Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mahathir - a hero or a villain?

Mahathir: Maverick, machiavellian or merely mainstream?
Is Mahathir a maverick, machiavellian in his ways or merely mainstream? That’s the question Maznah Mohamad poses in her review of Barry Wain’s book ‘Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times'.

My first reaction to the book was, how could this be any different from the several others already written of the man, for example, that of Khoo Boo Teik’s Paradoxes of Mahathirism and In-Won Hwang’s Personalised Politics (Not forgetting articles and commentaries generated by countless number of print and virtual writers before this)?

After going through the first few chapters of the book I knew that this was going to be different, more impactful and more of a fine strike at the core of the matter.

Mahathir has remained enigmatic and so far, seems to be unmoved by the tons of criticisms directed at him. Perhaps this was balanced by the loads of adulation and fawning by his coterie of loyalists, as exemplified by the quality of the commentators in his own blog (which could number up to a 1,000 comments for a single post, with most starting their address with Yang dikasihi Tun – The Most Beloved Tun).

In gossip circles, Mahathir is known to have the thickest skin on the planet and is impervious to any verbal assaults on his character and his ways. People are astounded by his ability to trounce all of his rivals and those he simply could not tolerate even when he is out of power.

Mahathir is perhaps the only person in the world who could evoke sympathy on this by proclaiming that he was wronged by the wrong people he had chosen to be under him, from Musa Hitam to Abdullah Badawi. He survived at least five major financial scandals and still had the audacity to reprimand his heir-apparent Abdullah Badawi by sniping in one of his blog postings that Abdullah’s “Mr Clean image meant that he had cleaned everything up”.

The following had become standard facts, not just opinions — he destroyed the independence of the judiciary, manipulated democracy and controlled the media to his liking and is still able to say that he had been denied his freedom of expression by the Abdullah government. It appears that there is no remorse in the man, nothing can break him, and he remained confident right up to Barry Wain’s last line in the book that his wrongs would some day be debunked.

For those reasons above Mahathir Mohamad is a tale worth telling and re-telling. What I like most about this book is that it just tells the story as it is, rather than try to link the episodes to some abstract generalisation or grand theories. This makes the book richer because it does not straightjacket the reader’s thinking into a particular direction. The book charts the rise of Mahathir, his stepping down, small-steps, really because he was never a hair’s-breadth away from the centre of power.

Style of book
The book is written in a breezy and enthralling style, at some parts it is almost like a political thriller and would make great material for a film of that genre. The most remarkable thing is that it is not fiction, and were a film to be made about Mahathir it would really be a case of art imitating life.

It is indeed an achievement that Wain’s book manages to focus on the personal, even heart-warming sides of Mahathir, the family man, but ends up as a powerful treatise of the public Malaysia.

The party state
From 1981 till today, Mahathir has given Malaysia its particular feature as a state. The most useful, if not intriguing concept that Wain has stated (just once on page 53) in describing Malaysia under Mahathir is that he had created a party-state. Hence, the useful contribution of the book is that it has provided much data to chart the birth of this party-state, its peaking and its possible eventual decline.

This concept of the party-state, though not elaborated by Wain, appears as the trademark of the Mahathir-rule. Elsewhere, studies on the Kuomintang in Taiwan by Karl Fields have indicated the blurring of the distinction between party and state as leading to this particular phenomenon of the party-state. This would be a good time to undertake a comparative study of all the “party-states” of Asia – Umno, KMT, LDP and the PAP, to name the most outstanding ones.

I summarise Wain’s suggestion of this same phenomenon developing in Malaysia which quite clearly originated from Mahathir’s ascendance to power. They are associated with how he had:

• weakened state and informal institutions
• packed the state bureaucracy with loyalists rather than technocrats
• intervened to subdue the judiciary so that it would yield results whenever the leader or the party’s political control is endangered.
• downgraded the status of the MCA and the MIC, which were coalition party stalwarts of equal standing with Umno before this.
• blended and merged Mahathir the strongman with Malaysia the rising middle-power state.

Malaysia was nothing but Mahathir, but Mahathir was larger than Malaysia. Not that he is unaware of this view as lately he had become quite defensive of his actions. In one of the more recent blog entries, he declared, “Thank you for agreeing that I am a dictator. Tell me which dictator ever resign. (sic)”

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