it his final mission in life to save the nation from destruction? Would it not have to be someone who could claim enough administrative success to treat our worst disorders?
I imagine that it would have to be someone whose reinvention was unthinkable until it happened before our eyes. I know only that it must be a person so irrepressible that a national crisis would not find him keeping an elegant silence with equanimity.
This article first appeared in Malaysiakini.