COMMENT | “When you know someone is a thief, you stay away from him,” Dr Mahathir Mohamad told Beverley O’Connor, host of “The World” programme by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Thursday.
Mahathir, of course, was referring to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who is spending a long-weekend junket in Sydney at the ASEAN Heads of Government hot-air talk-shop – again at the expense of Malaysian taxpayers.
Thief isn’t the only label Mahathir used to describe Najib. He also called him a “monster”. There are far better labels for Najib and for UMNO-BN members. “Monster” is an appropriate enough metaphor. But beyond labels, Malaysia has a serious international image problem.
There was a time when Malaysia was known to the world for Mahathir’s neo-nationalist Malay brand of loud-mouthness. That’s whenever he railed against, say, Singapore, his racist rants against Jews and Malaysia’s British colonial masters – the very lot who taught him how to “divide-and-rule” his own multiracial citizens. Mahathir single-handedly made the term ‘citizen’ a profoundly dirty word.
Malaysia became even more famous after Mahathir cooked up “facts” to jail his then protégé Anwar Ibrahim and chucked him in prison. When top cop Abdul Rahim Noor black-eyed Anwar in jail, Mahathir merely shrugged in the “saya tidak peduli” manner.
Now Anwar and Mahathir have become bosom buddies in a double-act to exorcise from Malaysia’s ripped-asunder soul Najib.
The Mahathir hypocrisy hasn’t gone unnoticed, as O’Connor reminded Mahathir. Mahathir responded sheepishly, with the tiniest regret. He said it is more important to look forward to the future to overthrow the great big thief in their midst and an Umno that has moved so far to the right of its 1946 “objectives” that both the party and its president are rotten to its core.
Mahathir said UMNO has been destroying itself from within, that Najib “has destroyed” the original UMNO and that the party exists solely to support its President and an authoritarian regime.
Note that Mahathir never mentioned any of UMNO’s coalition partners-in-crime. Nonetheless, the mission now, as everybody knows, is for the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan cavalry to lead the charge and rout UMNO before Najib and his band of crooks rob the country blind.
Nothing new in all this. The lineage and the so-called discourse (whatever discourse means) and the battle-cries go right back to 1969 – the year democracy in Malaysia died after a long-simmering brain snap.
My friend S Thayaparan, a Malaysiakini columnist – whom I’ve never met – has been at great pains recently to make the case that “Malaysian voters” must stand up and save the country. If there’s a certain urgency in Mahathir’s determination, there’s equal stridency in Thayaparan.
But there’s also a problem. In fact more than one problem. First, the electoral system, run by the Election Commission, is not chartered to ensure full and fair elections; it remains chartered to ensure fully foul elections.
It’s also chartered not to uphold democracy, even democracy with Malaysian characteristics, but to maintain a Malay-led kleptocratic authoritarian regime that thinks it is above the constitution, therefore above the law. The regime is the law since rule of law has ceased to exist for nearly half a century.
Second, Mahathir had for 22+ years presided over just such a regime when he led it. He – more than Abdul Razak, Hussein Onn and Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – had every time turned a blind eye to every skin-flake of known or rumoured corruption within his UMNO, his regime, his Malay-dominated bureaucracy and Police, and among the coterie of Malay, Chinese and Indian cronies or oligarchs he’d nurtured.
Those accused or nabbed, like Perwaja Steel’s Eric Chia, “somehow” managed to get off scot-free. It doesn’t take a genius to work out how.
Not when the separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary, as a democracy would like to have it, disappeared virtually overnight under Mahathir. Yet here he is crying that Najib has violated everything decent and, worse, he’s getting away with it.
‘Muhibbah’ only in name
Something else is worth remembering. What Najib is doing – centralising structural and institutional power in his hands through what I’ve called the UMNO-Leninist state – is very much the same thing Mahathir was doing when he ran the place like a dictator. Or close enough to one. The hypocrisy is stunning.
Third, the desperation among “Malaysians” opposed to the regime is perfectly understandable. The desperation for the coalition of opposition parties, Pakatan Harapan, is also perfectly understandable.
To go as far as enlisting Mahathir is one thing; to make him the leader of the pack and, more, Prime Minister if Harapan should win, is unthinkable.
The man who created the 21st century monster of Malaysia, among the many other monsters who clutter the regime from across the ruling coalition, was Mahathir. He gave each one of them long enough rope to enrich themselves, heeding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum. Najib too embraced the licence. Najib’s “living the good life,” Mahathir put it on television. So are Mahathir’s cronies and nepotists.
Mahathir can’t have it both ways. He needs to own up to the past wrongs when the rot started to really set in. Mahathir now says Malaysia needs to reset good governance by ridding the country of Najib et al. Fine.
But (a) what good governance did Mahathir bring to Malaysia when he was Prime Minister? And (b) he must not become Prime Minister a second time, not even as a seat-warmer for Anwar.
The King of Malaysia has a duty to the country. All the Sultans do. The King knows Najib has been ripping off Malaysia; he cannot continue to sit on his hands and wait for ridiculously pointless protocols before pardoning Anwar – if he dares to pardon Anwar at all. But he must if he does not want his country monster-ised further.
Anwar at the helm gives Harapan the legitimacy it needs to fight the elections. This is not to suggest Anwar (photo) is unproblematic. Even with Anwar at the tiller isn’t a sufficient condition to rule.
Thayaparan says “all Malaysians” must vote, that they must do their bit. I would agree if I knew just who “all Malaysians” were – another point Thayaparan missed in my letter. Show me one “all Malaysian”.
Here’s what I see. Here’s what I’ve always seen. And on my last visit to Malaysia very recently I saw this much more clearly.
There’s no “all Malaysian”. There are no “all Malaysians”. There are Malays, Chinese, Indians and so on – discrete ethno-tribal, sociological, economic and political units separated by competition between race, religion and ideology.
The old story. I don’t need to tell you this. The ruling coalition is also dominated by similar units separated by race and religion. So, too, Pakatan Harapan.As we do in primary math addition, this will be carried over into the future.
Therein lies Malaysia’s core problem. The country might be able to solve some of the economic divisions that rift the people, but it can’t and it won’t solve every one of them or every other accompanying problem until competition between race, religion and ideology is resolved.
“Muhibbah” exists but only in name. Always has since 1969. Najib, UMNO and their BN clan know this and they’ll play this up to the hilt, no matter what the fallout.
There are many other problems that will inevitably be brought into general election No 14 from GE13. Many are beholden to UMNO-BN. Some are also evident, again, in the opposition.
Like it or not, Harapan is divisive because it is itself divided. In fact – and I agree with Thayaparan – Harapan looks woefully inadequate. It hasn’t learnt from its mistakes from GE-13. Those mistakes were fundamental, starting with its rather lame manifesto.
Harapan may have done better than expected in that election but it can’t hope for the same lucky streak in GE-14 to break the proverbial UMNO-BN camel’s back once and for all.
It would be wonderful if it does but UMNO has some things on its side, and a certain important – no, critical – momentum that Harapan would wish it has too. It won’t if it keeps carrying on like it has. But Mahathir isn’t the answer.
MANJIT BHATIA, an Australian, is a US-based academic, researcher and analyst specialising in Asian and international economics, political economy and international relations. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.