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The current prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, aged 94,
has been a preeminent political heavyweight in the country for almost five decades. This is an attempt to describe and evaluate him before he demits office as the seventh prime minister. All indications as at now are that he will be in office for at least 40 more months as there is some kind of a consensus on this issue between relatively small sections of his ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition and its parliamentary opposition made of up of UMNO, MCA, MIC and PAS.
Born in Alor Star, Kedah in 1925 Dr Mahathir received his early education at local government schools and in the late 1940s he proceeded to medical school in Singapore. Upon graduating he served the government as a houseman and later as a medical officer. He later went into private practice as a General Practitioner in his hometown and reputedly served his patients with dedication.
His clinic, Maha Clinic, was a popular predestined place for the ill especially for those from the lowest levels of the economic strata as he was known to charge normal, nominal or no fees for his service. He was however known to be strict with patients who went to him for medical leave.
From an early age he had had an interest in issues confronting first a colonial Malaya (when he wrote under nome de plume CHE Det) and then an independent Malaya and Malaysia.
Up, Down, Out and Out
He began his parliamentary career as the representative of the UMNO-Alliance in 1964. He failed to defend his parliamentary seat in the 1969 General Election and successfully amplified his personal loss of the Kota Star Selatan seat into a national catastrophe. Quite soon after the election he began agitating for the removal of the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The dismal showing of his party, the Alliance which had won a simple, sharply reduced majority from its previous two thirds majority, brought three days after that election a series of well orchestrated unfortunate racial clashes now known as the May 13th Incident.
Dr Mahathir’s agitation for the Tunku’s removal found resonance with other ambitious top echelon party leaders. In any case, after the May 13th Incident, the Tunku’s deputy, Tun Abdul Razak formed the National Operations Council and assumed full emergency powers to run the country as Director of Operation.
The Tunku, nominally the prime minister drew his salaries and allowances and formally relinquished the post of prime minister in September 1970. In the meantime Dr Mahathir had written an undignified letter to the Tunku which led to the former being expelled from the ruling UMNO.
Rehabilitation and Meteoric Rise
Just two years later Tun Razak rewarded Dr Mahathir with a senatorship and chairmanship in a parastatal.
In August 1974 Dr Mahathir was returned to Parliament after winning in the General Election. Days after that election, he was appointed minister of education, his appointment paralleling roughly the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, China’s great leader who was appointed vice premier in October that year.
After Tun Razak passed away in January 1976, his successor was Dato (as he was then) Hussein Onn. Dr Mahathir became the deputy prime minister although Hussein had harboured some reservations initially about him. In Dr Mahathir’s own words his relationship with Tun Hussein ‘ was sometimes strained.’ ( page 7 of Mahathir’s ‘ A Doctor In The House’, 2011).
This small insight provided by Dr Mahathir is a gross oversimplification of a rather deeply distraught but working relationship with the purist and principled Hussein. Hussein was an extremely cautious, considerate and deliberative man while Dr Mahathir was a man in a hurry often taken up by surface dynamics. In July 1981 Dr Mahathir became the fourth prime minister and remained in office until the end of October 2003 and again succeeded to that position on May 10, 2018.
He had promised on taking office in May 2018 that he would relinquish the post within two years but that commitment is largely the subject of national debate and discussion right now.
In evaluating Dr Mahathir one must concede the passion with which he set about taking over the leadership both in July 1981 and in May 2018. He had felt sidelined, slowed down, marginalised , angered and even ignored by his predecessors and his obsession was about showing the world that he could do much much more to propel Malaysia forward.
A Redoubtable Reign, 3 ++
The first of the three Ds in this essay are positive and dwell on the resoundingly remarkable qualities of Dr Mahathir . The fourth D is a pun on the punt on Dr Mahathir’s past performance and details a rather perverse and pathetic picture.
Discipline, and with hindsight, longevity has been integral to his life and career. Married to the same loyal, learned and illustrious lady doctor for 60 years he has at least breakfast with her everyday. He is also a dedicated family man. Often on the dot for punctuality he was determined to create a Malaysia in his visionary image. That vision was often at variance with visual reality. When one is the boss it is no use if you alone are punctual. To solve the problem he made it compulsory for all government employees to clock in when they arrived at their places of work.
The assumption was that those who had clocked in would start working immediately. This does not necessarily happen. This clock-in rule was observed more in letter than in spirit but it got Dr Mahathir kudos from the press and the public. It was a fantastic gimmick to build his no nonsense style. The quality and character of the government service did not improve much but much political mileage was obtained from it. A slogan ‘ Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy’ was also generously appended to his governance system when in fact corruption began to seriously become an unidentified problem in the country.
Integral to Dr Mahathir’s character was the discipline to read almost all the time and especially every brief he was given. Unlike his predecessor who would carefully read and underline the important and imprecise parts Dr M had the capacity to read, was able to absorb and remember and then pose the most relevant questions. This was a quality that showed a methodical and meticulous mind with a retentive capacity that had civil servants on their toes.
Excellent Chief of Staff
It must be stated here that he had a first class principal private secretary, Datuk (as he was then, posthumously made a Tun) Azizan bin Zainul Abidin when he took over as prime minister. Azizan had earlier served Tun Hussein Onn in the same capacity. What was most notable about Azizan was that he did not act as a dour doorkeeper denying access to the prime minister.
Instead when there were documents that needed the prime minister’s signature or attention Azizan would give one the option of actually going in to see the prime minister. This was a man who was comfortable to let officers and screened visitors have access to their prime minister. Azizan had nothing to hide, had no desire to flaunt the important power he had in controlling access and was magnanimous when he was promoted to a higher grade to vacate the post for his successor and move on. He was not a man seeking promotion to higher grades from that powerful perch at the Prime Minister’s Office.
The third feature of Dr Mahathir’s discipline was that he would listen patiently to anything that was said to him. It was noted that when he met his foreign counterparts on a one-to-one basis he would wait for them, courteously welcome them at the front entrance of his office, accompany them to his office after the Visitors Book had been signed and show them to their seat.
Immediately after the pleasantries he would invite the foreign dignitary to make his presentation. Seldom would he interrupt the dignitary. Sometimes these visitors would speak continuously for thirty minutes or so. When the visitor stopped talking he would ask him if there was anything else he wished to raise. Taking a cue from that Dr Mahathir would reply very politely to every point raised in the visitor’s monologue. As a note taker it was easy to put everything said by the visitor on left side of a note paper and write Dr Mahathir’s answers on the right side. The visiting dignitary may raise other points and Dr Mahathir would reply politely. This methodical conversational style made it a pleasure to afterwards write the record of the meeting.
The second positive D that was a feature of Dr Mahathir’s was that he was decent, diplomatic and observed proper decorum and protocol when dealing with almost anyone. While he may not have agreed with something said by some of his interlocutors or officers he would do so politely. This capacity to discuss issues and make a decision contrary to the advice provided seems to have stayed with him all along. With hindsight this sometimes got the country into trouble. He was not a fantastic judge of character and well placed charlatans sometimes could easily mislead him.
Dedication to Development Agenda
The third D in Dr Mahathir’s prime ministership was his dedication to the country’s development agenda. Everywhere that he travelled to if he observed something unique and outstanding he would request the diplomat stationed in the capital to explore how that technology or technique could be brought and applied in Malaysia.
On his return from these overseas trips cabinet would be briefed on his observations, feedback from the host government and the need for Malaysians to learn and equip themselves in a particular craft would be given.
In this endeavour billions of dollars were perhaps spent but the results are few because Dr Mahathir failed to appreciate that Malaysians were not carbon copies to be made from emulating other people especially the Japanese and Koreans. Relative to these countries Malaysia is well endowed with natural resources, with a small population and was accustomed to much easier lifestyles.
Being a land of plenty Government from self government days had opened up and distributed land to selected landless peasants. There is still hardcore poverty but it has been progressively brought down to under 10 percent.
Malaysia does not have the extremes in especially freezing temperatures that affect these temperate regions. Unlike these and many other countries famines, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters were relatively unknown in Malaysia.
Japan’s Ruthless Rule
The only time in recent history that Malaysians experienced great privations, disruptions to their lives and restrictions to their freedom was when Malaya was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army from December 1941 to August 1945.
All communities suffered but much has been written about the tens of thousands of Chinese (most eloquently by Lee Kuan Yew in his memoir) who were killed. Almost every community had people, who under duress, had been conscripted to build the Burma- India Railway and an estimated 200,000 people would have perished from illness, malnutrition, mishaps and accidents on that project.
In this context, Dr Mahathir’s ‘ Look East Policy’ announced at the end of 1981 was a courageous step. It glossed over or gave a wide berth to the stories of Japanese atrocities that had nurtured those born just before, during and after the Second World War. It also allowed for a somewhat true reconciliation with Japan, a process started in the late 1960s to settle Japan’s ‘ Blood Debt.’
The Look East Policy had specifically mentioned emulating the work ethos of Japan and Korea. The policy was clearly launched without much input by then competent civil service and it seemed to be more the action of a man in a hurry ( on the heels of the ‘ Buy British Last ‘ Policy than of a master development strategist).
Today, almost four decades later the country that is preeminent in this region is the People’s Republic Of China, a colossal economic power whose predominance will last well beyond the success of Japan and the Republic of Korea. China has also succeeded in lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens from dire poverty.
In the enthusiasm to embrace Japan and Korea Dr Mahathir had also perhaps overlooked the enormous advantage that knowledge of English had given Malaysians. The English language gave Malaysians free access to the best teaching institutions all over the world. English was not a forte of Japan and Korea in the 1980s.
This Look East Policy has been rendered by the civil servants entrusted to implement it into a more protocol than substantive subject. Civil servants attend short term administrative and managerial courses about 20 years before their retirement and no proper study has been done to evaluate the long term benefits of these programmes. Students educated in Japan and Korea have also generally not made it to the top echelons of management and leadership.
Japan and Korea place high value on hard work, honesty and integrity but they have also been implicated in copyright infringements, reverse engineering and sharp business practices as ardent nationalism often has overwhelming significance over mundane motherhood statements. Malaysians, the majority of those exposed to the LEP, are Muslims and with the increasing Islamisation of the country’s bureaucracy they have to be seen to be performing their prayer rituals even during office hours, a practice that is alien to the sake and soju-imbibing culture of Japan and Korea.
It is time almost 40 years after the LEP’s implementation to seriously look neither east nor west but simply for the best and more appropriate models to suit the temperament of Malaysia’s population. Dr Mahathir however will probably not agree as he has invested a great deal in building himself as a staunch promoter of the work ethos of Japan and Korea, two countries that are hard, in fact impossible, to emulate. These are largely homogeneous societies which discriminate against everyone of other ethnic stock. Both these countries look to Ivy League and top universities in Europe and have enhanced their educational institutions.
A Regrettable Reality
The fourth D in Dr Mahathir’s deportment is a disturbing, deplorable, disruptive, delusional and devastating downside. Ahmad Mustapha Hassan, a real insider in the inner workings of the highest echelons of governance has commented upon Dr Mahathir in his loosely written book, the ‘Unmaking of Malaysia(2007).
Dr Mahathir can be contemptuously dismissive and distrustful of established consultative work processes and of distinguished, dispassionate and decent people. This trait was publicly demonstrated in his disrespectful treatment of Tun Salleh Abbas(a former Chief Justice), Tan Sri Abdul Malek bin Haji Ahmad( a putative Chief Justice) and Tan Sri Ahmad Noordin bin Zakaria( a former Auditor-General). By being dismissive of these renowned professional people of calibre and integrity the institutions they headed were also undermined.
Dr Mahathir also has had a tendency to denigrate whole communities by labelling them with terms and associations like a hooked nose, their success as doctors or as businesspeople. As a leader when he does this his followers will apply these denigratory terms loosely and words like the Jews, Keling, Mamak acquire connotations of hatred, negativity, bias and bigotry.
The cost to the state of such arbitrary and sweeping mis-characterisation is immeasurable as it further divides a peaceful plural society that the colonial masters intended to keep divided.
The diversity of Malaysia is a strength, not a weakness, and it is an advantage that can be harnessed to build a formidable country. Dr Mahathir seldom spoke of this diversity as an asset. He slammed this diversity as negative baggage, a burden of a colonial past. He has even questioned the award of citizenship to non indigenous people. He had also used repressive laws to detain, debilitate and destroy his opponents.
Prime Ministerial Centricity
Dr Mahathir had also used the strong majority he had in Parliament in the past to amend the Constitution to strengthen his prime ministerial power against the highest office of the Yang dipertuan Agong, the Judiciary and Parliament itself. It would seem that the Attorney General of that particular period had either not advised the prime minister properly or allowed elements of obedience and even obsequiousness to override sacrosanct provisions of the Malaysian Constitution, the supreme law of the nation. These precipitate actions fudged and weakened the significant thrust of the separation of powers fundamental enshrined in the Constitution.
Needless to say, these kinds of actions and gross denigration are well publicised attempts of a deliberate, systematic sidelining of upright hardworking stalwarts, communities and sacrosanct institutions of the nation.
Dr M was also quintessentially against western countries and institutions and individuals whom he often chose to vilify. With hindsight all those diatribes against the West and certain Caucasian countries won him applause in small places but had limited impact in terms of furthering overarching national objectives and distorted the picture of Malaysia.
Malaysians are a relatively tolerant, polite, friendly and circumspect people. One should remember kleptocratic Najib could stay in office until his party was voted out simply because Malaysians have the capacity to bear uncomplainingly almost anything, including outrageous plunder and pillage.
In the foreign affairs area the G-15 and other South-South initiatives were examples of instances which did not have staying power and were of limited benefit to Malaysia. The corporate sector made investments in some South countries but the dividends that accrued were small. On one occasion some Malaysians came out with a harebrained scheme without proper study of the geopolitical environment to build a bridge between Argentina and Uruguay.
All these proposals and projects demonstrated not only poor understanding, perception, preparation but also lost much money, goodwill, capital and have been mostly forgotten. This delusional, disruptive, divisive and destructive trait of Dr Mahathir has cost the country inestimable losses. This fourth D in Dr Mahathir’s character has cost some Malaysians their reputations.
Time To Make Amends
In his current term of prime ministership he should guard against this degenerate fourth D feature and act on the basis of professional advice that is available from within the Malaysian elite. Dr Mahathir should also seriously rehabilitate the country from the excesses of his 1.0 tenure.
The country has to move on from a defective, deeply flawed, divisive and highly discriminatory Peninsula Malay-first situation to one where every Malaysian citizen, regardless of his birth in Sabah or Sarawak or his ethnic antecedents enjoys full equality in the country.
All Malaysians should be encouraged to think they are equal and their full participation in the social, cultural, economic and industrial development of Malaysian nation is essential. Loyalty in Malaysian society should be to the Agong and the Constitution and not to the political party or politician in power.
This fourth D is certainly a defect and demerit which is within Dr Mahathir’s power to rectify partly at least before he demits office. It relates fundamentally to an obviously far overarching but much fudged and forgotten provision of Malaysia’s Constitution, a Fourth Pillar in the separation of powers nexus.
Recognise Constitutional Supremacy
Datuk Dr Hamid Sultan Backer, a sitting Court of Appeal judge, had in a 2016 research paper entitled ‘Social Justice: Constitutional Oath, Rule of Law and Judicial Review, Malaysian Chapter drawn attention to the oath of office of HM the Yang dipertuan Agong pursuant to Article 37(1) of the Constitution wherein the Agong-designate pledges
……”and by virtue of that oath do solemnly and truly declare that We shall justly and faithfully perform(carry out) our duties in the administration of Malaysia in accordance with the laws and Constitution which have been promulgated or which may be promulgated from time to time in the future.
Further, We do solemnly and truly declare that We shall at all times protect the religion of Islam and uphold the rule of law and order in the country.”
In the instant paper of Justice Hamid’s he states (on page 10/11) ‘ that the founding fathers of the Malaysian Constitution were vigilant and they provided a Fourth Pillar and in my view the powerful pillar to protect the rule of law and order in the country.’
Emeritus Professor of Law, Shad Salem Faruqi in a review of Hamid’s research paper made in 2016 makes a pertinent point that ‘ Malaysia’s superior court judges, majority of whom despite 58(sic) years of independence are wedded to the English jurisprudence of parliamentary supremacy.’
Malaysia first three prime ministers, all of whom were lawyers were trained in English institutions of law, were Anglophiles of a distinct era and the country’s first Supreme Court judges were of a similar ilk. Perhaps their education and immersion in English ways influenced them to prioritise parliamentary supremacy over constitutional supremacy.
After 62 years of independence in this new Malaysia created on May 10, 2018 perhaps a zealous and reformist Dr Mahathir can rectify the situation and restore the rightful need for paramountcy of the Constitution over Parliament. Concomitantly the courts should actively pursue their judicial review functions to ensure that every law passed by Parliament is in consonance with the Constitution.
Social Justice & Shamelessness
It is also important that social justice, as postulated by Hamid Sultan is given its rightful place in the deliberations of the Courts. As the eminent late Justice Eusoffe Abdoolcader put it ‘regard for the public welfare is the highest law.’ Hamid Sultan’s most pertinent point on social justice is contained in the following part:
( v) when arbitrariness sets into the decision making process of the three pillars, it spawns lawlessness in the constitutional institutions and agencies and is a recipe for the creation of a shameless society.”
This is the situation that Malaysia confronts today where a widely discredited kleptocrat is being hero-worshipped and paraded and there seems to be no shame over the serious charges thrown at him. With social justice there would also be social protection against hunger and poverty.
On balance, Dr Mahathir has done some good and great things for Malaysia but some of these things could have been achieved more economically using local expertise and a lot less bluster. Properly trained and seasoned technocrats would also have been extremely cautious and would have looked at sustained long term prospects than short term headline catching actions.
Malaysia has within the country all the expertise needed to address the sharp income inequality, poor educational standards, divisiveness and the extreme hardship of the lowest economic strata of its population.
Dato’ M Santhananaban has more than 45 years of experience working in the Malaysian public sector
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