For 22 years, Malaysia’s political
and economic fortunes were determined by the authoritarian and
tough-minded Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
When he stepped down as prime minister and president of the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) exactly three years ago today, he had been dubbed “Father of Modernisation” and was widely admired by Malaysians for his outspoken criticism of western mores and attitudes.
A succession of Australian prime ministers had angry exchanges with Dr M, as many Malaysians know him.
Bob Hawke was among the first to get bilateral relations off on a wrong footing when he infuriated Dr Mahathir by describing as “barbaric” Malaysia’s hanging of two convicted Australian drug addicts.
More famously Paul Keating brought relations to a low by describing Dr M as “recalcitrant” after he had refused to attend the first APEC Summit in Seattle in the United States.
One Malay language newspaper picked its best equivalent term as kurang ajar, which translates into a highly derogatory equivalent of “ill educated and ill mannered”, infuriating many Malaysians at the time.
Australia’s leadership was relieved when Dr Mahathir made way for his long-standing deputy, Abdullah Badawi, known to be friendlier towards Australia.
As a former Malaysian prime minister, the 82-year-old Dr Mahathir has turned his acerbic tongue on his anointed successor, publicly stating that he had made a wrong choice.
The affable and mild-mannered Abdullah has tried hard not to get caught up in a war-of-words but a recent meeting between them has failed to achieve a peaceful outcome.
In Dr Mahathir’s eyes, Abdullah has been failing the nation because he is not an adherent to his predecessor’s penchant for grandiose projects such as the troubled Malaysian-made Proton car, the country’s fibre optic information technology backbone and the highly successful Petronas Twin Towers that for a brief period, was the world’s tallest building.
Most of all, he is annoyed that Malaysia’s fifth prime minister has refused to complete a “scenic” bridge linking the southern state of Johore to neighbouring Singapore.
Dr M has also accused his successor of closing his eyes to nepotism involving Abdullah’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin.
Following the peace meeting, Dr Mahathir last weekend issued an open letter to “the citizens of Malaysia” which he signed as “Malaysian citizen and commoner”.
Dr Mahathir does not hold back, accusing his successor of creating a police state with “action taken against anyone who criticises the prime minister” and adding that “a climate of fear has enveloped this country”.
“The current prime minister cannot at all be commented upon, criticised or advised. He is almost a saint, who is free from any human weaknesses or wrongs.
“Because of my statement that I would continue criticising if something that is not good for the religion, race and country is done by the prime minister, all sorts of condemnations and insults are thrown by these hatchet men and the mainstream media towards me.”
Ironically, similar criticisms could have been levelled during Dr Mahathir’s term (1981 to 2003) when he faced two unsuccessful challenges from previously close associates within the ruling UMNO.
Dr Mahathir always kept a tight rein on the Malaysian media and, at one stage, shut down the popular Star newspaper, owned by UMNO’s Chinese political affiliate, the Malaysian Chinese Association. A Chinese and Malay language newspaper were also simultaneously shut down.
The former Malaysian prime minister’s complex psychological make-up appears to have impeded him from recognising the tremendous progress made by three prime ministers that preceded him and the likelihood this trend will persist.
If Dr Mahathir had come on the Malaysian scene any sooner, it is unlikely the economy would be as sound as it is today since it might not have been able to withstand the impacts of huge loss-makers such as the government-funded Pewaja steel complex and the likely failure of Proton if it is not able to win a foreign manufacturing ally.
In a sense, Abdullah is picking up some of the pieces, having made a start at turning around massive losses at Malaysia Airlines and by indirectly forcing Proton to face up to the impending competition from within the region and elsewhere.
Another of Dr M’s “think big” projects that is a total shambles is his plan for a multi-billion dollar hydroelectric scheme in Sarawak state on Borneo island, the Bakun project, where millions of hectares of forest have been wiped out for a dam that the government now admits cannot viably provide electricity to Peninsula Malaysia.
The fact that Malaysia – which turns 50 on Aug 31 next year – is one of the developing world’s greatest economic success stories owes itself to steady economic progress since independence in 1957 with the first economic recession only occurring in the mid-80s during Dr M’s period in office. Another such event occurred during the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis.
Malaysia’s first and possibly greatest economic success story was provided by its response to the sectarian Biafran War (1967-70) when Malaysia took over from conflict-ridden Nigeria as the world’s biggest palm oil industry producer.
Since its former British colonial days, it had been the world’s biggest producer of natural rubber and tin, but palm oil suggested to the national psyche that the country could take on immense challenges and succeed.
At the heart of this success was a rapid rural transformation engineered by the founding prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and his development-oriented deputy and successor, Tun Abdul Razak.
Tun Razak was fairly austere, highly disciplined and somewhat severe-looking, in sharp contrast to the happy-go-lucky and aristocratic Tunku.
Unlike the “think big” goals of Dr Mahathir, Tun Razak worked on simple goals where the long term impacts were just as dramatic.
When the late Tun visited small remote villages, he admonished bureaucrats: “I do not mind if you make mistakes just as long as the job gets done.”
Under his efforts, Malaysia turned massive forest areas into vast rural development enclaves that the World Bank applauded as the best in the world even though capital intensity was high.
Under these integrated schemes, each family owned a plot of rubber or oil palm and grew crops for their own use, while availing themselves to education, health and
other government-built facilities. Eventually they had to repay the government.
Malaysia’s role as a large producer of semi-conductors began in the late 1960s but it was during Dr Mahathir’s term that this and other related sectors enabled industry to overtake agriculture as the biggest contributor to gross domestic product.
The combative nature of Dr Mahathir was present even when he was aspiring for leadership of the Malay ruling party.
His maverick streak first showed itself in 1969 when he attacked the then prime minister, the Tunku, in an “open letter”, of being the cause of the nation’s worst ever racial riots in May that year.
He blamed the Tunku’s closeness to Chinese business leaders and concessions granted to the Chinese community rather than the turmoil caused by a highly ethnically divisive national election campaign and outcome.
As a result, Dr Mahathir was expelled from UMNO but began a rapid rise to the top after Tun Razak appointed him a senator in 1973.
Ironically, he now finds himself in a position to take on another prime minister – one he anointed and now denounces.
This time, he may find himself a tougher opponent in Abdullah, who, of late, appears to show some impatience against the sniping from his predecessor.
In fact, after their recent private meeting, Abdullah has come out making counter-charges.
No end is in sight to this confrontation and the sparks will continue to fly in Malaysian politics.