Tom Plate on Mahathir


February 7, 2011

Mahathir – a Moderate Muslim Machiavelli: It is time for Malaysians to give this devil his due”.

COMMENT by Tom Plate*

You could love him or hate him but ignore him you could not. Hardly a month would go by without some new initiative launched, the grandiose master plan tabled, new policy proffered. Say what you will about Mahathir Mohamad – may it be positive or negative – Dr M was a political phenomenon.

Even back in America, on the West’s self-absorbed media radar screen, traces of Mahathir would surface from time to time. During the Silicon Valley revolution in the 90s, it caught Malaysia’s PM making the West’s money rounds, peddling his multimedia super-corridor like some software salesman.

During the Asian Financial Crisis, he positioned himself as the ‘Conscience of the East’, berating Wall Street (and sometimes baiting the Jews) for its destructive “shorting” attacks on his region’s currencies. And within Malaysia itself, of course, Mahathir’s name became synonymous with controversy and contradiction.

But outside the country, his legacy will increasingly be viewed in the context of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ issue that seemingly has replaced the old Cold War as the chief obsession of the West.

This is a main theme of my new book ‘Conversations With Mahathir Mohamad’, the second volume in the ‘Giants of Asia’ series (next up: another controversial former prime minister, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra).

The question of legacy is important because history may well decide to downplay Mahathir’s serious flaws and rhetorical excesses and in the final analysis, position him as one of the late 20th century’s most important Muslim leaders. History may well decide that Dr M was a notably successful modern moderate Muslim Machiavelli at the very time the rise of the al-Qaeda was so unnerving to the West.

In the United States, you see, when the label “Muslim” is used, it tends to invoke flaming skyscrapers toppled to the ground. Jihads, however obscurely aimed or ambiguously intended, make Americans jittery. In fact, much of the US nation continues to suffer from a post-911 traumatic stress syndrome. So today Muslims will not likely get picked up on the media radar screen over here unless they’re creating a clear and present danger.

But most Muslims go about their daily business like the rest of us – raising families, holding onto jobs, trying to make their way through life’s ups and downs. What’s especially lost on the West is the track record of those gifted, moderate Muslims whose records of accomplishment remain below our radar precisely because their moderation seems so categorically un-newsworthy.

Turning fundamentalism on its head

It is this larger and grander story of the mainstream Muslim that the West fails to absorb. The extraordinary Machiavellian tricks of the moderation trade that are required of a Muslim leader needing to keep his political balance while guiding the nation economically are hardly any less spectacular for their complexity than a complex terrorist plot. Moderation in the pursuit of a better life for all is no vice – and its achievement is clearly a notable virtue of governance.

But Mahathir, in my conversations with him, was in aggressive denial about his moderation. In fact, to his face, it will get you nowhere to call him a “moderate.” He doesn’t like it and in fact he will deny it.

To deflect any suggestion that his brand of Islamism is anything but tough-minded and Quran-pious, Dr M will insist his true religion is Muslim fundamentalism at its most intelligently fundamentalist. And so may no “ultra” Muslim – no pure-as-the-driven-Islamic-snow mullah – be given reason to depict him as some softie that’s been genetically re-engineered into some Western secular poodle.

Malaysians of course understand that Dr M is nothing if not clever. And thus its longest-running PM (1982-2003) turns “fundamentalism” on its head by insisting that, fundamentally, Islam is moderation itself. “So, I adhere to that teaching – become a Muslim fundamentalist, and Muslim fundamentalism must let me be moderate,” he told me, rather cleverly – but not, I think, insincerely.

More than verbal wordplay animates the good doctor. I am convinced, after the intense conversational sessions for the book, that his international pacifism (he is virtually anti-war) arises from his own personal philosophy – and from his public insistence of Islam as a powerfully peaceful religion.

Accordingly, I became convinced that his occasional resort to domestic repression – via the invocation of Malaysia’s internal security laws – was in fact painful and aberrational, not at all joyful.

Yes, it is fair to say that he was not adverse to resort to hard power – though in his conversations with me he expressed deep remorse over handing the police so much power at times. But he admitted that every resort to repression was probably a symptom of failure. (It is not hard to believe that somewhere in his heart, he harbours the wish that the Anwar Ibrahim mess has been handled differently – and better.)

It was certainly illuminating when I asked him about Machiavelli’s famous dilemma – Whether it is better for the Prince to be loved or feared. His response was quite different from that of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

The subject of my first book in the Giants of Asia series (‘Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew’) said that, if he had to choose, he would choose fear over love. But Mahathir’s choice was – rather unabashedly expressed – to want to be loved.

But will the average Malaysian believe this? Not being the average Malaysia, I have no idea. But when he answered this way, I no more doubted the sincerity of his answer than the sincerity of LKY’s.

A man of contradictions

Yes, Mahathir is a man of contradictions. And especially for the sympathetic Western journalist, the effort to scope out this complex Machiavellian Muslim was made much more difficult by his troubling – and dreary – attacks on Jews and Israel, just about whenever he needed someone to blame with whose demonisation his constituency would have no special quarrel.

But he jabbed at this convenient punching bag too much, whatever the demands of domestic politics. So is he in fact an anti-Semite?

It was difficult, sitting in his stratospheric office in Petronas Tower One, or in his Perdana Foundation crib in Putrajaya, to imagine this clever, sophisticated man as out-and-out anti-Semitic. Others share this doubt, too.

Consider the judgment of former Asian Wall Street Journal editor Barry Wain, in his rigorously detailed, scholarly bestseller ‘Malaysian Maverick’ (2009): “…Almost no one who knew him well or observed him at close range for any length of time believed he was anti-Semitic.”

That Mahathir resorted to seemingly anti-Semitic language proves to me not that he has anti-Semite sentiments but that he was a Muslim Machiavellian. He used whatever tools, rhetorical or whatever, he could get his hands to keep his people and his party with him – and his country moving forward.

The bottom line is that Mahathir’s 22-years of moderate Muslim Machiavellianism left behind a country far more developed than it was in 1982 when his reign began. His successors are now notably hard-pressed to maintain the same pace.

They also seem hard-pressed to keep Malaysia as calm and productive. Dr M himself expresses enormous satisfaction that, during his time, all more or less remained quiet on the ethnic and religious tension front.

He imagines that he helped position the country somewhere between Turkey, on the one hand, and Iran on the other. That made great sense. It’s doubtful that a rigidly secular governance approach would work for Malaysia, or that a purely Islamic Republic of the Iran variety would be remotely good for it.

Malaysia, for all its problems, is admired internationally precisely because of its moderate Muslim modernisation. Can anyone imagine Malaysia erupting in the manner of Egypt? Certainly it could not have happened on Dr M’s watch.

Construct this notion in another, even more provocative way: Can anyone imagine Egypt coming to a stop, as it has this past week, if its leader these past decades had not been the clumsy Hosni Mubarak but the clever Mahathir Mohamad? This is the implicit thesis of my new book ‘Conversations With Mahathir Mohamad’, and it offers significant international implications.

It is time for Malaysians to give this devil his due.

*Professor TOM PLATE is author of ‘Conversations With Mahathir Mohamad’, just published by Marshall Cavendish, and is the newly appointed distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is a veteran American journalist whose regularly syndicated columns on Asia, since 1996, have appeared in newspapers around the world. The next ‘Giants of Asia’ book will focus on Thaksin Sinawatra, until the 2006 coup in Thailand that country’s longest running democratically elected prime minister.

11 thoughts on “Tom Plate on Mahathir

  1. It is all glossy and glowing for some writers in distance land to conceptulise the Mama Kuty a/l Kerala kutty reign. If such writers had lived and experienced the hidden corruption, violation of the fundamentals of fair and just governance of a country , which the mamakuty sustematically failed. His latets tirade of the country belonging to the malays is a ploy in cohort with Najib to rule the country by Malay communalism at the expense of citizen rights or jus solis of non Malays. I see only evil in both their faces.

    How long more can we tolerate.

  2. Good viewpoints, Mr Plate.
    I agree that Mahathir is more sincere than LKY.
    I also agree that Egypt will not come to a stop if it was the clever Mahathir and not the clumsy Mobarak.
    Yes indeed, Tun M has a firm grip on things. Not wishy-washy and never trying to be a populist like our beloved PM now.
    Americans are fond of the word the legacy left behind by presidents. it’s come to the fore many, many times during the Egypt uprising where the legacies of Mubarak and Obama are always questioned.
    Already many American papers are talking about Obama being a one-term president due to his mishandling of the Egypt crisis.
    Yes, the Egypt revolt caught the U S unaware that it keeps changing its stand on Egypt.
    AlJazeera had a good documentary yesterday which showed the time-line of Hillary and Obama revising their actions on the Egypt crisis.

  3. Machiavellian leaders can also be great charmers and even soft-spoken. One very good example of the latter is Pol Pot.

    It all boils down to whether a person has true compassion for others and has a conscience.

    In psychiatry, there is a whole range of “personality disorders”, some characterised by lack of respect for the rights of others and by lack in feelings of guilt, and
    lack of a social conscience.

  4. TDM ade kekuatan-nya waktu 22 tahun.. tapi pengundi juga selesa dgn pelaksanaan polisi yg hanya pentingkan segelintir kroni

    ———-
    Izat, selesa atau tidak selesa ? —- Din Merican

  5. Tom Plate
    was this man beneficial to malaysia say in comparison of a good governance and process to get elected government in and and out like scandinavia – i would not think so. a process and accountability is better. Malaysia has too much adulation and this why we love strong man and a big price at that

  6. Tom Plate in comparing Mamak to Mubarak is comparing kerbau shit to camel shit. The difference is in the size of corrruption and time length of theie stay in power ( Mamak knows when to quit !!!) but their respective legacies stink to high heavens !!!

  7. He lacks everything….he is just an ego maniac….wants to prove he is a world leader by bashing everyone, even his own kin folks ! MEMALI, AL’MAUNAH… BLOOD IN HIS HANDS….

  8. As Sdr Karpal said, Dr m has too many felonies in his cupboard to take pot shots at others now. Just blame the Police for arresting your political opponents? How convenient? But were you not the Home minister then? Ever heard of Ministerial responsibilty? And as Home Minister, was it not you who signed the Detention Orders? But how convenient and gracious of the former IGP Hanif, the ever obedient civil servant, to accept responsibilty? Probably repaying the kindness for getting you a plum job at the Gaming entity called Gentings after your retirement? And by the way, we are told Muslims are not allowed to work in gaming centres… is it okay to be on their Board of Directors? Anyway I am digressing…

  9. As Sdr Karpal said, Dr M has too many felonies in his cupboard to take pot shots at others now. Just blame the Police for arresting your political opponents? How convenient? But were you not the Home minister then? Ever heard of Ministerial responsibilty? And as Home Minister, was it not you who signed the Detention Orders? But how convenient and gracious of the former IGP Hanif, the ever obedient civil servant, to accept responsibilty? Probably repaying the kindness for getting you a plum job at the Gaming entity called Gentings after your retirement? And by the way, we are told Muslims are not allowed to work in gaming centres… is it okay to be on their Board of Directors? Anyway I am digressing…

  10. In Malaysia, there are three groups from drawn from all racial background. One group is the beneficary of the corrupt activities of BN and this group is without any scruples and it will keep on voting BN year in and evey out inspite of gross violation of laws, including the criminal Code. The benfit far outweighs any contraints of their scruples.

    The secdond group are educted urban dwellers who despise corruption but will not or interested to protets activiely in the Egyption or Tunisisan style. These are the whimpish complacent type the docile tolerant Malaysians.

    The third are the regional rural type who have no vlaue or attidude towards corruption and these type gets mesmerised by thos “orang besar” exibits.

    The first groups are in trhe majority as they are happy as long as their ill goten $$$ keeps coming .
    I see no future for the country when its resources are depleted and laziness and quest for easy money is the norm of the day,

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