Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists


November 1, 2018

Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists 

by Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Since 9/11, global scrutiny turned to contentious concepts such as terrorism, mono-polar, bipolar, superpower, economic and cultural imperialism, as well as linguistic colonialism.

It is the latter which is the subject of this commentary because it has stirred harsh, aggressive and sometimes, amusing reactions in the media (local, regional and global), as well as in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary sitting.

A few days ago, Parliament was entertained by the rantings of a particular opposition MP who claimed that English is not an intellectual language. Among the many incoherent sentences that were uttered, he cited examples of ancient civilisations and conquerors, attempting to rationalise that, “English is not an intellectual language that develops the mind and brain”. He also confidently pontificated that “modern economies like Japan, Taiwan and non-English speaking Europeans do not use English in their journey to become developed nations”.

I hope this issue commands the attention of most Malaysians because for a multi-cultural, multi-religious, economically-developing and relatively-peaceful nation, we need to separate the “wheat from the shaft”.

Image result for said orientalism

Linguistic colonialism or imperialism as a concept is a derivative of Edward Said’s conceptualisation of cultural imperialism (in his two famous books Culture and Imperialism, and Orientalism). I doubt, though, that the recent local uproar about the use of English as a medium of instruction of a few subjects in school is based on any knowledge of Edward Said’s work.

Nevertheless, anti-English language crusaders keep creeping out of the woodwork because it seems fashionable. It is glaring that all of these narratives to date have been devoid of historical context. And this makes for extremely wimpy analyses.

Image result for Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin

UMNO Intellectuals

Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin, is not alone. There are many in Malaysia, among the public, government and elite who feel that English is being “deified”. They also believe that English speakers never created great civilisations. Leaving aside that this notion is erroneous, it also begs the question, “what is a great civilisation?”

In my  understanding, a great civilisation is based on a network of cities (territories) comprising cultures that are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them.

So, the Roman, Spanish, Arab, French, British and Chinese (with their various dynasties) were great civilisations. How did language then become the signature dish, so to speak, of that civilisation?

Through these empires, languages spread and shifted in dominance. In the past, empires spread their influence through their armies, and after the conquests, so began the social and linguistic assimilation. Between the 3 BC and 3 AD, the Roman Empire was bilingual — Latin and Greek. This was because the Romans knew that Greek was a language of prestige, philosophy and higher education — an “intellectual” language.

Spain succeeded in making over 20 sovereign states today, that speak Spanish, excluding millions of Spanish speakers in immigrant communities in other non-Spanish speaking nations such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines.

Castillian Spanish became the most important language of government and trade. It was the lingua franca of the Spanish empire, a derivative of Latin. Latin was still the “intellectual” language of the Spanish and of the Church.

The Chola Dynasty was one of the longest, most civilised empires in the history of southern India. Tamil and Sanskrit were the official languages.Tamil and Sanskrit are two distinct languages, the former being Dravidian and the latter being an Indo-Aryan language. As we can see, all three great civilisations were bi-lingual.

In 21st century Malaysia, however, we are faced with a backlash of a-historical pundits who reject the ebb and flow of civilisational change, yet advocate for national progress and development.

Let me educate them on the current position of English in the world today. First, it is an intellectual language. The British Empire, between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II (1588-1952), had about 250 million English language speakers. English achieved unique conditions of development. The large continents of North America, Africa and Asia were colonised with industrialisation and trade in mind.

Global conditions at the time facilitated the transition towards the flourishing of English in previously French and Spanish colonial territories of North America and Africa. Due to abundant natural resources and human capital in these regions, the wheels of commerce and trade helped to “deify” (not my word) the English language. English was “at the right place, at the right time”.

Today, all civilisations are enriched by the ideas, thoughts and knowledge disseminated world wide in English. Of course there are other languages that perform this function, but English is predominant.

Second, people like Hasan Arifin and his supporters cannot distinguish between modernisation, Westernisation and imperialism.

Modernisation is the development and application of current and innovative science in the development process of all sectors of society. Westernisation is a process subsumed under modernisation when specifically-Western notions of what it means to be modern are accepted as universal values of modernisation.

Many aspects of Westernisation should not be accepted as modernisation. Imperialism, on the other hsnsd, is the process of domination of policies and ideas with a specific agenda in mind. In history, imperial powers have imposed power and influence through diplomacy or military force.

I think the current discourses in France and India of a “linguistic imperialism” are far-fetched.  Like Westernisation, there is good and bad imperialism. It is also era-specific.

In the 21st century, military and economic powers like the US, China, Great Britain, Japan, Germany and Russia do not mirror the same imperialistic goals of the World War Two era.

Anintellectual, would realise that the need to master the English language is hardly the imposition of an imperialistic agenda.

The inadequacy of the historical-context approach is dangerous for nation building. A system oiled by pseudo-intellectuals who run the policy-making machinery will be suicidal for our “new” Malaysia.

My advice is to be firmly grounded in historical processes, be up-to-date with current economic and socio-political trends and subdue ethnocentric tendencies which are embarrassing and underdeveloped.

Critics of the English language quote China and Japan as being ignorant of the English language, yet they challenge the US and other great powers economically and militarily. It takes more, however, to become a global hegemon.

Anti-English crusaders in Malaysia believe religiously that China and Japan, despite their incapacity to speak and write in English, have reached a level of global economic hierarchy that threatens US and other major power positions. However, even this notion is skewed.

China, for example is known as “the factory of the world” and “the bridge-builder of the world”. But China’s global hegemonic status is in doubt because it lacks the capacity for economic reform, to minimise economic inefficiencies and it has proven inadequate at reforming the financial sector in order to provide investors with consistently profitable returns (the failure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port construction is a case in point). Therefore, the issue of language does not figure in the equation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

 

PD voter files for review of Danyal’s resignation, seeks to stop by-election


PD voter files for review of Danyal’s resignation, seeks to stop by-election

by Hafiz Yatim@www.malaysiakini.com

A Port Dickson voter filed a judicial review application at the Kuala Lumpur High Court yesterday to challenge the decision by his constituency’s outgoing MP Danyal Balagopal Abdullah (photo) to vacate the seat, as well as the calling of a by-election in the constituency next month.

Rosmadi Mohd Kassim, 56, named Danyal and the Election Commission (EC) as respondents in the application filed by law firm Raja Riza and Associates.

Rosmadi, who is a registered voter in Port Dickson, asked leave of the High Court to declare Danyal’s resignation invalid and therefore null and void. He also requested leave for a certiorari to quash the EC’s notice dated Sept 20 to hold the by-election.

Rosmadi is seeking a declaration that the EC’s decision to announce that the seat is vacant is wrong by law, as well as an injunction to stop the commission from holding the by-election on October 13. The hearing for leave has been fixed on October 2.

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim

In his application, Rosmadi said he had lodged a police report on September 24 regarding Danyal’s resignation. He then filed the judicial review application on the grounds that Danyal had violated the oath he took as an MP on July 16, when on September 12, the incumbent stated his reason for resignation as paving the way for incoming PKR president Anwar Ibrahim.

This, Rosmadi said, showed that Danyal favoured his loyalty to Anwar over Malaysians and a betrayal of Port Dickson voters’ trust, as the former navy man was not a bankrupt or physically incapacitated from doing his job as an MP.

The voter added that Danyal’s election promises had resulted in him winning the seat with a 17,710 majority against the PAS and BN candidate.

“Danyal’s resignation is not bona fide and against the provision of the Federal Constitution, as it is politically motivated and against public policy,” he said in the application.

“Article 51 of the Federal Constitution gives an MP the opportunity to relinquish his post, but it should be balanced by public interests,” he said, adding that such resignation should not be a political strategy, as it would destroy the democratic institution.

Rosmadi said that if Danyal is not interested to be a candidate then he should not have contested in the last general election.

He also alleged that the EC violated the statutory duty of its formation, as it should determine if the MP’s resignation is constitutional or not, before declaring the seat vacant and calling for a by-election. Rosmadi claimed EC failed to investigate whether Danyal’s resignation is in line with the constitutional provisions and is valid. Hence, he further alleged, Danyal’s resignation to pave the way for Anwar to be an MP and then be the PM is wrong in law and that the EC acted ultra vires to declare the vacancy and call for the by-election.

“Hence there is a prima facie case, for this judicial review application, as it is not an abuse of the court process,” said theapplicant, adding that if the injunction and his application is allowed, it would save huge costs in running a by-election.

Jho Low And The China Issue


July 19, 2018

Jho Low And The China Issue

by Sarawak Report

http://www.sarawakreport.org/2018/07/jho-low-and-the-china-issue/

Image result for malaysia most hated man Najib Razak

They seek him here and they seek him there, but best bets are back on China.  Indeed, earlier today, a Hong Kong radio station reported that Jho Low had most recently fled back from Hong Kong into China, where it claimed he has now been detained pending Dr Mahathir’s visit next month.

Certainly, Malaysia’s newly reinstated veteran leader has made clear he is champing at the bit to get to see the Chinese President, since there are plenty of highly pertinent issues he wishes to discuss, albeit embarrassing to China.

 

Image result for Mahathir and Xi

Xi Met Mahathir during his visit in 2013,

 

These, of course, relate to a series of multi-billion dollar mega-projects that Chinese state controlled companies signed up to with the previous premier, Najib Razak, star patron of the man on the run, Jho Low.

All of them have been frozen by the new government, which has been issuing toe-curling statements confirming everyone’s suspicions that the contracts were prime examples of super-corruption, which the Chinese had been prepared to pander to in return for digging its economic tentacles into Malaysia and cementing a strategic control over the region.

They include two pipe-line deals in East Malaysia with the China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau (CPPB), which the Finance Ministry recently disclosed had already received 88% of the agreed payment two years early and when only 13% of the work had been completed.

The Finance Minister and his team have not minced their words when indicating their firm suspicion that the reason for this outrageous outlay was that the project were being used as a front to channel money to repay billions of dollars of debts owed by Najib’s notorious multi-billion dollar slush fund 1MDB.

Likewise, the grossly inflated East Coast Railway, contracted by Najib to China’s unfortunately named China Communications Construction Corporation – or CCCC (C4 was the explosive used to murder a young woman in a particularly murky case linked to Najib and the has become synonymous with cover-up and corruption in Malaysia).

It was Sarawak Report which exclusively revealed leaked documents back in 2016 that showed how this C4 contract also was inflated by 100% at the last moment, following negotiations with Najib to again write of debts and liabilities connected to 1MDB and Jho Low.  The exact repayment details over the next decade were written into a secret annex to the contract, which on the surface had provided merely broad brush calculations to justify the increased expenditure.

Throughout the period when these contracts were being drawn up the already fugitive Jho Low was based in Shanghai, and it is generally agreed that he was acting as Najib’s agent to use the Chinese to get the prime minister off the hook financially and politically after the United States Department of Justice published the exact details of the 1MDB theft in July 2016.

In other words, to save his own skin Najib proved willing to tie up his country in a mountain of debt and obligation to its neighbouring predatory super-power.Image result for forest city johor

Numerous other Chinese funded projects were likewise put underway, in particular the evironmentally catastrophic Forest City, deemed to provide a helpful financial boon to the Sultan of Johore.  Not only was the development a perfect conduit for Chinese wishing to export cash, the project envisaged providing citizenship to a million new immigrants.

READ ON:  https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2018/05/375032/embracing-common-future

Mahathir and his reformist allies in the new Harapan government are naturally furious at all these thefts and deceptions and are demanding a re-negotiation with China, should these projects go ahead at all.  However, the entire episode represents a humiliating debacle for China, which like the rest of the world had mistakenly placed its bets on the politial survival of the unmasked kleptocrat Najib.

President Xi Jinping will hardly relish the prospect of the extent of his country’s bad behaviour and complicity in corruption being paraded on the world stage and it makes Malaysia’s top wanted man into a useful bargaining chip to help save face in the up-coming diplomatic wranglings and renegotiations.

Image result for malaysia most wanted man Jho Low

The Long Arm of the Law will get at him shoot.

It remains to be seen if China will hang on to Malaysia’s wanted man, who can tell all over Najib’s kleptocratic dealings (and China’s own involvement) or bargain a deal that includes the renegotiation of key projects in Malaysia’s favour, in return for a polite silence over the more embarrassing aspects of China’s corrupt part in propping up Najib?

Malaysia has its strong advocate in the trenchant Mahathir, but it appears China has a valuable hostage in its hands.

Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye


December 3, 2017

Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

By James M. Dorsey

Image result for crown prince mohammed bin salman

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters file

By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.

“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed  there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam’s holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them,  was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.

Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, President of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.nl/2017/11/targeting-islamic-scholars-from.html

Najib, Durians and Expats


October 2, 2017

Najib, Durians and Expats

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Young Malaysians

I have not only sympathy but also the greatest respect for those most admirable of Malaysians who deliberately choose not to abandon their homeland to the mercies of UMNO-BN, but stay there and fight for it, in many cases at extreme personal and professional cost..–Dean Johns

I see that the tirelessly self-praising Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak bragged to an audience of farmers and fisherfolk this past week that he is “personally responsible” for the recent rapid rise in exports of Malaysian-grown durians to China.

And in case this wasn’t enough to convince these primary producers to keep supporting his ever-ruling Umno/BN regime, he also typically announced that he was giving the whole group of them a cash handout.

Big Talking Malaysian Prime Minister–Eating Too Much Durian made him delusional

Apparently at least some of the recipients of this prime ministerial largesse found it pretty impressive. And none so much as chairperson of the National Farmers Association (Nafas) and also BN assemblyperson, Saipolbahari Suib, who expressed tremendous gratitude for Najib’s support and declared that farmers and fishermen are ready to be ‘used’ by him.

“Use us, we are ready to give the best for your leadership,” Malaysiakini reported him as pledging, “We have received so much we will always remember your contributions”.

However, most Malaysiakini readers who commented on this story saw Najib’s so-called “contributions” as nothing but cons, considering that not only is the value of Malaysian exports of durians to China peanuts compared with those from Thailand to China, but that increasing exports of the best Malaysian durians has priced them beyond the reach of local consumers.

And, as I couldn’t help commenting myself, Najib and his Umno/BN regime have made Malaysia smell like durians in the nostrils of the whole wide world by permitting, if not colluding, in the export to the US and elsewhere of countless billions of ringgit allegedly plundered from 1MDB.

All of this in addition, of course, to all the other billions extorted for decades from public funds, overpriced public projects and the nation’s publicly-owned oil, timber and other resources, which have been exported to secret overseas bank accounts or money-laundering real-estate and other investments.

In fact I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if dirty, smelly money wasn’t by far Malaysia’s biggest export.

And thus, given that legal and other civil institutions including elections have been designed to ensure that this dire situation doesn’t change anytime soon, if ever, I see the point of Zaid Ibrahim’s recent exhortation to Malaysians desiring a decent future to export themselves and their children to someplace more promising.

Seeking greener pastures

Image result for Zaid Ibrahim the anglophile

Actually Zaid  an anglophile, for some reason best known to himself, suggested London as the optimal destination for Malaysians to export or expatriate themselves to.

And personally I find it hard to argue with this, as that’s where my elder son headed for when he exited Australia in search of more exciting professional opportunities twenty or so years ago, and where I make excursions as often as possible to visit him and his family.

But of course there are plenty of perfectly acceptable alternative possibilities, and selfishly I’d suggest that one of them is Australia, and even more specifically Sydney.

This, after all, is where I chose to bring my Ipoh-born wife and KL-born daughter when I extricated them from Malaysia way back in 1997.

And, as I wrote in a 2007 Malaysiakini column titled “Another brain down the drain”, and another in 2010 called “Advance Austrasia Fair”, they seem pretty happy to be here.

There are lots of other Malaysians I’d be delighted to see settled in Sydney too, as it would save me making trips back to UMNO-BN’s unpleasant version or rather perversion of Malaysia for the pleasure of seeing them.

Old friends like Jaya and Jesuis Anwar, for example, to anonymously mention two of many who, for obvious political reasons, I won’t risk more accurately identifying.

But it’s some small consolation in their absence to meet ex-Malaysians like the doctor at a major Sydney hospital who treated me so expertly for my latest medical emergency last week, and who turned out to have been imported here at the age of eight by parents who hailed from Klang and Penang.

As delighted as I always am to meet such Malaysian exports and expats, however, I have lots of sympathy for those who would like to leave the mess that UMNO-BN have made of their beloved country, but for one reason or another just can’t.

And I have not only sympathy but also the greatest respect for those most admirable of Malaysians who deliberately choose not to abandon their homeland to the mercies of UMNO-BN, but stay there and fight for it, in many cases at extreme personal and professional cost.

And I consider that the very least I can do from a distance is to help these stand-and-fight Malaysians as much as possible in their ceaseless efforts to politically execute the excruciating UMNO-BN regime, and finally render it extinct.

 

Mahathir –The Amateur Eugenicist and Equal Opportunities Racialist, Prime Minister, and UMNO Dissident


May 27, 2017

Mahathir Mohamad

Image result for Doctor in the House Mahathir

 

Once one of the world’s most controversial leaders, the 91-year-old is spending his retirement trying to overthrow his successors

Lunch with the FT: Mahathir –The Amateur Eugenicist and Equal Opportunities Racialist, Prime Minister and UMNO Dissident

by Jamil Anderlini@www.ft.com

A “Japanese-style” bakery on the fourth floor of a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur is a curiously nondescript place to be meeting the last of the great Southeast Asian authoritarian leaders. I text a Malaysian friend to tell him where I’m having lunch with 91-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the autocratic Malaysian Prime Minister for 22 years who, long after he left office, still likes to meddle in politics. The puzzle is quickly solved: “Hahaha, it’s his restaurant!” Apparently it is just one in a chain owned by the man who still likes to be referred to as the “father of vision”.

At exactly 12.30pm, Mahathir himself appears at the top of a nearby escalator, surrounded by his escort of several plain-clothes policemen and dressed in his customary colonial-era grey “bush jacket” with matching trousers. His arrival causes a stir among passers-by in the mall. One even comes into the bakery so she can take a selfie with him. The only people who don’t seem excited are a man and a woman sitting at a nearby table working on laptops. They look to me like Malaysian state security agents. When I ask Mahathir later, he suggests they could be.

“I’m followed everywhere — it has become normal for me,” he says, claiming he is regularly harassed on the orders of the current Prime Minister Najib Razak. Mahathir helped him to power in 2009 — but now works tirelessly to evict him from office.

For more than two decades, Mahathir bestrode the world stage like an Asian colossus, with his fiery speeches on world events and his theory of “Asian values” which emphasised respect towards authority and collective well being above the “western” concept of individual rights. When he stepped down in 2003, Malaysia was seen as a shining example for other emerging markets, having weathered the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s rather better than most of the “tiger” economies.

Where contemporaries such as Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia were toppled in popular uprisings, Mahathir was able to hand Malaysia over power to his anointed successor. His supporters like to point to his victory in five elections, each with a near two-thirds majority, and to contrast this with the current state of democracy. But Mahathir himself persecuted opposition parties and dissidents — and today many believe he is simply unable to relinquish power.

Despite pledging to retire quietly and stay out of politics, he was instrumental in removing his handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi, and replacing him with Najib. Now Najib is at the centre of global investigations into alleged corruption, involving billions of dollars siphoned out of 1MDB, a state investment fund Najib himself set up. Once again, Mahathir is  the chief critic and crusader. He has even established his own political party in an attempt to topple Najib in parliamentary elections to be held before August next year.

Image result for Mahathir, Badawi and NajibNajib Razak (left), Badawi and Mahathir (right)

“When you have a prime minister who is corrupt, then you can be sure that a country cannot be anything else but corrupt,” he says in a soft, slightly quavering voice. “From a country which was quite well admired as a model of how a developing country can achieve growth, we became known as one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world — that is how much change took place under Najib.”

We’re sitting in a cordoned-off area at the back of the bakery, surrounded by empty tables. The waiter approaches shyly, clearly in awe of my companion, and asks what we would like to eat. I turn to the proprietor for a recommendation. “I’ve tried most of the things,” Mahathir says, unconvincingly. “I’ll have the chicken tortilla.” Since I’m in Malaysia, I order beef and chicken satay sticks. We both order water — his warm and mine cold.

After training as a medical doctor and several false starts in politics, Mahathir rose rapidly through the ranks of the ruling party on a platform of ethnic Malay nationalism. Named Prime Minister in 1981, he was an unabashedly and increasingly authoritarian leader who was accused of emasculating the courts and constitutional monarchs and of crackdowns on the free press and political opponents. In the late 1990s he had his own deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, jailed on charges of sodomy that many believe were trumped up to discredit a rival and challenger.

Yet for much of our lunch he seems more genial great uncle than ageing autocrat. He chuckles regularly, leavening the impact of his often outrageous opinions. Things become a little tense when I confront him about his legacy, though. Wasn’t it his own concentration of power and his personalisation of politics that paved the way for Najib to act with the impunity he accuses him of?

“Don’t compare me with Najib!” he says with a flash of his famously fiery temper. “I allowed a lot of things to be done — even people to challenge me in my party. Najib expels those people. Anybody who does not agree with him he will expel.”

I start to point out he did the same in his time but he ignores me. “And I don’t steal money. I was happy to live on my salary, which to me was quite substantial, more than enough for my needs.”

Kit Siang and Tun Dr. Mahathir–No longer political foes, how convenient

When I recount this statement later to a diplomat and a western businessman who have had dealings with Mahathir, both react with spluttering laughter. But both also acknowledge that corruption in Malaysia is now far worse than in the past and that Mahathir himself, while sometimes accused of nepotism and corruption, was always more interested in power than money.

As the food arrives I ask him the secret to his longevity. “Everybody asks me that question,” he chuckles again. “It’s nothing very special — I never smoked and I don’t drink and when it comes to eating, I don’t overeat,” he says, while chewing a small mouthful of burrito. “I’m basically a creature of habit — I do practically the same thing every week, every day of every week: I go to the office, I meet people, I write, I read and of course I give lectures.”

He is also an avid user of social media and blogs prolifically against Najib. Have his attitudes to free speech changed since he was regularly named one of the world’s top 10 enemies of the press?

“As a politician I’ve been called all kinds of names. Your enemies, your opponents are not going to praise you — to justify their existence they have to demonise me and I demonise them also,” he says. “Freedom has limits,” he continues, in a statement that could be his mantra. “Free press is not absolute. In this country we say clearly if you start stirring up racial hatred then we will put a stop to it, we might even close down your paper because these things can only lead to a lot of riots and bloodshed.”

An irony of Mahathir’s new life as a dissident is that he has had to form alliances with the parties he once suppressed. When I put this to him, he responds nonchalantly.

“What happened in the past no longer matters; I am prepared to work with them and they are prepared to work with me because we have the same objective — overthrowing the government,” he says.

In contrast to the boom times of the 1980s and 1990s, today Malaysia is often used as an example of the “middle income trap” — where a country reaches a moderate level of prosperity but then struggles to raise living standards further. Its current per capita gross domestic product is just over $10,000 — only one-fifth the level of neighbouring Singapore.

“When I stepped down, the country was well on track to become a developed country by the year 2020,” he says, with some justification. “Of course they [his successors] are quite unable to achieve the objective.”

The economic success of authoritarian governments in Asia was once regarded globally as an attractive alternative to both democratic western capitalism and Soviet-style socialism. Mahathir, along with his rival, the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, were the strongest advocates of this idea on the world stage. But, in the wake of democratisation in places such as Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan, and in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, autocratic Asian exceptionalism has lost much of its allure.

Today, countries such as Malaysia are often seen as evidence that authoritarian systems are quite well-suited to advancing from agrarian to industrialised economies, but that transforming into an innovative high-tech economy requires more freedoms and protection of the rights of individuals, including freedom of speech and ideas. This matters because of the implications it holds for China — a rising superpower that is only now reaching the level of development Malaysia achieved by the end of Mahathir’s tenure.

Mahathir does not acknowledge the link between freedoms and innovation — “From middle income to move up to higher income is much more easy and possible than from a low income level,” he insists — and, with my attempts to get him to accept some responsibility for the current state of the nation seeming fruitless, I urge him to eat the food, which is getting cold. He picks suspiciously at half his chicken burrito and eats two or three french fries while I chew on the dry and unappetising satay sticks.

We turn to the topic that made Mahathir one of the most controversial figures on the world stage. In preparation for our meeting I have read his 1970 book The Malay Dilemma, in which he comes across as an amateur eugenicist. I wonder if he would like to retract things he wrote, such as that there is “no reason to believe understanding and sympathy are strong Chinese traits”, or infamous anti-Semitic remarks about Jews’ features and their ability to “understand money instinctively”.

I’m expecting him to be embarrassed about or to disavow things he wrote nearly 50 years ago, but no. “Other people, you can criticise them, you can say nasty things about them. . . and nothing happens to you. Why is it that the Jews are so privileged?” he asks. He has, he says, no problem with being described as anti-Semitic.

While Malaysia has almost no Jewish citizens, around a quarter of its population of 30 millon are ethnically Chinese, and prospered under colonial rule but have subsequently suffered from official discrimination. The bumiputra (sons of the soil) affirmative action laws that Mahathir strengthened in office heavily favour Muslim Malays and indigenous tribes people living in Malaysian Borneo, which together make up about two-thirds of the population.

One of Mahathir’s quirks is that he appears to be an equal opportunities racialist. He is highly critical of ethnic Malays for what he perceives as their laziness, poor time management and a penchant for inbreeding.

“Even though you give the contract to a Malay, he’s not able to carry it out and eventually he goes to the Chinese,” he says. “The Chinese are a very dynamic people and despite having to cater to affirmative action the Chinese in Malaysia have done much better than the Chinese in the Philippines, in Indonesia or Thailand, which shows that they are a very resilient people who can survive under any condition.”

It is, though, a testament to Malaysia that it avoided the anti-Chinese violence that occurred elsewhere in the region in the Asian financial crisis. But Mahathir has no doubt that China is the biggest long-term threat to regional stability. “With the changes in [its] leadership, we see more ambitious leaders coming in and maybe they like to flex their muscles a bit and that is very worrisome,” he says. “Without actually conquering the countries they have managed to increase their influence over many countries in Southeast Asia, even in South Asia.”

He also foresees a clash between rising China and the US-dominated world order. “They’re not really communist but they are not democratic; they are inclined towards totalitarianism and obviously this conflicts with western ideas about implanting democracy in the countries of the world,” he says.

By contrast, he dismisses the threat to the region from radical Islamist extremism. “We have evidence that some of the followers of Isis are here [in Southeast Asia] but we don’t regard them as being Islamic fundamentalists or doing all those things because of Islam — it is political,” he says. He blames western meddling and relentless conflict in the Middle East for terrorist activity originating there.

This leads him inexorably to his well-publicised conspiracy theory about September 11 2001. Based on conversations with a janitor from the Twin Towers and on inconsistencies that he argues exist in official accounts, Mahathir insists the attacks on New York and Washington, DC were a “false flag” operation carried out by the US government, or perhaps Israel. He presents me with what he appears to think is his best evidence, namely that Arabs are customarily too disorganised to organise such an attack. “They are not the best of planners as I know,” he says.

I just don’t know where to start with this. So I point again to his pile of cold french fries and suggest he eat more. “No, no I don’t eat much. As I told you I am a small eater, I can survive with little food,” he answers politely.

A small crowd of people gathers in the mall to have their picture taken with him. Most appear to be ethnically Chinese. In a last-ditch attempt to elicit some self-reflection from him I ask for his greatest regret. “Perhaps,” he pauses and his tone turns wistful. “A lot of people told me that I should not have stepped down, so [another pause] sometimes I regret that because I’m not very good at choosing people, choosing my successors or encouraging my successors.”

As he stands up, he shares a final thought. “There were lots of accusations against me of being a dictator and all kinds of things. But I don’t think if I did so many things wrong people would ever want to take pictures with me or shake my hands.”

He walks over to his fans to pose patiently for photos. I look on, wondering how it is that nostalgia for authoritarian anachronisms so swiftly sets in.

Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Asia editor