Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ten years on, Dr M still at heart of debate over race, direction of Malaysia

Dr Mahathir’s influence can also be credited to Umno and Malay political dominance in the country, amid a lack in strong and visionary leaders who can match the man that put Malaysia on the world map. — Reuters pic

Dr Mahathir’s influence can also be credited to Umno and Malay political dominance in the country, amid a lack in strong and visionary leaders who can match the man that put Malaysia on the world map. — Reuters picKUALA LUMPUR, Oct 31 — Ten years ago today, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad left office after 22 years as prime minister, but Malaysia is still finding it hard to emerge from the shadow of the strongman who continues to be both reviled by his critics and idolised by his admirers.
For his part, the man has continued to use the force of his personality and influence to prod and pressure his successors, the government and Umno to do and act according to what he thinks is the right way.
But while his influence is undoubtedly waning — his son Mukhriz failed to win in his bid to become Umno VP while many of his allies lost in Election 2013 — there is enough apprehension among the country’s current political leadership to know that getting on his wrong side is at best an annoyance and an unnecessary distraction but at worst a minefield from which they may not recover.
Political analysts say that Dr Mahathir timed his exit in 2003 well, after the 1999 general election that saw Malay votes swing to the opposition since the ‘Reformasi’ movement led by his former deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998.
If Dr Mahathir had stayed on to helm the country, the 88-year-old would likely have stopped the rise of a formidable opposition pact like Pakatan Rakyat, though analysts note that today’s widespread internet access in Malaysia would complicate attempts to suppress political dissent.
“Pakatan would not have grown if Mahathir is still in power, because he would not allow the democratic space to be enlarged,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, told The Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview.
“Mahathir remains influential because he refused to retire gracefully. He could have left the management of the country to his successors, but he refused and continued to intervene,” added the political analyst.
Wan Saiful pointed out that former US and UK leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not interfere in their successors’ administration, unlike Third World countries like Africa.
“So I guess this is typical for those whose worldview includes a refusal to realise that retirement should mean retirement...Tun Mahathir was a brilliant leader while in office. He did so much for the country and we must be thankful for that. Unfortunately, he failed to let go after retirement,” he said.
Despite retiring, the former PM remains active in politics, having campaigned in Election 2013, while Mukhriz ran for vice-presidency in the recent Umno polls, but lost in the six-way contest.
Wan Saiful stressed that Malaysia’s current political leaders need to press forward in achieving Vision 2020, the goal that Dr Mahathir himself had set to transform the country into a high-income nation, even as he laid Malaysia’s foundation as an industrial state.
“The only thing that must happen is for the current leadership to build on that foundation, and not allow Mahathir’s political interference get in the way,” said the analyst.
Ibrahim Suffian, Merdeka Center director, said that curtailing political opposition would be very difficult in the current socio-political landscape, compared to two or three decades ago during Dr Mahathir’s rule, which many describe as authoritarian.
“Perhaps his leadership style suited the situation then when there was limited public access to information to goings-on in government and at a time when economic growth rates were buoyant,” Ibrahim told The Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview.
“We see that criticisms of his leadership gained wider currency only after the advent of the internet (albeit dial-up in those days) became entrenched as the information vehicle of the dissent movement after the sacking of Anwar in 1998,” added the political analyst.
He pointed out that by the time Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Dr Mahathir, internet access had multiplied 10 times, and by the time Datuk Seri Najib Razak took office in 2009, internet access increased 30 times from 1999. Malaysia had also become more urbanised during Dr Mahathir’s tenure.
“The post-Dr M leaders never enjoyed the kind of near monopoly on information that Dr M had during his time as premier,” said Ibrahim.
Dr Mahathir had vowed that Malaysia would never censor the internet, as part of a pledge to attract investors to develop the Multimedia Super Corridor, but said last June that he might have made a mistake in allowing total internet freedom.
During his administration, however, Dr Mahathir kept a tight rein on the mainstream media, the only source of news at a time when news portals and social media were largely absent. He shut down three newspapers — The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan — during the Ops Lalang crackdown on October 27, 1987. 
When asked why Dr Mahathir remained influential, Ibrahim said that the former PM is associated with Malaysia’s economic expansion and industrialisation.
“That long period of time also meant that his image and style of leadership remains seared in the minds of many Malaysians, including those that were still very young when he was the country’s PM,” said Ibrahim.
“Having left office, he continued to enjoy adulation and respect, partly due to the many physical landmarks that are associated with him (example, the airport, the Twin Towers etc) and mainstream media that has not given much space to the criticisms towards the impact of his leadership on the governance and democratic spheres of public life,” he added.
Dr Mahathir did not create racial politics, as race politics were and continue to remain the lynchpin of the multi-racial country’s political system. But the country’s longest-serving prime minister appears to prefer maintaining the status quo, instead of supporting political, economic and social reforms, Ibrahim noted.
“I don’t see how the country can achieve the changes it needs by keeping to doing the same things it has done for the past three to four decades,” he said. 
Dr Arnold Puyok, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Faculty of Social Sciences, painted Dr Mahathir’s continued dominance in the public sphere as a result of the elder statesman’s “embedded control over government machinery”, and of his championing of Malay rights.
“People are afraid to stick their necks out due to the culture in Umno which values respect for elders, seniors,” Puyok said in an email interview with The Malay Mail Online.
“Malaysia is what it is today due to Mahathir’s contribution, especially in the economic realm. But most of the problems like racial/religious tension, corruption, government inefficiency etc., are a product of the past government too. While Mahathir had achieved much, he had done much damage also,” added the political analyst.
Jayant Menon, lead economist (trade and regional cooperation) in Asian Development Bank’s Office of Regional Economic Integration, said that Dr Mahathir had transformed Malaysia from a poor, agrarian economy into a manufacturing-based middle-income nation in a single generation.
“It was also regarded as a success story of how social harmony can be preserved in a multi-racial society, relying on economic openness to sustain growth in the context of an expensive affirmative action program that also skewed incentives,” Jayant told The Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview.
He noted that the controversial New Economic Policy (NEP) — which was mooted by former Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, but implemented mostly during Dr Mahathir’s administration — has created a “disabling culture of entitlement” among the Bumiputeras, in Dr Mahathir’s own words.
“Their impacts are even more evident today, reflected, in part at least, in the slump in private investment and skilled labour out-migration,” said Jayant.
“Although Dr Mahathir lost his opportunity to redress policies that he now recognises as either ineffective or even counter-productive, it is to be hoped that the current administration will heed his belated advice,” added the Philippine-based economist, referring to Dr Mahathir’s memoir A Doctor in the House.
Yet, it was Malay right-wing groups like Perkasa, whose patron is Dr Mahathir, who stridently opposed Najib’s initial attempts to roll back race-based policies and to reform the economy, shortly after taking office.
Last month, Najib also unveiled a revised pro-Bumiputera New Economic Model that offers the pre-dominantly Malay community over RM31 billion in aid and contracts, to the dismay of analysts who saw the policy as an entrenchment of the status quo.
When asked why Malaysia has yet to become a developed country, compared to Singapore and South Korea that were similarly led by autocrats like Lee Kuan Yew and Park Chung-hee, Jayant said that affirmative action policies that suppress meritocracy were to blame.
“A similarity, however, is how all three governments were actively involved in promoting state-owned enterprises. But there is a key difference here too. In Malaysia, their main purpose was to serve the NEP objectives of wealth distribution, while in the others, they served growth objectives by promoting exports,” he said.
“This largely explains why GLCs (government-linked corporations) in Malaysia are a drag on the economy, crowding out private investment, while the SOEs (state-owned enterprises) in Singapore and Korea have succeeded, many of which are world-class firms and household names,” added Jayant.
Dr Mahathir’s influence can also be credited to Umno and Malay political dominance in the country, amid a lack in strong and visionary leaders who can match the man that put Malaysia on the world map.
“Although M’s personal influence has waned, his racist ideology encapsulated in the Malay dilemma and his justification of the need for Malay dominance in all spheres is still a major influence in Umno political thinking,” said Dr Lim Teck Ghee, director of Centre for Policy Initiatives.
After Vision 2020 was set in 1991, it is Najib now who has to make it come to pass in just six years, caught between the pro-Mahathir conservative faction of Umno, and a more urban and critical electorate with concerns that cut across race.
Political analyst Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia perhaps best describes Dr Mahathir’s influence.
“He has left a legacy that shall remain a benchmark for every PM and government in power after his.”
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