With the continuing controversy of his confrontation with Najib Tun Razak, the man he anointed in 2009 to take over as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad may be learning a political lesson. As Samuel T. Rayburn, the late Speaker of the US House of Representatives, once said, “What goes around comes around.”
Since he started his campaign to push out Najib, it appears that Mahathir, whether he would admit it or not, is learning that an independent judiciary, a free press and limits on police power might not be such bad ideas – ideas that largely eluded him during his reign as prime minister, which ended in 2003.
Today, he has become nearly the lone establishment figure in the country echoing the opposition in standing up publicly to denounce apparent misfeasance in the financial doings of 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the controversial state investment fund that was Najib’s brainchild. He is the only establishment politician to call attention to the folly of implementing 7th century Islamic religious law in the eastern state of Kelantan and to give voice to fears that it could be extended across the country.
He has also sent shock waves by standing alone to raise the question of who was responsible for the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a young Mongolian woman who was killed in 2006 by two of Najib’s bodyguards. Although the two were to be paid for their crime, the courts carefully steered clear of attempting to find out who was going to pay them.
Previous requests by Asia Sentinel to interview Mahathir about several of these issues have been turned down.
“Whether you like it or not, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is our nation’s conscience,” a young Malay lawyer told Asia Sentinel. “After 22 years as PM, now at an advanced age he deserves to rest and be respected for his enduring contribution. It is for ordinary UMNO members such as myself and millions of decent hardworking Malaysians that he speaks up. We continuously pull him out of retirement with our complaints about the future of this country.”
It is questionable, however, how what Mahathir can accomplish. “People are quite tired of him,” said Rita Sim, co-founder of the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Strategic Engagement think-tank. “I guess different cultures look at him differently, he’s a father giving a lecture. People are not interested in what he’s saying, he’s the old guard, I don’t think he’s getting much traction.”
Others disagree, saying his campaign to unseat Najib is what has forced an artificial groundswell of support from UMNO cadres and UMNO Youth over recent weeks. It was Mahathir’s criticisms of both the handling of the Altantuya murder and the 1MDB fiasco that forced Najib into an April 9 television interview in which he gave what were considered unsatisfactory answers to puffball questions, which have opened the premier to additional questions.
The fact is that the criticism forced Najib to go on national TV to answer questions instead of seeing them buried on independent media, which exist only on the Internet and don't reach the UMNO heartland, said Ambiga Sreenavasan, a prominent opposition figure and former head of the Malaysian Bar Council.
Some of what Mahathir faces is his own chickens coming home to roost. It was his drive to create an ethnic Malay business class that spawned the apparent corruption that now has a stranglehold on UMNO.
In 22 years as prime minister, Mahathir ran a strict administration. In October of 1987, at his order, the national police, in an action called Operation Lalang—“weeding operation”— arrested 106 persons, ostensibly to prevent the recurrence of race riots but derided by critics as a move to paralyze a strengthening opposition. The list included some of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists and scientists and involved the revocation of the publishing licenses of The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh, the two leading dailies catering to the Chinese, and two weeklies.
The Mahathir regime’s control of the press was absolute. The entire mainstream media – television, radio and newspapers – was and still is owned by the ruling political parties, although he did guarantee that the Internet would remain free, perhaps unwittingly generating the most significant outlets for criticism of the government including his own blog.
In 1986, fed up with critical reporting in the Asian Wall Street Journal that exposed his unsuccessful attempts to corner the world tin market, his crony and finance minister Daim Zainuddin’s behind-the-scenes moves to take over a private bank, and exposed vast nonperforming loans to UMNO politicians by the Cooperative Central Bank, he ordered the expulsion of the newspaper’s two correspondents – who were reinstated by the Supreme Court. The court’s defiance is considered to have played a role in Mahathir’s decision to fire Chief Justice Salleh Abbas and two other court members.
In recent days, however, he has expressed reservations over a police state and attacks on the press, holding a 90-minute session with bloggers including those who disagreed with him to say that he had misgivings about the arrest of five journalists from The Edge newspaper and Malaysian Insider website for allegedly misreporting the proceedings of a meeting of the country’s conference of leaders – the sultans – on the issue of hudud, or Islamic penal law.
“When I heard of the arrests of these reporters for saying... something so-called seditious... I don’t think that is the right way to use your power,” he said. “Of course, you can say it is not [Najib], it is the police, but we don’t want to become a police state.”
And in an atmosphere where more than 150 people have been arrested on charges of sedition, last week Mahathir himself was threatened with being brought in for questioning over postings on his blog, chedet.com. UMNO cadres have lodged police reports against the former premier for calling for Najib’s resignation over the 1MDB mismanagement.
How much of this does Mahathir owe to his own actions? When an independent judiciary ruled against him repeatedly in the 1980s, he responded by reassigning several High Court judges to different divisions and, with the sacking of the supreme court members, ending judicial independence in Malaysia. The country has suffered from a politically aligned judiciary ever since.
It has been said that civil rights and freedom of the press are like the rain on the plain in Spain. A little must fall on everybody. As he has watched critical reporters being carted away, and as he himself has come under police surveillance for his attacks on the prime minister, the methods he once used against the opposition are now used to shut up critical reporting, hamstring the judiciary and deny him a major public voice, ironically meaning the Internet is where his voice now must be heard.