Posted by Din Merican (May 30, 2008 )
Pulau Batu Mahathir
May 29, 2008
There are three ways to maintain power, or rather three ways to convince others to submit to one’s will. The first strategy is to provide them with an alternative that motivates them to submit. The slave would rather toil under the hot sun than suffer the pain of the lash. Similarly, people prefer to be obedient to religious leaders rather than suffer in hell.
Second, provide them with compensation that will buy their submission. We get big bonuses for spending 12 hours a day in a ‘monkey suit’ and smiling at our bosses. Politicians may vote or even cross the floor for such compensatory benefits.
Third, and perhaps most effectively, power can be maintained by conditioning people to think in a particular way. Malays are ‘weak’ and if not adequately protected, they will ‘fall victim’ to their fellow Malaysians. Over time, Malays no longer differentiate between their own legs and the crutches that hold them up.
In my last letter, I mentioned that we are currently witnessing the ‘endgame of the Mahahtir myth’. The Mahathir myth is made up of a combination of threats, compensation as well as conditioning. It is all held together in the personality of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Let us take the Pulau Batu Puteh case as an example of how Mahathir maintains power. His first act upon returning to Malaysia from Japan on Tuesday was to create a smokescreen. Anyone who believes that 300 people turned up at Subang Airport spontaneously is very naive. Mahathir’s statement nails his successor as both weak and a sell-out. ‘Abdullah is more afraid of Singapore than of UMNO members,’ the former premier said.
This was followed-up the next day by his comments on his website. There he accuses Abdullah of being basically an ungrateful traitor tonthe Malay race. What Mahathir is doing is to transform Malaysian national sentiment over the Batu Puteh incident into a cogent example that Malays are losing their grip on power. But instead he reveals that Abdullah is ungrateful to him and that it is Mahathir who is fast losing power, not the Malays.
A simple recounting of facts soon dissipates this smokescreen. The Batu Puteh incident was sparked off in 1980. Coincidentally, marking Mahathir’s rise to the highest office in the land. In the succeeding
22 years, the public knew very little about the lighthouse or the island. Now we learn that in 1994 Dr Mahathir decided to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) after bilateral talks ground to a halt.
From 1994 till 2002, Mahathir, Malaysia’s greatest prime minister ever and presumably the most powerful Malay leader the world has even seen, helmed the case. Old treaties were found in London’s Public Records Office to establish the ownership of the island.
But at the same time, Mahathir allowed Singapore to continue managing the lighthouse, stake its claim over shipping incidents and compile data showing proof if its de facto ‘ownership’.
What did the Mahathir administration do from 1980 till 2002 as evidence of Malaysia’s ownership of Pulau Batu Puteh? Did we ask Singapore for joint administration of the lighthouse? Plant a flag in Middle Rocks? Negotiate on behalf of our fisher folk? In 2002, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi inherited Batu Puteh, a legacy which came with the premiership.
We have lost Batu Puteh and most Malaysians have accepted the verdict rationally. But we all feel a sense of loss, the kind Indonesians felt over Sipadan and Ligitan. Abdullah must publish a chronology of what his predecessor did that would have made a difference in the ICJ. The public must be told that rhetoric and secret maps do not impress ICJ judges.
Here is a perfect example of how Mahathir maintains power by manipulating public sentiment. But if we have lost Pulau Batu Puteh, and if Mahathir use the incident to his advantage, we must remind him that he shares some of the responsibility. It was his belligerent style of diplomacy and refusal to listen to professionals which led the case to fall into the lap of the ICJ in the first place.
So behind the smokescreen, we see Mahathir’s tactics laid bare. He made a claim in Johor that the Malays were losing power. Then he resigned from Umno and left for Japan. There, he gave a speech warning of racial strife owing to the ‘weakness’ of Abdullah Badawi.
Knowing full well that Batu Puteh might fall to Singapore, he arrives back in Subang to cheering crowds presumably a hero, a Malay patriot indirectly blaming Abdullah for losing Batu Puteh.
Facts have a way of exposing synthetic personalities and their naked grip on power. It was Mahathir’s diplomacy that led us up the path to the ICJ and to the outcome we see before us. So, as an old song goes, the Malaysian public is ‘Bewitched, bothered and bewildered…no more!’