TUN MAHATHIR BIN MOHAMAD-A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
DAVID IN A SEA OF LILLIPUTIAN GOLIATHS
They reserve a panegyric for his adversaries and critics, serve bile and vitriol at the very mention of his name, setting him up for a fall at every given opportunity. His strength in office was always his ability to withstand the many temptations that littered the path to fulfilling his vision. Many would dispute this. But fewer still if any would be willing or able to supply proof that he did amass a fortune in banking, finance, steel, in agriculture or gaming that the ‘coffee shop’ gossip mill, supported by the many anonymous bloggers in cyberspace claim he did.
A BAPTISM OF FIRE- THE EAST WEST DICHOTOMY
As if the domestic baiting and insults were not enough a distraction, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating who feared Dr. Mahathir was about to rain on his parade at APEC (Australia Pacific Economic Co- operation), chose to enter into the fray with an off the cuff remark he would live to regret.
Initially a spat over Dr. Mahathir’s stated reluctance to attend APEC or to give APEC the priority or credibility Keating had vainly pursued as self-appointed Marshall of the event, that remark sparked a generational and seminal change in how Australia and other developed countries in future would treat their counterparts in the developing world, seeking their rightful place in the sun with them.
That remark was political suicide for Keating as he desperately tried to brush aside its impact to Australia’s reputation with its other Asian neighbours in the aftermath of that blunder. It served as media fodder to appease and impress Keating’s domestic audiences at a time of his failing political fortunes amongst Australian voters.
Overcome by Dr. Mahathir’s perceived snub of his much vaunted formula for prosperity and security in the region in APEC , and in a conniption, Keating in one of his poorly calculated highly publicized moments of belligerence called Dr. Mahathir rather distastefully and inappropriately a ‘recalcitrant’. Little did he realise he had bitten off more than he could chew.
In calling Dr. Mahathir recalcitrant, Keating also unwittingly provided that much needed impetus, a catalyst to critical change in the mindset of a society that long craved a role model who could tit for tat address the arrogance and condescension of the colonial mindset amongst its Australian and British friends. A hero was born.
By that one remark, Keating reinforced a widely held perception in Asia of Australia and that of some of its leaders as being an anachronism, of self-appointed delusional guardians of the runt of a long lost empire of Europe in the region. A new breed of Asians in the region demanded social and political parity and respect in mutual relations with the west. It was Dr. Mahathir who forced that point.
The ‘recalcitrant’ incident is also objectively likely to have cost Australian industry a $4 billion ship building contract opportunity with the Royal Malaysian Navy. It is also credited with having unleashed long dormant forces within the region seeking an opportunity to legitimacy in establishing the patrimonial creed of ‘Asian values’ in government as a political philosophy.
Dr. Mahathir won wide praise and respect from many for his demonstrated willingness to stand up to the condescension of a perceived bully in the region. That perception, a proposition that needed no further proof of its truth (following Keating’s outburst), was an unintended gift from Keating to this ‘recalcitrant’ who Keating perhaps also unwittingly provided with that opportunity to cement his position as that new voice to championing the many causes of the developing world.
A COOL WIND IN THE EAST
In cutting a swathe through an overgrowth of its immediate colonial past, downsizing and reinventing its impotent institutions and structures, Dr. Mahathir’s conduct appeared to be rocking a long established comfortable bed of cozy relationships the west had successfully cultivated and nurtured with the gate keepers of its vast economic, strategic and political interests in the region. Australia and Britain having invested more in the old guard appeared to have most to loose in any change to the political landscape in the region. They had not budgeted for capital change.
Dr. Mahathir the ‘threat’, and no small L liberal nor supporter of the western model of liberal democracy in which “anything goes” pales into insignificance when compared to the more colourful, eccentric and brutal leaders in Asia (friends of the west) on the point of reigning in dissent.
Like Lee Kuan Yew former prime minister of Singapore and now its minister mentor, a neighbor and the only other leader of a common law constitutional democracy in the region, he preferred an ordered society first in preference to that of any other socio political model.
Dr. Mahathir’s vision and model a variant on Lee’s theme, would allow for greater personal and political freedoms to express dissent within constitutional limits and without the need to radically amend the constitution to accommodate the ordered society. There was no “we’ll meet them in cul de sacs with knuckle dusters” crude, intimidatory physical threats to opponents or dissidents.
MAHATHIR THE MAN
This essay is not about Dr. Mahathir the myth. And yes from sycophants there are many such myths and songs of praise. Much of these an embarrassment to the man. They range from the frivolous to the fanciful to outright sensationalism, gossip and hero worship befitting a Bollywood script from acolytes within and without the Barisan National. Many of these operate in the mistaken belief and expectation that he may extend his mythical financial fortunes to provide favours to them in gratitude for singing his praises. Wrong.
His view is simply this: “Write about me by all means, but please be mindful to write truthfully and not simply sensationally”. After all his much awaited ‘memoirs’ which many have been holding their breath for appears to be as elusive and unpredictable as the man’s next broadside at government, a public figure or at UMNO itself.
A STORM BREWING
This article seeks not to explore in too much depth and when not required, claims and counter claims of an unsubstantiated nature against the man or his legacy. It is neither a scientific document nor an erudite scholarly piece of research intended for reference. Material is sourced from authoritative published works on the man and on Asian politics by Hajrudin Somun, Michael D. Barr, Khoo Boo Teik, The Economist various other publications including more recently Joe Studwell for balance.
Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is no ordinary man. History I feel will be compelled to be kinder to him for his outstanding achievements as a statesman and leader of his country in delivering above average returns on his visionary political investments to what was once a largely backward and impoverished nation. There are those who will disagree. But then again there are those for reasons of their own who will insist the earth is flat.
The goods in economic opportunities, scientific and educational benefits that the popular press and sectors of Malaysia’s largely middle class, a monster of his own economic political policies enjoy and ignore, are largely the fruits of his risk averse policies and his vision.
He wrested an idyllic tropical backwater from the clutches of relative obscurity and economic insignificance catapulting it into a 21st century industrial orbit leaving many nations in its neighbourhood reeling in envy in its wake.
A definitive thesis on the man and his politics this is not. Perhaps that may be more appropriate for a later date by someone with more critical bent on history and less impressionable than a former citizen writing from a relatively forensic but not detached perspective of Malaysia and the man. However a more substantive and probing biography will be the subject of someone else’s pursuit.
There is little doubt that such a biography and history of modern Malaysia will be written and documented more authoritatively by academics if not collated and carefully catalogued by historians for posterity. After all it is not simply about a man, but of a time and of seminal events of that time, even if precipitated by the man and his policies.
Dr. Mahathir did not set out to emulate or to displace his prickly neighbor Lee Kuan Yew. The two could not be more different. They are poles apart in every respect, motivated by different causes and objectives and are as different as day is to night.
Lee took twice the amount of time as Dr. Mahathir did to achieve half as much of what Dr. Mahathir achieved if not less in that same time, in a country with a homogenous complaint population, less cultural diversity, a single party government thus fewer problems in a state only about one twentith of Malaysia’s physical size.
Dr. Mahathir’s achievements conversely in this regard were without the repression, race polarization, suppression of dissent or the generous bounties of western benefactors in proportion to that gifted to his neighbours to achieve lesser comparable outcomes for their citizens. In fact his achievements were attained inspite of his and his countries problems. Some say his achievements were driven by a need to overcome those seemingly insurmountable problems in the face of a seasoned and well entrenched opposition and a multi party system.
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?
Mahathir Mohamad took over the reins of government in Malaysia as a most unlikely and perhaps least trusted candidate from an available pool of talent at the time for the job. It was not a decade since the racial (some say political) riots of 13 May 1969 which tore at the fabric of a volatile mix of three racially diverse communities following a general election. It was an event which many lay blame on him for inciting with his ‘firebrand’ rhetoric in support of his brand of Malay nationalism.
The Chinese and Indians prior to this event believed in an ascriptive right to rule their majority hosts, as if it were a natural progression from being trusty retainers of the British Raj to being substitutes for their role in a new independent Malaya.
Their attitudes were to a large extent actively encouraged by Tengku Abdul Rahman Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. The trend continued with Tengku’s successors through inaction in office till the late 1970’s when a series of domestic political events would fatefully change the course of modern Malaysia’s history.
ANYONE FOR A MILLION CITIZENSHIP PAPERS?
A litmus test of loyalty of Malaysia’s non Malay communities arose with the renewed implementation of a hitherto tokenistic NEP (New Economic Policy) of affirmative action (or positive discrimination) favouring Malaysia’s majority Malays in education, business opportunities and employment. It would become a cornerstone of national economic development policy. Now the opportunity presented to exercise an option to extend that policy and Dr. Mahathir did just that.
In a masterly stroke of genius, a Machiavellian Dr. Mahathir set out to offset the otherwise conveniently overlooked egregious human disaster the Tengku had engineered earlier on following indepndence. Without proper consultation with its Malay majority the Tengku in an unprecedented act of ‘generosity’ handed out a million citizenships to non Malays in Malaysia. They were mainly to the many Chinese who were stateless, illegals and remnants of the British Empire now resident in an independent Malaya. In so doing he undermined the already fragile racial balance, testing political stability to its limits and streteched tolerance levels and credibility, setting back Malay rights to an almost irredeemable position. At Dr. Mahathir’s extension of the NEP the Chinese were not impressed. The Indians cried foul. Clearly something else was afoot and no one was in a position to read the man nor guess his next move.
The man they had termed an ‘ultra’ (a euphemism for an extremist nationalist) was now at work. He was till then an unknown untested commodity in politics. A man without the accepted social pedigree of public school, the Inns of Court in London’s legal quarter nor nurtured or favoured by Whitehall.
Uncertainty and an uneasy calm gripped diplomatic and domestic political circles at what seemed to be a nascent threat to the world’s most important waterway after the Suez Canal. Another Gammal Abdul Nasser firebrand perhaps likely to use religious and nationalistic logic to disrupt international trade with religious zeal?
Whitehall was not his priority. Nor was it on his immediate agenda or radar. Not for the moment at least. Traditional trade, cultural and political ties reaffirmed in cursory rituals made way now for Japan, Korea and Taiwan instead.
To the annoyance of many he viewed the old ties as nothing more than benevolent donor states whose primary interests did not accord with his own vision for development. A reactive momentum of resistance began to accumulate in disapproval of the man and his unpredictable vision for their turf. These were uncertain times. The East was the answer.
WHAT’S IN A NAME AFTER ALL?
At the outset the man appears to have distinguished himself form the rest of the crowd with both his demenour and his innate capacity to identify an opportunity, to nurture it to its full potential and to do so in the face of overwhelming resistance.
He delivered on more of his promises on economic development than any of his predecessors, his immediate successor and the current incumbent in office had. Although in fairness Najib Razak has to be given time to prove himself. Whoever aptly named him Mahathir (a derivative of the Sanskrit Mahathiran meaning man of great destiny) must have had a prescient characteristic about them.
With policies and a style as varied as his counter belligerence of Margaret Thatcher’s tertiary education fee rises of the early 1980’s to his “look east” policy for economic development, the man, love him or hate him, simply could not be ignored.
He was throughout his term in office transfixed on his vision of achieving first world status for Malaysia through a massive industrialization and poverty eradication programme, through education, training and a new and more productive work ethic, eschewing trade union dominance of the workforce
A new form of collective bargaining, shared community responsibility, individual accountability and quality consciousness were all part of this new paradigm shift the media branded “Mahathirism”.
Very few of the new or old industrialized nations of the world have achieved the levels of economic and political progress at a comparable rate anywhere in modern history. Not at least without some bloodshed, communalism, large scale repression of the masses or some form of disenfranchisement of their minorities which Dr. Mahathir managed to avoid.
His vision was contemptuous of inefficiency, lack of effort, bureaucratic red tape or processes based on outdated traditions. Those traits of his has too often been conveniently interpreted as contempt for the poor, the non Malays, in particular its citizens of Indian and Chinese extraction. Many of the latter two groups still claim to be marginalized in Malaysian society. It is a claim hotly debated and open to scrutiny.
ECONOMIC LEADERSHIP AND INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT
From an unimpressive third world country ranked 60 for the size of its economy, its GDP and output in production in the early 1960’s he dragged Malaysia to an impressive 19th position at its peak in a space of 20 years. An impressive performance by any measure. It is in fact exceptional when compared to the achievements of Malaysia’s repressive neighbours.
In 2009 the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Report placed Malaysia at 24 in terms of its international competitiveness in trade. That Malaysia was placed a notch above China and India (half the world) is itself testimony to the sound foundations laid by Mahathirism.
These are statistics which irritate those who still believe that a Malay is genetically incapable of handling the economic development of his country. A form of very unsubtle racism still celebrated amongst Malaysia’s non Malay population.
Its rate of inflation hovering at 0.4% (consumer prices : source CIA Factbook 2009). Poverty in his 20 odd years at the helm was reined in from 64.5% (mainly amongst Malaysia’s Malays and Indians) in and around 1970 to 8.5% (2004) shortly after he retired from office. An impressive achievement by any standards if one adds a GDP of about $385 billion.
As of 2008, Malaysia is home to 15 companies that rank in the Forbes Global 2000 ranking. The top 6 on the list includes Malayan Banking (623rd), Tenaga Nasional (625th), Sime Darby (691st), Bumiputra-Commerce Holdings (704th), Telekom Malaysia (780th), and Public Bank (822nd).
The NEP though remains a bone of contention for the disproportionate level of economic prosperity it has delivered to the mainly Chinese and Indian sectors at the expense of Malay rural poverty. Inspite of this both Chinese and Indians lobby for dismantling the NEP and for more economic benefits from government claiming to be disenfranchised.
A NEW WORK ETHIC- A NEW BROOM
Whilst her neighbours languished in to the grip of totalitarian kleptocracies, Malaysia was busy blazing a path to an industrial vision thought too ambitious by some but not by the faithful in the Doctor’s camp. You had to believe to belong.
Long hard yards and burning the midnight lamp was the order of the day at his sparsely furnished but utilitarian offices. He introduced personal responsibility to a nation yet to crawl out of the cot of its post -independence culture where the concept of individual responsibility and freedoms was still relatively novel a concept. Till he came along the state and community accounted for the individual. Balancing the needs of the two in a changing Malaysia required the ability to walk on water.
Each worker in the public service was compelled to be identifiable by a name tag they wore. The man wore one himself in office and in public. They were the hallmarks of a new work ethic in the making. Everyone had to contribute. Everyone was accountable. This was the gotong royong so often repeated in slogan in government of his predecessors in rhetoric but seldom put into effective practice except in the rural hinterland where the practice was custom.
AN ECONOMIC RACE VERSUS THE POLITICS OF RACE
Racial undercurrents that once threatened instability and the fabric of this fragile society had to be contained not with a big stick but through investment in industries that would galvanise the spirit of all three major races forging a new identity of Malaysian rather than of Indian, Chinese or Malay. Difficult but worth the try.
Armed with a steely determination to succeed, a commitment never to look back or to retreat in the face of adversity, he took many a fork in the road set out for him and his country by his predecessors and imposed on his country by the more oppressive, ruthless multi-lateral donour bodies like the World Bank.
On his journey old foes became new friends. The Japanese Zaibatsu, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Taipans, South Korean Chaebuls, curious Arab sheiks with risk capital to chance on his vision were all joined in his caravanserai.
Australian, British and American flight capital, hot money, economic refugees seeking more favourable tax treatment and an escape from the tyranny of unionized labour now holding governments to ransom in their homeland were all making a bee line to his capital Kuala Lumpur. All except ‘the Magi’ it seems had joined the rush to this new El Dorado.
To add to its attraction Malaysian’s spoke English (albeit with accents), it practised a legal system common to many and apart from its many investment opportunities it also had a strong determined man at the helm who more than promised but also delivered results on terms international investors expected.
A NEVER ENDING MINORITY NEED- THE POLITICS OF GREED
Twenty odd years on he sits comfortably at the 86th floor of a building that was built by one of the country’s better known entrepreneurs, an Indian not a Malay. Surveying the city of KL below, dwarfed by the sheer size of the Petronas Twin Towers he points to his guests the only two or three large buildings owned by Malays (Bumiputeras and the beneficiaries of his NEP) in the vast commercial space below. Contrary to popular myth, the Malays have not benefitted from the NEP as much as is widely rumoured. Distortions of the NEP’s effect on Malays is a contention and a contentious one at that supported by the unwieldy opposition in Malaysian politics.
Wealth in Chinese hands in Malaysia is to put it mildly obscene. Indians have fared much better than they ever did before Dr. Mahathir’s ascendency although the Tamils are the Indians often referred to in the Malaysian context which tends to distort the facts.
A not insignificant group of non Tamil Indians have prospered beyond their wildest dreams in Mahathir’s Malaysia. Many amongst them much like the Chinese claim economic disadvantage and discrimination inspite of having displaced the majority Malays in a number of areas of human endeavour. This is a statistic not often acknowledged by critics of the Barisan National government of Malaysia.
Dr. Mahathir himself it is widely acknowledged is largely responsible for the emancipation of the plantation based Tamil population of lowly paid labourers. Many though still languish in relative poverty unable to access the fruits of Malaysia’s development, arguably a manifestation of divisive, exploitative, inter caste domestic Indian politics. Added to this their stubborn self imposed exile behind the exclusivity of Tamil vernacular education preferred over the more inclusive National Type English/ Malay medium schools.
Controversially it is alleged, that Dr. Mahathir failed to rein in the excesses and cronyism of Malay, the Indian and Chinese elites of his political allies in government.
There is strong evidence of political patronage given to the few who found a fast track to wealth and economic prosperity during his time in office: Or
Was it simply the case that, a new brash breed of risk takers were now free under his government, to overcome the stifling archaic patronage and monopoly of an old guard, to whom all of Malaysia’s wealth and prosperity once belonged, and till his arrival was their exclusive protected right?
His response would of course be that if he did interfere he would have been accused of being heavy handed and undemocratic to his allies in government. These individuals representatives in the coalition were after all elected representatives of the other races in a coalition in which his party was dominant but not their political masters to dominate.
Dammed if he did dammed if he did not. It was simply a distraction he would have to endure and thicken his skin along the way. A thorn perhaps in the rose garden he was busy cultivating out of a once glorified malarial swamp.
CRITICISM AND CONFUSION(ISM)
Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has on many an occasion mocked Dr. Mahathir and his policies in government but seldom done so directly. Lee remains the pin up boy of those who lament what Malaysia could have been if the Chinese were in total control.
Lee is also widely believed to have given license to those select few authors and commentators seeking a platform to attack Dr. Mahathir in unprecedented privilege in freedoms of expression granted by the island state. The privileges include the free right to some to publish unsubstantiated, personal criticisms and allegations of impropriety directed at Dr. Mahathir and his government from the relative safety and shelter of the island state across the causeway.
However and notably so at the same time, rather paradoxically, Lee would deny his own constituents from late opposition parliamentarian Ben Jeyaratnam to publications like the Far Eastern Economic Review that same right and privilege to criticise Lee’s and his government’s many failings and questionable decisions whilst Singapore would continue to maintain its maniacal, repressive grip on its citizens and their rights to freedom of political and moral expression to this day.
TRENDIES AND NGOS
A wily politician he was and remains to this very day. Dr. Mahathir has outlasted many of his political peers, contemporaries and adversaries alike. That his character is indelibly stamped all over modern Malaysia is a source of never ending humiliation and irritation to those who insist Malaysia’s modernization was a natural logical process and he Mahathir a mere interloper in that process.
However in Malaysia where personal responsibility is anathema to its new generation of effete, affluent youth demanding handouts, criticism of government is a natural response to poor individual performance and an excuse to engage in Malay bashing.
There is also prevalent amongst these mainly foreign tertiary educated, a sense of exaggerated self-importance, disproportionate to their personal contributions. The phenomenon is not restricted to non- Malays alone although, it is largely confined to a Chinese constituency peppered with a very vocal Indian minority in their midst.
Such criticism and its language is clearly stamped with a clichéd vernacular borrowed from the youthful and adventurous world of sinister organizations networked and clandestinely linked to patrons with a dubious nexus to the Neo Cons of Washington, conservative think tanks in London or the DGSE in Paris.
Deceptively describing themselves as non government organizations or NGO’s they have their roots in the Australian university student sub culture where many are recruited from. Many of them selected for their servile and intellectually emasculated mindsets in furtherance of personal political gain.
More amusing of these is the Chevening scholar who continues to be selected from Malaysia’s elite youth corps (authors own words) by Britain in what Britain continues to believe is its right to shape the model for future leaders of Malaysia 64 years from Merdeka with scholarships.
SOCIAL ENGINEERING COMPARING NEIGHBOURS
“To test a man’s real character you give him power” :Abraham Lincoln.
Much of the criticism aimed at Dr. Mahathir claims a role model of the Lee dynastic Singapore variety of politics as the example of how Malaysia ought to be governed.
In sharp contrast, Dr. Mahathir whilst in office was careful to discourage his won children from aspiring to similarly lofty political heights on the basis they were his children. There was no dynastic or succession master plan as was the case in the Nehru, Lee, Suharto Kennedy and Bush dynasties. No one within the ranks of his detractors took notice, perhaps it is an inconvenient truth to acknowledge.
Like a weapon, a strategic unrelenting anti Mahathir (read anti Malay) campaign is clandestinely and effectively being waged from within Malaysia’s mainly Chinese dominated western educated communities. For effect it is being repeated ad nauseum through social media channels like the internet to dislodge the governing coalition at the next general elections in support of a Singapore type republican society. End the privy purse? the Sultanates? the pillars and protectors of Malay culture?
Many amongst Malaysia’s youth tend to ignore or are selectively ignorant of the inherent dangers of the imperfection of Singapore’s model of government and its idea of a meritocracy. For it merit is based on assumptions and an even cruder interpretation and application of the science of eugenics.
The Singapore model assumes a predisposition of an individual’s character against a racial template created in the minds of its leaders. That template more or less determines the end result aided by an obsequious coterie of social scientists.
These social engineers in turn are selected and approved by the state leadership to lend credibility to pre determined outcomes in support of that queer model of eugenics and racial profiling in which lo and behold the Chinese are magically it at the top of the tree.
In turn and out of the benevolence and good spirit imbued in their genes they will it is assumed tolerate and care for the lesser beings in their midst like the Malays and Indians, sharing their largesse, the spoils of the endeavours of their ‘master race’. A radical variant to the theme of the ancient Hindu Brahminical text ‘Manu’ later adapted by Friedrich Nietzsche to whose writings Lee fanatically subscribed during his days at Cambridge.
Most Malays and Malaysian Indians though are unable to forget or forgive the betrayal at partition in 1965 when a meritocracy was promised and a Sino centric state delivered to them instead. In it all others are lesser equals.
MALAYSIA’S DEVELOPMENT AND MAHATHIR’S ROLE
A typical criticism of Dr. Mahathir and his achievements is carried in arguments that suggest the momentum he initiated, turning that proverbial backward malarial infested swamp Malaysia once was into a 21st century industrial powerhouse in a space of less than 20 years, was not his to lay claim to.
These arguments fail for his critics’ failure to proffer credible alternatives to what they believe Malaysia could otherwise have been in different circumstances. Others still say Malaysia’s economic development under Dr. Mahathir was based on a flawed model further distorted by his participation in it. Worse still there are those who accuse him of having hijacked the process of development that had been carefully planned, nurtured and laid out for implementation by his predecessors. Of course such a claim is incomplete without the added insult that Malaysia’s success was solely the result of the indispensable efforts of the two minority races, the Chinese and the Indians.
Painful and undiplomatic as it may be, the drivers of this particular brand of criticism are mainly an avaricious chauvinistic Chinese community who to some lesser extent are aided by their Indian counterparts. Many amongst them feel that they have somehow unfairly and unjustly been by passed in the process of development; or that the measure of prosperity they enjoy is disproportionately inadequate to the merits of their contributions to Malaysia’s development.
None of these claims though have ever been tested openly anywhere for their veracity. To give it any more credence than as fuel to light up a good gossip session in ‘coffee shop’ is to vitiate ones own intellect . But life goes on.
Dr. Mahathir is also often accused by his detractors of shamelessly having crowned himself in the glory of others to cover up his political incompetence in office. Or worse still he is accused of unjustly catapulting the ‘indolent’ Malay majority to an undeserved reward by extending the NEP.
In each of these allegations there is little more than anecdotal evidence to substantiate. The proof of his achievements in his 20 odd years as head of government is undeniably evident in every aspect of Malaysian life today. It would be arrogant, self denial to ignore. Education, reduction in poverty, dynamic industrial growth and a GDP many a European nation would struggle to achieve today.
CRONYISM OR TOYNBEE’S CREATIVE MINORITY
What also cannot be denied and is perhaps at the root of the pain he is perceived to have inflicted on Malaysia’s ‘intellectual’ elite, is that a man with a medical degree outwitted and outperformed foreign trained, foreign educated Ivy league economists, financial engineers, lawyers and professional advisors to implement his dynamic vision for Malaysia . He achieved that vision in defiance of and in a seminal departure from economic orthodoxy and the World Bank. This was the Mahathir heterodox. Mahathirism was born.
There was then as there is now a plethora of economic models in thesis and theory, gathering dust within the wood panelled libraries of the great centuries old schools of business economics worldwide on how a country like Malaysia could or should have developed.
Dr. Mahathir created his own model. Much of it developed in the confines of the same genes and that battle scarred mind that enabled him to overcome prejudice and to defy convention to become the first Malay to gain admission to medical school at the University of Malaya, graduating as its first Malay doctor. Someone had to break that mold and it appears fate chose him for the task.
Little detail is available of that battle. It was some say more personal than political but perhaps better reserved for another chapter another opportunity in scribbling details of his life. That event though much ignored by historians and journalists alike has equivalent historical significance to that milestone 1954 US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs The Board of Education.
It is sadly something his adversaries prefer to elide, incapable of or not wanting to acknowledge. Instead as if to justify their false sense of legitimacy to their distorted perceptions of Malays as lesser beings, they refer to him as an Indian parading as Malay. Such is the extent and effect of the polarization in politics of race engineered by the British in dividing the nation along racial lines.
Persistent allegations of cronyism during his time in government are a more difficult task to explain off for the customary tendency of most Asian states post independence to have allocated special and scarce resources and opportunities to the more able amongst them to responsibly exploit for the benefit of the nation as a whole. The practice of first amongst equals.
AN ASIAN PARODY OF DEMOCRATIC VALUES?
Eric Cheah, Vincent Tan, Ananda Krishnan and his own one time deputy in government a highly skilled, intelligent and commercially astute operator Daim Zainuddin and their meteoric rise to wealth which occurred during Dr. Mahathir’s stewardship of the nation hang now like a mill stone around the octogenarian’s weary neck .
Without going into too much detail about the sources or merits underlying the respective achievements and the falls of each of these ‘favoured’ industrial titans, one has to examine these allegations against a backdrop of long held unbroken traditions in the nature and history of patronage in Asian societies.
The definition of patronage in this context includes that same definition applicable in Singapore before, during and after independence and separation. The practice of ‘selectivity’ in awarding key industrial licenses, opportunities and privileges have largely and inextricably been linked to national development, industrialization, community responsibility and economic development across Asia and the world. Only in Singapore is the racial dynamics of merit based on an untested and flawed perception that the Chinese are superior to the other races in a selective application of the theories of Nitsche and Toynbee combined to distort to lend legitimacy to. But who amongst the mice there is bold enough to ‘bell the cat’ and question that philosophy or methods of its implementation by government in Singapore?
The practice of patronage and patrimony pre dates European settlement in Asia. The European model of meritocracy, particularly in a form where the British granted licenses and allocated scarce resources to those they favoured amongst their subjects in the colonies then is no different to that which Dr. Mahathir and his fellow Asian leaders are accused of having practised. It is now identified as a vice by the west . (Joe Studwell’s ‘Asian Godfathers is perhaps a better read on the subject).
Oddly, Dr. Mahathir’s selective allocation of scarce economic resources, privileges and rights if true in the context to which it is ascribed to his government by his critics, described as corrupt by his critics fails to satisfy the definition of corruption, a term which lacks definition in Malaysia’s anti corruption legislation.
The offence of corruption instead in Malaysia relies on proving a matrix of facts that would result in the commission of an offence against public policy or the commission by a person in public office of an offence of a criminal nature in the performance of their official duties which is against public policy.
On either score there is no evidence to suggest that what Dr. Mahathir did in advancing Malaysia’s economic development was corrupt. Not at least on the available evidence in the context of existing legislation.
Interestingly the same alleged practice of patronage in Singapore at a relative moment in its development was glossed over and attributed to the lofty philosophical morality of Arnold Toynbee’s cyclical view of history described by Michael D. Barr in his book Lee Kuan Yew “The Beliefs behind the Man”. In it Barr describes Lee’s justifications for his political philosophy and condescension of his constituents with an abstraction from Toynbee which sums it up thus:
“the malleable nature of culture and the role of the creative minority as the dynamic leadership of the passive or ‘uncreative majority.”
This, Barr invites the reader to conclude is that moral justification for privilege and patronage to a selective few in the island state from where much criticism against Dr. Mahathir either originates or is conveniently channeled through.
What Dr.Mahathir is accused of having dished out to his ‘cronies’ in this respect is distinctly different to what Margaret Thatcher lobbied for her errant and wayward son Mark Thatcher whilst in office. The young Thatcher’s exploits included attempting to seize the contract to build a military hospital for US$300 million with public money in Riyadh Saudi Arabia during Thatcher’s reign to allegations of having financed a coup in a west African state using South African mercenaries to overthrow a sovereign government and seize its oil wealth after his mother had retired.
ISLAMS WHITE KNIGHT
As unofficial spokesman for the much maligned Islamic world Dr. Mahathir has almost single handedly and largely by his example in office, perhaps also unintentionally been held out by progressives as a role model and goodwill ambassador for the much maligned Islamic world. It is he who is also credited by his example with shielding Islam from further self destruction by deflecting otherwise legitimate generalizations of its character as a violent, oppressive and medieval theology with his model (Islamic) state of Malaysia .
He delivered to Islam the credibility it craved for decades, having eluded it for centuries being unfortunately and inextricably linked to the volatile, violent and unpredictability of middle-eastern politics.
Apart from the late Gammal Abdul Nasser he remains Islam’s only credible ambassador (which includes that large body of Malays and Indonesians and Indians who are adherents to that faith not involved in Arabism) whose record in office transcends the medieval fanaticism and interpretations of Islamic theology held captive to ‘pan Arab nationalism’ tainting its otherwise glorious secular and culturally diversified history.
His personal intervention in the Balkan conflict to find a lasting solution and to stop the slaughter of mainly Bosnian Muslims by Serbs whilst the world stood by watching with little interest, was not always welcome at the UN nor in the west. This was after all a European conflict. Although the UN proved largely ineffective and somewhat disinterested in stopping the carnage, an unfamilair, unrecognized voice as his counsel was not intially welcomed.
It is widely recorded and undeniable that his persistence amid the embarrassment of UN inactivity on the plight of the Bosnian Muslims secured the better alternative to a more belligerent force of mainly Arab Muslim states threatening wide reprisals against Europe for allowing the genocide of mainly Muslim Bosnians. Dr. Mahathir’s alternative strategy of requiring deployment of neutral forces under the auspices of the UN eventually carried the day to stop the carnage.
Arabs and the new European states of the former Soviet republics though took notice of the man and his mettle on this occasion. In their midst now stood a voice they could rely on to be heard.
Islam as it turned out had a different face after all. A more acceptable, more liberal one than the Arab variety complete with redeeming features of its past glories hidden under the rubble of bloody middle east conflicts finding new life in a soutn east Asian polyglot. This variety, more humane than the theology of its enemies. Its model as practiced in Malaysia celebrated the arts, the sciences and human advancement in a secular environment. But was such an acceptable view or perception of Islam as Dr. Mahathir was projecting convenient or tolerable at a time when the west desperately needed another bogey in the face of crumbling communist empires to fuel their crisis driven need to dominate the world?
THE VERY PUBLIC ADMONISHING OF A JEWISH MONEYMAN
Dr. Mahathir’s very public spat with hedge fund quant, George Soros otherwise sound in substance but for the Jewish taunt was, perhaps one of very few faux pax’s in his distinguish and unblemished career as an international statesman.
The substance of his quarrel with Dr. Soros was not taken seriously enough though. Although some say his advocacy against currency speculation was prophetic. His critics, friends and foe alike were left to squirm in embarrassment in the wake of his infamous attack on George Soro’s cultural heritage in being Jewish. Ascribing to the Asian economic crisis the speculative pursuits of Soros and other Jews on the Malaysian ringgit amongst other things as the root cause of the currency crisis.
Although indefensible for its attack on Soros’ ethnicity (A Hungarian Jew) cultural heritage Dr. Mahathir’s alleged criticism of Soros in this regard pales into insignificance when one considers what else Soros has been referred to in private and in public since that event.
Leaving that perceived flaw of his aside, was Dr. Mahathir right on the money (if you’ll pardon the pun) in his condemnation of the activities of people like Soros and his fellow hedge fund managers on the point of unproductive and unnecessary interference in a country’s sovereignty through speculating on their currencies? was he also not right in predicting the outcomes to world economies in allowing the Soros’ of this world to go unchecked? Perhaps one ought to examine Britain’s reasons for not wanting to adopt the Euro as its currency in place of Sterling.
A ROLE INTO THE FUTURE
There exists a belief that Lee Kuan Yew, Dr. Mahathir’s most strident critic in his twilight years has been instrumental in pushing for the change in fulfillment of his prophesy that the two states will merge at some stage (but on Lee’s terms).
Whilst the mainly Chinese admirers of Lee are keen to advance Lee’s dream, the greatest threat to the Singaporeanization of Malaysia was apparent during the short uneventful and destabilizing period of Abdullah Badawi immediate successor to Dr. Mahathir when he entered into agreements with Singapore’s prime minister Lee Tsien Loong son of its former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, under which Malaysia would cede large tracts of territory under long term leases to Singapore investors mainly Singapore government approved entities to exploit.
There was much resentment in Abudullah Badawi’s failure to consult and obtain the consents of the Malay grass roots in this respect giving rise to more suspicion that Dr. Mahathir has yet a large and active role in preserving the rights of Malaysia’s Malays well into the future as he already had in his 20 odd years as its most dynamic and revered leader.
This is the first part in a series of essay’s on Tun Doctor Mahathir Mohammed former Prime Minister of Malaysia.