Thank you, Dr Mahathir

By Wong Chin Huat*

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.
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?
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.
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.
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.

*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. He is also a columnist with The Nut Graph.