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Understanding Malaysia

IT was somewhat of a joke when the Malaysian government finally released the political biography, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, for sale here.

Barry Wain
Barry Wain (pic courtesy
of Barry Wain)

In the five months since November 2008 when 800 copies were shipped from Hong Kong to Port Klang and placed on hold, Malaysians had already bought the book from stores in Singapore and elsewhere. Reviews were already up on the internet. Even the subject himself, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had called for the Home Ministry to release the book. The ministry’s original deadline to review the book was 18 Jan 2010, but release was only granted on 22 April.

Author Barry Wain, a former Asian Wall Street Journal editor and currently Writer-in-Residence at the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview that throughout the review period, the ministry never once explained the delay. The episode suggests to him on one hand “ineptness” and on the other, the problem of feeding the public “official versions of events” as opposed to the truth.

The book retails in Malaysia at RM98.90 per copy. Wain adds that there are plans to translate it into Bahasa Malaysia.

TNG: What did the process of waiting for the Home Ministry’s approval do for you as a writer, and for your publisher?

Barry Wain: It was unexpected, and it disrupted plans to launch the book in Malaysia as early as January. Although the controversy deepened interest in the book and boosted sales to Malaysians through — and in — Singapore, it also introduced an unwelcome element of uncertainty. For one thing, it made any consideration of a Bahasa Malaysia edition premature.

I think my publisher, UK-based Palgrave Macmillan, was taken aback, even shocked. As a highly reputed international publishing company, it is not used to political action being contemplated against its academic titles. As you would expect, Palgrave Macmillan stood by me and the book, pointing out that it had been subject to peer review to ensure academic rigour.

What did the attempted ban tell you about the current Malaysian government’s attitude towards history, and towards past leaders, given the fact that the book was easily available outside Malaysia?

It is quite astonishing that a successful and globalised country like Malaysia should contemplate banning a mainstream account of its recent political developments. It suggests a lack of confidence beneath a glossy, modern exterior. The problem for the government is that there is too big a gap between what it has fed the public in official versions of events and what really happened as related in my book.

On a practical level, the prolonged examination of the book before release indicates ineptness. Malaysians were buying the book by the hundreds in Singapore and elsewhere, rendering a possible future ban pretty much moot.

What do you hope people gain from reading this book?

I hope the book will make Malaysians more familiar with their recent political history as recounted by an independent analyst. Too much of what Malaysians read is a barren, polarised debate between government-owned and -controlled media and unrelentingly hostile bloggers.

I recognise there are constructive voices in the middle grappling with nuance and complexity, but they are often drowned by strident and partisan views. I also hope the book will introduce many non-Malaysians to a captivating Southeast Asian country and a fascinating personality in the form of Dr Mahathir.

Does Mahathir fascinate you? Why?

Dr Mahathir is endlessly fascinating. He belongs to the group of authoritarian Southeast Asian leaders who emerged after independence and had a profound impact, for better or worse, on their young countries. They include Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto and Sukarno of Indonesia, Thailand’s Sarit Thanarat, Myanmar’s Ne-Win, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk and its current Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Dr Mahathir sought change on an historical scale. He wanted to transform Malaysia into a modern, developed nation, one that could stand tall with others, that would be internationally admired and one in which Malaysians could take pride. In my assessment, Dr Mahathir was one of the most successful and enlightened of this group. Only Lee Kuan Yew and his successor as prime minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, clearly outperformed him in economic development.

Dr M has been called a man of contradictions or paradoxes. What are some key paradoxes about him that strike you the most?

Dr Mahathir made his reputation as a champion of Malay [Malaysians] advocating some form of affirmative action well before the New Economic Policy (NEP) was adopted, yet he was their fiercest critic. He called Malay [Malaysians] passive, lazy and subservient, and he allied himself with Chinese Malaysian business[people].

Dr Mahathir campaigned tirelessly against Western economic domination, but he assiduously courted American and European capitalists to develop Malaysia. He could give a speech in the morning denouncing the US and meet a delegation of American investors in the afternoon and promise to amend investment regulations to make them more welcome. Dr Mahathir was one of the most prominent exponents of consensual Asian values, yet he himself was a blunt, combative individual who sometimes threw political opponents in jail without trial.

What were his “bad” legacies that Malaysia is still paying for today?

Corruption and cronyism were hallmarks of the Mahathir era, and they remain problems. Malaysia’s two prime ministers since Dr Mahathir retired in 2003 have promised to curb corruption and introduce transparency into the awarding of contracts, but we have not seen much progress yet.

Dr Mahathir took the ruling Umno into business in a major way, inviting the spread of “money politics” that still pervades the party. He also undermined institutions and failed to provide for the future leadership of Malaysia by eliminating his most talented rivals in Umno, and blocking the pipeline for 22 years.

Dr Mahathir’s attempts to undercut the opposition PAS using religion had serious and lasting consequences that are felt today. By choosing to fight Islam with more Islam, he pushed Malaysia in a conservative, illiberal direction that ultimately was at odds with the process of modernisation and intellectual growth he was seeking to promote.

To be fair, what are his good legacies that the country is benefitting from today?

KLCC
Petronas Twin Towers
(source: morguefile.com)
It is important to understand that Dr Mahathir’s track record includes extremes of success as well as failure. A moderniser, a nationalist and essentially pragmatic, Dr Mahathir engineered a socio-economic transformation, lessening Malaysia’s dependence on commodities and deepening its industrialisation.

To do that, he built first-class infrastructure, designed, as he said, for the next 100 years: highways, bridges, airports, tower blocks, ports, etc. Poverty was reduced dramatically, and an expansion of the middle class, including substantial numbers of Malay [Malaysians], changed the ethnic landscape.

Do you think Dr M was the type of person who sincerely thought he was doing right even though it was ethically wrong, or even though it crippled democracy?

Dr Mahathir never, ever doubted that he was right. If he had to take an ethical shortcut, I’m sure he justified it to himself that it was a means to a greater end, his vision of a modern Malaysia.

What is your take of Dr M’s view — a view often repeated by many Barisan Nasional politicians today — that Malaysia has its own brand of democracy and doesn’t need to follow “Western-style” democracy?

This argument is used widely in Southeast Asia. While it is true that democracy has been slow to take root in the region, I suspect we will have to wait a lot longer to get a definitive answer. I would just note that President Suharto said the same thing during his long rule in Indonesia, but since his departure in 1998 the country has undergone a democratic transformation and seems completely at ease with its new system.

Do you think opposition leaders and social activists are giving Dr M too much credit when he is accused of undermining Malaysia’s democratic institutions, or is this a fair assessment of the amount of power and influence he wielded?


Salleh Abas
Dr Mahathir undoubtedly undermined some of Malaysia’s most important institutions. His dismissal of Lord President Salleh Abas and suspension of five judges in 1988 marked the beginning of the end of the judiciary’s international reputation for independence and integrity.

Similarly, he emasculated almost all other institutions so he would meet no obstruction. Anyone who objected was out of a job, so in the end nobody dared oppose him.

Do you think there were other forces at play that led to the ISA arrests in 1987 and the judicial crisis in 1988?

The most important dynamic at work in 1987 was the split in Umno between Dr Mahathir and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the former finance minister.

An aggravating factor was social activism, with academics and others grouped in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) highlighting corruption and misuse of government power. While these NGOs normally were no more than irritants, at this juncture they provided ammunition for Dr Mahathir’s opponents in Umno.

It is true that racial tensions were rising at this time, but the evidence shows Dr Mahathir used that as an excuse to jail his critics. Some of the NGO activists who were locked up in Operation Lalang played no part in the ugly communal debates. And, on the other hand, Umno members who were organisers and instigators were not arrested. Dr Mahathir also used the occasion to cripple the leaders of the opposition DAP that were his most effective critics.

You’ve interviewed Dr M many times and I presume you’ve raised the topic of national funds wasted on big projects. How did Dr M respond and what strikes you about his answers?

Bank Negara
Bank Negara (© Kaihsu Tai | Wiki Commons)
I draw a distinction between so-called mega-projects and outright financial scams. The Bumiputra Malaysia Finance affair in Hong Kong, the government’s attempts to rig the international tin price, Bank Negara‘s currency speculation, and the ill-fated Perwaja Steel were genuine scandals.

As for the mega-projects, Dr Mahathir always insisted that they were necessities and Malaysia could afford them. However, I doubt that he really believes the Petronas Twin Towers, the Putrajaya administrative capital and some of the other giant projects were utilitarian. On the contrary, they were designed to impress, to engender awe for the new Malaysia.

What do you think the results would have been, if Malaysia did not go Dr M’s way and took a slower path towards modernisation? What would have been the impact on our politics, judiciary, government, and other areas?

I find it hard to comment on such “what ifs”. Dr Mahathir pushed Malaysia to develop at breakneck pace. Maximum growth was the mantra that produced the so-called East Asian Economic Miracle in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, after the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis and the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown, there’s a widespread view that growth should be more measured to be sustainable.

Dr M is prepared to sue you. What would your defence be?

Dr Mahathir initially said he reserved the right to sue me in connection with losses in financial scandals, but soon after said he had decided not to, since legal action would take a long time to work its way through the courts. To his credit, Dr Mahathir has rarely sued over critical articles or books during his long political career, though on the other side of the ledger he used political action, such as expulsion, delays and bans to curb unwelcome publications. favicon

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8 Responses to “Understanding Malaysia”

  1. amir says:

    Good book! Good interview!

  2. Main says:

    An analysis that seems to cover almost all the needed aspects and factors during Dr Mahathir’s term of holding office. I doubt some of it… :)

  3. thokiat says:

    1988 – destruction of judiciary system.
    1998 – elimination of DSAI
    2008 – denial of 2/3 majority by BN.
    Do we need to wait till 2018 to end BN’s rule?

  4. Sam says:

    A book that the government banned, while the subject asked for it to be allowed for sale. A leader brave enough to face critical analysis, despite all his alleged autocratic decisions and actions while in power, and subsequent controversial statements, is still worth some respect. History shall decide if he is right or wrong. Current and future generations of Malaysians shall be his judge. God bless.

  5. MyMalaya says:

    Tun Mahathir is cool. What a states[person] he is…

  6. s.s.seelan says:

    You mean holding up the book by the Home Ministry a couple of months is deemed ineptness? Oh my God! Where have you guys been all these while? Mars? Try getting a reply from a government department to a simple letter! You could probably take a trip to Mars and back and you would not even have received a reply. Mind you, that is just one piece of paper. The book by Barry must be deemed a “tome” by these guys at the Home Ministry. So give them a couple of years. It’s not ineptness. That’s the best they could do.

  7. navin says:

    Mahathir, the man with a vision. But too bad he had degenerate friends.

  8. faith04 says:

    http://www.zaobao.com/zg/zg100511_009.shtml

    In Taiwan, an employer was charged in civil court for forcing three Indonesian employees to eat pork. The lady employer may be jailed for maximum term of eight months if found guilty. The prosecutor claimed that she did not respect basic human right and violated religious freedom, thus hurting image of Taiwan.

    Can Malaysia treat it’s own minorities fairly and protect our dignity?


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