Mahathir: Our Hobson’s Choice


August 17, 2016

Mahathir: Our Hobson’s Choice

by Ambassador Dato’ Dennis Ignatius

On this, I agree with Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad–Din Merican

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. ~ Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder.

As our nation spirals further into crisis, the desperate search for solutions has grown more intense. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. While most agree that change is urgently needed, finding common ground has been difficult.

Perhaps, we are too idealistic, even unrealistic, looking for grand solutions or quick fixes instead of small, incremental steps in the right direction that hopefully will result in big changes further down the road.

Malay or Malaysian?

Hardworking and Disciplined Malaysians, not Indolent Malays

Take the formation of the new Mahathir-inspired, Muhyiddin-led political party – Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (BERSATU). Apparently torn between wanting to be more inclusive but fearful of antagonizing its potential support base, the leadership settled on the asinine idea of opening the party to non-Malays but not allowing them to hold office or vote. Not surprisingly, many non-Malays were indignant.

Given the prevailing political culture, surely it would have made better sense to have kept it a purely Malay party while making clear its intention – as it later did – to cooperate fully with other interested parties not just to oust Prime Minister Najib but to defend the constitution, work for national unity and fight for good governance.

Besides, another multiracial party in an already crowded field might hinder rather than help the opposition. As it is, the DAP and PKR can hardly agree on how to work together as recent events have made clear. Imagine how complicated the situation would be if a third multiracial party was added to the mix; it is more than likely that all three would end up fighting each other for seats and support rather than squaring off against UMNO-BN.

A new Malay-based party, particularly one that can appeal to disaffected Malays and working in tandem with Amanah, on the other hand, might pose a more direct challenge to UMNO in competing for the critical Malay-Muslim vote without which victory is impossible.

Of course, it would be absolutely supercalifragilisticexpialidocious if race didn’t matter but we are not there yet. After more than half a century of UMNO-BN racial politics, as well as Mahathir’s own race-based approach to nation building, racial politics has become deeply ingrained in our culture and there’s no running away from it.

Someday, if we can get there, a new generation of Malaysians will hopefully reclaim the vision of our founding fathers of a nation united in diversity where a person’s ethnic or religious background will not matter as much as leadership, vision, integrity, character.

In the interim, if a Malay rather than multiracial party can help defeat UMNO at the next elections, more power to it. As former Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, used to say, “black cat or white cat doesn’t matter so long as it catches the rat!”

Mahathir, warts and all

Consequently, all Malaysians who are fed up with UMNO-BN misrule will surely want to cheer BERSATU on and wish Mahathir and his colleagues every success in their endeavours.

In addition, by making a commitment to the kind of structural, political and institutional principles that opposition and civil society leaders have long insisted are necessary to get the nation back on track, Mahathir and his colleagues now appear to be aligning themselves more closely with the aspirations of a majority of Malaysians. That augurs well for the future.

Of course, there are no guarantees that Mahathir won’t do a U-turn and re-join UNMO once Najib steps down or is forced to quit, but given present realities, Mahathir, warts and all, can help tilt the balance against UMNO-BN like no one else can. And that’s the only thing that really matters right now.

We can allow ourselves to get sidetracked arguing whether Mahathir is the messiah (of course, he is not), whether he has sufficiently reformed his race-based views (probably not), whether he is properly committed to democratic principles (debatable), or we can put aside all those questions for now and take a chance on Mahathir.

The fact that he will have to work closely, as first among equals, with the likes of respected opposition stalwarts like Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang and civil society leaders like Ambiga Sreenevasan and Maria Chin Abdullah should also provide a measure of assurance that no one person will be able to hijack the movement for change.

Graveyard spiral

Those who are still torn over Mahathir’s involvement might do well to take another hard look at some of the serious issues that now confront our nation – the staggering levels of corruption, the deliberate exploitation of racial and religious issues, religious extremism and violence, increasing crime including assassination, rising national debt, economic mismanagement, legislation that restricts fundamental rights and freedoms – and ask themselves how long we can continue this way before we reach the point of no return.

Historically, few nations have recovered from the kind of graveyard spiral that we are slowly slipping into. Even if we manage it, it will take years of hard struggle to climb back to where we once were. The longer we take to get back on track, the harder it is going to be.

Regional security challenges

And, as if all these issues were not challenging enough, we also face new regional security threats as well. Through a combination of aggressive military moves in the South China Sea and strategic investments in vulnerable economies in the region, a resurgent China is seeking to establish regional dominance if not outright hegemony.

In Malaysia, China is using its massive foreign reserves to make strategic investments in key sectors of the economy with the collusion of a government more concerned with its own survival than the nation’s security. With the government increasingly looking to China to relieve its debt load, including 1MDB, China is set to gain unacceptable levels of economic and political influence in the nation’s affairs. Thanks to Najib Razak.

Our increasing reliance on China has also reduced our ability to manoeuvre vis-à-vis China’s maritime claims. While China continues to aggressively press its claims, we dither and send meaningless diplomatic notes. Instead of waking up to the real threats to our nation, UMNO politicians are tilting at windmills Don Quixote-like, as the Chief Minister of Malacca did last week when he warned that the US was out to kill Malays.

If we are not careful, Wàijiāobù – the Chinese Foreign Ministry – will soon be calling the shots in Malaysia as it has done elsewhere.

Making the best of a bad situation

Again, we can argue about the details but there can be no doubt that we have come to a critical juncture in our nation’s history, a moment in time that requires decisive action.

And with the very real possibility that snap elections could be called to catch the opposition off-guard, waiting for better solutions or hoping for more perfect leaders is no longer an option. Time is simply not on our side.

We have to make the best of a bad situation and that means, for now at least, throwing our lot in with Mahathir.Of course, there are risks and no one can be certain of the outcome, but the biggest risk might perhaps be not taking a risk at all.

Ambassador Dato Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian Foreign Service and has served in London, Beijing and Washington besides serving as High Commissioner for Malaysia to Canada from 2001 to June 2008.

9 thoughts on “Mahathir: Our Hobson’s Choice

  1. It is a shame that we have to depend on Tun Dr. Mahathir to do the fighting for us. We will pay the price sooner or later. What you do guys think? Orang Malaya, Tok Cik, Conrad, Dr. Phua, The,Veritas, CLF, care to comment..–Din Merican

  2. Exactly. The risk is to stay with our comfort food, which is to accept Tun M’s pick.

    Ambassador Dato’ Ignatius, exactly as what you have suggested, time has come to be decisively brave, and reject all comfort food mediocre leadership except for one like a @BraveNewWorld kind of leadership. For God’s sake, if we are choosing Muhiyiddin, can we even just say we are choosing Muhiyiddin? If it’s Tun M’s son, can we stop referring him as Tun M’s son? I am not being biased here, the nation really doesn’t know Tun M’s son, other than him being Tun M’s son?

    Or perhaps, we are choosing Asia’s best debater as our PM? If so, can we send him to the next ASEAN meeting to negotiate peace and calm in South China Sea?

    The seven need to start talking.

  3. There are no outstanding Malay leaders left, one that can stand nose to nose (pardon the expression) with Che Det. He is from a different era. The Malay leaders that Malaysia have nowadays are either still young or have not develop the aura and charisma to take on Jibs. Either that or they have been swallowed by UMNOb and Jibs and have been castrated or become a yes men saya setuju Dato Seri.
    Even the likes of Ku LI and Moses Black shy away from confronting Jibs or taking a direct stand against Jibs. Jibby have them in his pocket or they are indebted to Jibby. CHe Det is the only one that is brave enough to stand up to Jibby. Why? Difficult to guess the reason. Maybe Che Det is trying to make up for the things he did during his 22 years as PM.
    Che Det is not one of my favorite person and I clearly mentioned this to you during a or taxi ride from Devi’s Corner in USJ to Mid Valley Mall many many moons ago. However if Che Det can successfully unseat Jibby, he has my vote.

  4. I agree. The risk/no risk situation is analogous to change/no change. The only constant in life is change, and life is always ever changing, evolving and adapting for its survival.

    We are now in this dire situation because of the majority’s unwillingness to make the change. Just as any life will die out due to its inability to change, adapt and evolve, we too would share the same fate.

    As much as I would’ve like to blame TDM for creating this destructive political quagmire that is still plaguing our nation as the next man, it doesn’t help in moving our nation forward.

    I firmly believe that the only way forward for our nation is to instill into the people the bravery, positivity and assuredness to make the change.

  5. Says a lot about the dearth of political leaders in Malaysia if Mahathir is considered the best of the lot.

  6. Mr. Merican, the ONLY reason why we have to turn to Octo is because as Commander (RTD) Thayaparan wrote, the Oppo is so inept they could not organize an orgy in a brothel.

    Maybe this says something about the Strong Man leadership that Asians seem so enamoured with. I mean take Harry Lee for instance, because he makes the train run on time and prosperity (sic) seems to be the goal, some folks think his excesses are tolerable or wait maybe because they really did not believe all this pap about democratic rights and principles.

    The Najib Regime is a rogue Regime something the wily Old Fox was very careful to avoid. Sure there was corruption and abuse of power but he managed to keep a lid on it unlike Najib who has to basically sell of this country piece by piece to stay afloat politically.

    We can blame Octo all we like but the truth is that we kept on voting him into power and demonizing the Oppo – at the time – as not a credible alternative to forming the Federal Government.

    We may have lost our values under Octo be we sure as hell did not regain them with the ascendency of the Oppo. In fact I would argue judging from online commentary, that we have become more bigoted, myopic and disdainful of anyone not towing the party line.

    Personally I think Octo joining the fray means a lot more engaging with folks with different views. I think that cooperation and political manoeuvrings between different ideological groups is always a necessary thing in a democracy.

    This is about Establisment politics and you don’t get very much more Establishment than Octo. The Oppo had their chance but blew it. To cauterize the would we need someone like Octo. It’s painful but necessary if we ever want to stop the bleeding and heal.

    Besides the creator of this mess should be given an opportunity to clean it up.

  7. It may have something to do with our respective cultures, values etc which can also influence politics. Good as well as bad.

    Good in the sense that Malaysian politics is still relatively violence-free, although there are some worrying trends e.g. murders of people who attempt to expose high level corruption, thuggish behaviour by paid mobs. But we have not descended to the level of nations like Jamaica or Bangladesh where there are gangs of youth linked to competing political parties that attack and kill each other.

    Bad in the sense that feudal values lead to obeisance to highly corrupt political leaders who don’t deserve such deference, inability to separate the person from the position of political authority (i.e. respect the political office, and not the person if he or she is incompetent or corrupt).

    One good aspect of Chinese culture is the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. “The Mandate of Heaven (Chinese: 天命; pinyin: tiānmìng; literally: “heaven decree”) is an ancient Chinese belief/theory and philosophical idea that tiān (heaven) granted emperors the right to rule based on their ability to govern well, appropriately and fairly”. Out you go if you lose the Mandate of Heaven !
    Negative aspects would be reluctance to get actively involved in politics coupled with cynicism and fatalism (“Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away”), focus on the rice bowl etc.

    Perhaps blog readers can comment on the political cultures of the Indian community, the Kadazandusun, Iban ?

    P.S. I remember Tony Benn’s comment that in France, “the government fears the people” 🙂 (Anthony Wedgewood-Benn — the aristocrat who renounced his title and stayed faithful to populist, left wing politics in the British Labour Party)

  8. It is a shame to depend on Mahathir -IT IS OUR SHAME – shared by ALL BUT most of all by the Malays themselves. It is also true its the practical thing to do BUT those who reason that “someday, a new generation will….” is too simplistic and unestimate the challenge. You look at developed countries with Trump, Brexit etc and their politics, the importance of mass media and these days social media, it takes an incredible amount of mass character change to change traditional wrong politics, in race and religion especially that just is not inherent or natural for us. The only hope is globalisation, the need to be open to the outside world that is crucial for progress even just maintaining our development, that gives any real hope.

    Look at UMNO Youth and PAS Youth today, they give no hope that the next generation of leaders will change much, they too dependent on old politics of race and religion, plagued with even more entitlement, despite the incredible privilleges and advantages given to them. Its not likely that even AFTER THIS next generation, those that follow can afford as much privilelges and advantages and hence even monumental task before them. The future generation are set up to fail to change.

  9. What is it about us Malaysians (of all races) that we are prepared to forgive the sins of the man who single handedly created the mess that our country is now in?

    Maybe, the answer is that we Malaysians do have something in common after all.

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