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Thank you, Dr Mahathir

I WAS not disturbed at all by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad‘s recent communalist remarks that Malay Malaysians have been marginalised after sharing the country with “outsiders”. While I applaud the powerful critiques by the likes of Dr Toh Kin Woon, I do not share the anger and disappointment many Malaysians feel. I certainly do not feel hurt.

Another Ahmad Ismail

Alien squatting, showing peace sign
Squatting alien?

I did not feel hurt in August 2008 when former Umno Bukit Bendera division head Datuk Ahmad Ismail said non-Malay Malaysians were squatters in this country. At that time, many Malaysians — including some critics of the Internal Security Act (ISA) and some Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders — wanted him to be detained under the ISA or charged for sedition. I wrote two pieces defending Ahmad Ismail’s freedom of expression and questioning the authoritarianism in the Malaysian psyche.

I argued that support for the ISA cannot be attributed to the BN alone. The ISA is alive because it fulfills the need amongst many Malaysians for a strong government. We cannot do away with the ISA unless we first do away with our obsession for authoritarianism.

Not surprisingly, the pieces invited some nasty comments in the blogosphere. Some thought that I was supporting the BN or Ahmad Ismail. Some thought that I must be insane. I was, of course, neither. I supported Ahmad Ismail’s freedom of speech simply because I always believe that a society should be open and confident enough to tolerate even idiots and lunatics. This applies both ways. Ahmad Ismail is free to see me as an idiot, a lunatic or even a villain, but he must respect my constitutional rights as long as I do not profess violence.

To me, Mahathir was but another Ahmad Ismail when he made the ethno-centrist statement, notwithstanding the intellectual gap between them. So what if he is a former prime minister? Would a drunken man you meet outside the pub be less drunk if he were a former minister or movie star?

Once a Malaysian

There is however a big difference between Mahathir and Ahmad Ismail. Ahmad Ismail was never known for promoting national unity or nation building. He was never a poster boy for all things Malaysian. Dr Mahathir was. Go to his official website and listen to the speeches of Mahathir the prime minister and you will find beautiful images he painted for an inclusive Malaysia, in sharp contrast to what Mahathir the blogger now says.

In 1991, for example, he talked about the dream of “establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny. This must be a nation at peace with itself, territorially and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and full and fair partnership, made up of one ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ with political loyalty and dedication to the nation.”

If we are on track, that dream should be achieved in a mere 11 years from now. It was part of Mahathir’s Vision 2020, once the standard essay topic for all Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia and Penilaian Menengah Rendah students in secondary school.

This is perhaps the reason why so many people are disappointed with him. They believed in him, thinking that he was a true leader for Malaysia who would rise above communal politics. He was not. Just three months before his inspiring Vision 2020 speech, he won the bitterly-fought 1990 elections with a smear campaign that could have dwarfed former US President George W Bush‘s smear campaign against Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004. As in the 2008 elections, the BN lost about 70% of non-Malay Malaysian support in 1990.

Tengku Razaleigh
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah

Unlike in 2008, however, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46 party — arguably the functional equivalent of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) except that PKR is multi-ethnic — and PAS failed to win a single parliamentary seat outside Kelantan and Terengganu. Razaleigh was portrayed as a traitor of Malay-Muslim Malaysians. He was accused of selling out his race and religion to the Kadazan-Christian Malaysians after the defection of the Kadazan-dominated Parti Bersatu Sabah to the opposition camp after nomination day. The proof? Razaleigh wore Kadazan traditional headwear with a crucifix-like pattern at a Kadazan function.

If we go back further, we will see how ethnic sentiments had helped to hold Umno and the Malay Malaysian constituency together after the battle royale between Mahathir and Razaleigh in 1987. These ethnic sentiments were also used to justify the ISA crackdown, code-named “Operasi Lalang”, later that year. At one point, Umno Youth held a mass rally in which some of its leaders threatened to bathe the Malay keris with Chinese Malaysian blood, a threat which Datuk Seri Najib Razak — the then Umno Youth chief — recently denied ever making.

How did Chinese Malaysians provoke Umno Youth to threaten ethnic riots? Many Chinese Malaysians fervently objected a controversial personnel policy introduced by then Education Minister Anwar, which was seen as a conspiracy to eliminate Chinese-medium schools.

But it would be wrong to think that Mahathir is a genuine racist or ethnic bigot. Other than his inclusive Vision 2020, Mahathir has helped many non-Malay Malaysian businesspersons — Tan Sri T Ananda Krishnan, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, and Tan Sri Eric Chia, to name just a few — in building their empires. He rhetorically condemned the “tongkat (crutch) mentality” amongst Malay Malaysians and he enthusiastically praised non-Malay Malaysians for their hard work. I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeats these lines soon.

Mahathir: not looking very worried

Contempt at the core

The truth is, Mahathir is just such a talented politician that he is capable of holding all ideological positions. He is neither left nor right. He can be both left and right. Does he not worry that the voters will see his contradiction?

A politician would worry only if he or she believes that the public is smart enough to judge and read his or her contradictions. The politician wouldn’t have to worry about this if people trusted the politician like children do their parents or pets their masters.

To me, at the core of Mahathir’s Machiavellianism is contempt for his fellow citizens. He would have been a great democratic leader had he respected the intelligence of ordinary Malaysians. So, I thank him for his latest statement if it helps us to mature as a nation by deconstructing the cult of his personality.

In a similar way, I thank the pro-ISA protesters who will defend the draconian law this Saturday, 1 August, in the name of Islam and Malay Malaysians. They are helping the ideologies of both political Islam and Malay nationalism to mature, by forcing Malay-Muslim Malaysians to decide if they want to embrace or denounce authoritarianism as part of their identity. They help to open the eyes of all Malaysians to see what an Umno-PAS unity government could potentially mean. Favicon

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist based at Monash University Sunway Campus. As an educator, he believes that a nation can learn from both the positive and the negative. He thanks arwah Yasmin Ahmad for showing Malaysians how we can be united by love and not by hatred, fear or manipulation.

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22 Responses to “Thank you, Dr Mahathir”

  1. D Lim says:

    Politicans love to use FEAR to manipulate. Fear of losing one’s identity, fear of a stronger other, fear of loss, harm, love and family. Unfortunately, it is a theme repeated over and over again with politicians, not only in Malaysia but all over the world.

    A mature society can see through the game of fear and manipulation. If not, it will lapse into communal hatred and suspicion, bringing forth internal strife which perpetuates until it is stopped with will at a point. And I wonder which politician has the will of reason and truth to raise the country to a status where emulation is desired from outsiders.

    Yasmin Ahmad was one of the few who showed that if we can rise above communal politics, you can be respected and loved by all. I was sad to hear of her passing and I want her family to know that she was well respected more than she ever would have known.

  2. Citizen says:

    It is a wonder that Dr M could fool so many people for so long. His idea of national unity is always embedded in a larger ideology of ethnic centrism. Why he is so obsessed with his racial identity is anybody’s guess. There are also many non-Malay [Malaysians] who are willing to pander to him for their self-interest. The business [people] mentioned above are definitely not heroes in their communities. But then again, any loud mouth bully could cow people into submission. What more if he [or she] is also the most powerful [person] in the country. For now, we are all suffering from his legacy.

  3. Taneug says:

    Mahathir suffers from the typical psychological condition of over-identification with a tribe (word used here not in a pejorative sense) to compensate for the fact that one does not truly belong. It is often noted by sociologists that the unsuccessful immigrant faces the greatest discrimination and contempt from those of the same race who have made it.

    […] Many of our [ancestors] came to Malaya before Mahathir’s did. Additionally, as the writer points out, Mahathir has a deep-seated contempt for his fellow Malaysians, of whatever race. Hence, his administration is marked by his inability to draw out the best in the cabinet. In fact, the best deserted him or were kicked out.

  4. Democracy at work says:

    Wow! What a refreshing thought. Agree not to agree, democracy at its purest form. Applause….

  5. idris md isa says:

    I like reading what you have written. Very rational, level headed, honest and objective. For so long we been fed with B-grade or even lower, opinions in the blogosphere, prompting me to post this comment. My debut really.

    Thanks to you and congratulations. However, I find your level of tolerance for freedom of speech rather excessive. As a Malaysian who has accepted all citizens as equals, regardless of their denomination, I detest very strongly the remarks by Ahmad Ismail. No citizen is a squatter in this country. When a speech has become an insult, it ceases to attract the patronage of freedom of speech. Everyone who was offended by the speech of Ahmad Ismail has the right to express his/her anger. But the reactions need to be tampered so that those reactions do not invite even more vile counter-reactions. […] People like [Ahmad Ismail] must not be allowed to speak too much.

    Coming back to the freedom of speech, why do we have laws on defamation and sedition? The purpose is to draw up a boundary on freedom of speech so that speeches do not become so free that people’s rights to honour, dignity and privacy could be violated at will instead of protected. In the same breath, though, the restriction on the freedom of speech ought not be made a justification to curb the right to criticise.

    As for Mahathir, he is the manifestation and embodiment of a forked-tongued man. A classic example of one, even. I just find him totally unbelievable. Ever since leaving the office of the prime minister, he’s been preaching things he failed to practise and criticising acts he himself perpetrated with impunity in his 22-year tenure of (mis)rule. What do you make of this man? […]

    The pro-ISA protesters? I sympathise with them. [….] They need to be schooled, not condemned. But I dread to think of what will ensue when they face-off with the anti-ISA group.

    Well, I agree with you that there are some blessings, albeit disguised […] At least some lessons are learnt from them. But, too much of the negatives can overwhelm the the little positives that we can derive from the former.

  6. Aerial View says:

    While other countries are fast progressing into the millenia, we in Malaysia are still throwing tantrums and sticks at each other.

    Korea has amazingly outgrown their borders and are now all over the world. Who[ever] doesn’t know Samsung, LG, Hyundai Heavy Industries etc are probably still being breastfed.

    Just take a look at countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan…these are Asians, mind you. And they are probably laughing at us in Malaysia for our stupid, childish bickering. A bunch of buffoons we are. Too race-centric is the cause….we are left [flailing] for air in this [globalised] world.

    Malaysia was on the verge [of being] on par with other developing countries in the world, and now all we see is it is climbing back into a realm of backwardness.
    You can clearly see this from our ex-PM being welcomed in Africa. LOL. I can’t believe my eyes.

    Probably he would make up some excuse, saying the Western countries dislike him etc. Whatever the reason is, the answer is obvious. We Malaysians are not 1Malaysia yet, because in the end, it’s the country that suffers because we cannot ever see eye to eye in this land. Malaysia for Malaysians? Yeah, right…with leaders we have now…..LOL… monkeys would be flying around the city of KL right about now.

  7. Mutu says:

    This is really an eye-opener, well thought out, truthful and hitting the nail [on] the head article.

    I believe that this country deserves a better government and a better government will not be easy to come by if we keep voting back to power the same group like we did for the last 50 years or so. Furthermore, whoever is in power, BN or PR, must always remember that we need to improve governing the country fairly and not allow the country to be left economically and socially behind other nations who were on par with Malaysia in the 1960s, like Singapore, South Korea etc.

    Another point is that, authoritarianism has stifled the minds of many capable Malaysians and with the Umno-PAS unity talk, authoritarianism will definitely deliver the knock-out punch to democracy.

  8. showhands says:

    “Go to his official website and listen to the speeches of Mahathir the prime minister and you will find beautiful images he painted for an inclusive Malaysia, in sharp contrast to what Mahathir the blogger now says.”

    In one of Mahathir’s great speeches talking about Malaysian unity, he said, “literaly speaking, Malays, Chinese and Indians cannot even sit together to have a meal. The Malays don’t eat pork, the Chinese and Indians don’t eat beef, so we take beef and pork off the menu so that we can sit together to eat.”

    It brought tears to my eyes hearing this. Imagine a beautiful united Malaysia. Then how come we can’t be one loving people of Malaysia; afterall we are only having a short journey through this world? It is all due to our […] leaders. I don’t need to say more.

  9. seereederan narayanan says:

    What you are saying could not be more true… there is an English saying “give a fool enough string and he[/she] will hang himself[/herself]”.

  10. Danny Lim says:

    Mahathir was a master politician and maybe he still thinks he is. After all he managed to hang on to 22 years of power. What is happening in this country now can be attributed to his 22 years of misrule. Rampant corruption, crime, white elephants, unreliable and untrustworthy government instituitions, etc., etc.

    The best thing he has done is to kick Anwar Ibrahim out of Umno. We Malaysians have to really thank him for that. Now we have a real chance for change.

  11. Andrew I says:

    Vision 2020 is now being repackaged as KPIs, KRAs and what have you.

    This ought to keep us going for a few years.

  12. K S Ong says:

    Excellent and refreshing as usual, coming from Chin Huat.

    Just something about Eric Chia. Eric Chia was from a rich family in Singapore. Even in the fifties, if I’m not mistaken, they had a business in KL and in the late sixties, he floated UMW on KLSE and the company was a huge success with their distributorships in Komatsu and other heavy machineries at the time when Malaysia was undergoing fast property and other developments. In the early seventies, his company owned among other vehicles, Aston Martin (because of his dealership in David Brown range) and Cadillac.

    Many people assumed Eric Chia got rich because of corruption. Though I can never vouch for anything, it is my humble opinion that he was one of those business[people] roped in by Dr Mahathir to fast track his vision. Could he just [have been] a conduit for some […] deals?

  13. Main says:

    What then can an old man do other than to answer the personal attacks he [received] while in office carrying great responsibilities [for] the nation ?

    And what can we gain by harping on the so-called nation building process by reversing our ways of doing it while hiding behind excuses just for the sake of speeding things up?

    Nothing, except extreme politicking that could ignite matters [when] ironically, [this] could be done in myriad other ways [which are] non-extreme.

  14. Fikri Roslan says:

    I do not see anything wrong with what Tun Mahathir said. In fact, I think he is right. I can see how the Malay [Malaysians] have been marginalised, and if the trend continues, Malay [Malaysians] will no longer [be] relevant in the economic and political scenarios of this country. I observe also how non-Malay [Malaysians] are promoting the propaganda to “break and rule” Malay unity. Anything about Malay [Malaysians] is considered bad now. When they talk about Umno, basically they are referring to Malays as a whole.

    Please do not underestimate the capability of Malay [Malaysians] to reinstate their pride.

  15. guts says:

    At least TDM didn’t claim all his actions were “Saint’s act”. We may be are too quick to criticise our ex-prime minister…Perhaps his negativity overshadowed his positivity. Or perhaps…some [people] still don’t not know how to give fair, balance, yin and yang views.

  16. greateagle says:

    Great comment and suberb analysis of Mahathir but the point is? Where has it led us to? We are Malaysians irrespective of our colour, beliefs and race, but here, we have a person playing with the feelings of the nation to suit his ego and fancy, at what cost?

    Look at our northern neighbour, the Chinese have assimilated with the native Thais (known as Huan Nang) and live peacefully except [for the] occasional national turmoil but [these have] nothing to do with race.

    At our southern tip, they have improved by leaps and bounds since separation. The occasional race card is raised not by the locals but their nothern neighbours. Who? None other than the master politician, again at whose expense?

    Conclusion: we can do without such politicians. What we need is a government whose priority is the people. Dreaming? If north can and south, too, then why can’t we?

  17. kanna says:

    I was a strong supporter of Tun M …… people like [me] grew up knowing only him as the PM. But now I feel betrayed by his words and deeds…….he has been feeding us with […] deceit to achieve his personal agenda….I just hope that he remembers that people like me were the ones who were strongly and stubbornly behind him when he [was] being bombarded by his own kind during troubled times …..we were there during the rise and fall of Semangat 46 and the first emergence of Keadilan …… we know how stupid we were ……. anyway, he was right: “Melayu cepat lupa”… lebih lebih lagi Mahathir cepat lupa ……but GOD never forgets…….

  18. kamal says:

    “To me, at the core of Mahathir’s Machiavellianism is contempt for his fellow citizens.”

    You are absolutely right except on the point “for his fellow citizens”. He is contemptuous of us, but I doubt he considers us his equals.

  19. PHG says:


    I am a Portuguese Malaysian and my ancestors have been here for 500 years and yet I`m not a bumiputra. Anyway, I`m proud to be a Portuguese and I`ll always be one till I die.

    Although I`m not a bumi, I came up in life as a contractor and had to compete with every one. To compete in government projects, I used an honest bumi and [made] an honest living.

    My argument is, even without NEP, I can still be successful.

  20. SeaninAsia says:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)

    Perhaps this generation of Malaysians are ready for such an idea.

  21. rakyat says:

    No thanks to Mahathir’s legacy – a legacy of corruption, abuse of power, incompetent civil service, mediocre education system, polarised society.

  22. kahseng says:

    Yes, big thanks to Dr M for a decade-long lesson against government oppression.

    Malaysia could not have been more fortunate. When we look back a few decades from now, we may wonder if this Dr-M-racist-boogey and the cruelty-to-Anwar-saga was his intentional, deeply wise, design to finally resolve the nation [of] The Malay Dilemma. What he could not achieve by persuasion and gift, he achieved by a few cruel demonstrations.

    The national beliefs that NEP meant justice and strong government can be benign are being turned on their head – to the slow shock of the grateful ethnic Malay [Malaysians], guilty-minded and naive ethnic Chinese [Malaysians], and compliant ethnic Indian [Malaysians].

    Such sociol-psychological reform against authoritarianism would not have taken place had Dr M played by the rule of law. Deep cleansing of the feudal mind would not last had the reformasi movement succeeded too easily, and BA/PR taken federal power sooner, say in 1999, 2004, and 2008.

    The longer Dr M’s and Umno’s racism and oppression drag on, the higher the chance that Malaysians will have a long-lasting, Indonesian-like wake-up moment against Suharto-like fascist-paternalism. The more likely then it is that Malaysians will embrace liberalism, away from the Iranian-inspired fundamentalism. Talking about Iran, that is about to happen, too, and one day I hope it becomes more liberal than France.

    Thank heavens too for old age and death (natural death I mean).

    Had there been no natural deaths, retirement, and resignation, too many I-know-it-better old men and women (I had to add “women” or The Nut Graph’s editors would do that for me) would have endlessly accumulated wealth, built connections, and [clung] on to power, to the detriment of social renewal. We would have an unimaginably cruel society of young slaves who never had a chance.

    Thank heavens there is no fountain of youth except through our children. The best of us all do go bonkers [in our] old age, I included, I expect.

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