Yes, one man was responsible for it all
APRIL 20 — I was told many years ago that you should never write a biography of a political leader who is still around. You can get sued or worse, he/she can still do something that will render your study totally wrong. Hence I was quite pleasantly surprised by Barry Wain’s book on Mahathir — “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times.”
Just in case you’ve been living on Mars, Wain’s book caused a mild sensation here last year because he claims that Mahathir squandered an estimated RM100 billion of taxpayers’ money. He also claims that:
• Mahathir signed a secret security agreement with the United States in 1984 which gave the American troops permission to use Malaysia for jungle warfare training, a ship repair facility at Lumut and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft repair facility.
• Money politics, or Umno’s billion-dollar corporate empire, was put together by Mahathir and then-Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin.
• Umno’s headquarters, better known as PWTC, was partly financed by taxpayers’ money when GLC banks forgave RM140 million worth of interest for the project.
• Mahathir, while on the way up the political ladder, tried hard to conceal his Indian ancestry.
• Mahathir compromised all the key institutions of state so that no one could stand in his way as he “modernised” the country.
These were some of the main details about the book that were widely reported in the press last year.
What was not widely reported are the other claims made in the book, such as:
• Mahathir’s son, Mirzan, one of Malaysia’s billionaries, according to a local business magazine, was bailed out at a cost of RM1.7 billion by Petronas, while he was prime minister (p 283).
• Two attempts were made to get Mahathir a Nobel Prize; one by the former minister Law Hieng Ding and another by his son, Mukhriz (p 192).
• Mahathir engineered the appointment of Datuk Seri Najib Razak as DPM as he was afraid Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would get the job.
• He Islamised Malaysia not to promote the religion but was hoping to use Islam to promote his development agenda (chap 9). Mahathir even tried to use Islam to endorse his mega projects (p.224).
• He forced Margaret Thatcher to acknowledge him as an equal (p 249).
• He took on the royalty in part because he felt they could stall his plans to modernise Malaysia. By the time he finished with them (Chap 8) they were no longer a threat to him and they never forgave him.
• Mahathir claimed that he was not anti-Semitic because he invited 14 Israeli high school students to visit Malaysia, and moreover “I have friends who are Jews” (p. 256).
• Although Mahathir was personally not corrupt, he did not take action against those around him who were involved in shady deals. As long as these people were on his side, he was willing to look the other way.
After reading the book, you can’t help but feel that all that is rotten about this country — racist politicians, religious bigots, the ethnic and religious divide, corruption at the highest level, police brutality, the blurring of the line between the government and the ruling coalition — were all caused or were exacerbated by Mahathir’s actions during his 22 years in power.
Wain’s book shows in no uncertain terms that Mahathir kept an eye on almost everything that was happening and nothing major could happen without his consent. Is it any wonder that a former National Laureate Shahnon Ahmad wrote a book called “SHIT” since all the sh** was caused by one man?
Mahathir’s excuse was of course that he needed to push Malaysia forward. This excuse sounds hollow given that we now know that if we measure progress by ethnic peace and solidarity — the only real measure of Malaysia’s success — Mahathir’s tenure was a complete failure.
Today, every incident, every conversation, every event is analysed along racial and religious lines. Many people still think another May 13 is possible under the right circumstances. The infamous BTN and the spread of racist ideology were all under the direct control of the PM’s department. Need I say more?
One could almost say there were two Mahathirs; one Mahathir wanted Malaysia to be a developed progressive country, the other Mahathir wanted a First World Country but with the politics driven by racism so that he would always be in control.
The thing is that he can be both at the same time — thus he can support Perkasa while at the same time, he can say he believes in racial unity. In his mind, there is no contradiction as long as he is in control politically.
Overall, there is really nothing in this book that will shock Mahathir watchers. It will merely reinforce what we know already from previous studies. If there is one criticism, it would be that the author did not adequately explain why Mahathir was willing to give up power so easily in 2003.
The one question I always ask myself is this: would Malaysia be better off if Mahathir had lost in 1990? There is no answer. What is clear, to me anyway, is that Malaysia would be a much more democractic country had Mahathir lost in 1990. If BN had lost power in 1990, we would probably have a two-party system today.
Before Barry Wain’s book, the definitive text on Mahathir was Khoo Boo Teik’s “Paradoxes of Mahathir” (Oxford, 1996). (Unlike Wain’s book, Khoo’s book was based on his doctoral dissertation at Flinders University.)
I suspect Wain’s book will now be a standard reference in all studies on Mahathir from now on.
As I mentioned earlier, Wain’s book is currently with KDN — I think 800 copies — as the minister will have to decide what to do with it. I can tell you that it is not going to make an iota of difference. Those interested can read the book via the Internet (there is a website with the entire contents online) or buy the book in Singapore.
There is also an e-version available from the publisher Palgrave. Those too lazy to fly/drive down to Singapore can still buy the book via Amazon.com. Don’t worry, the book will arrive in good condition and Special Branch will not come after you for reading the book.
But this book will have no impact politically in Malaysia until the Bahasa Malaysia version appears. I really do hope the publisher is putting together that version even as I write this.* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.