Mahathir's Shattered Legacy
Southeast Asia's last outsize leader faces exit from the stage
By: Murray Hunter
After nearly 75 years in public life, the political career of Mahathir Mohamed appears to be drawing to a close at age 96. As he becomes less relevant despite his recent launch of a thinly disguised bid to return to power via a National Recovery Council amid the country’s current fevered political maneuvering, it is time to look at what the last four years, with 20 months as prime minister once again, did for his legacy.
(See related story: Mahathir Seeks Another Path Back to Malaysian Power)
Most acknowledged Mahathir had made mistakes, particularly in allowing endemic corruption and cronyism in an attempt to create a Malay entrepreneurial class, and in the sacking and imprisonment, in what many regarded as a legal farce, of his protégé, Anwar Ibrahim. But most were willing to gloss over his shortcomings, as it was believed his time had passed. Seemingly in his dotage, Mahathir enjoyed almost universal acclaim at public events.
He has always been a controversial figure. His style has always been to crash through, or crash, both outcomes occurring during his career. No other person has influenced the direction and shape of Malaysia, for good or ill. In the mid to late 1990s, there was a prevailing feeling that Malaysia, an Asian Little Tiger, had found its place in the world. The Penang bridge, North-South Highway, a new airport, a Formula One racetrack, and a new administrative capital, Putra Jaya was constructed. Malaysia had a proclaimed if flawed national car, Proton. The KLCC twin towers, then the highest buildings in the world, became the icon of the success story.
Many had expected him in political retirement after his first 22 years in power to move onto the international stage and use his support from non-aligned countries to either run for the Commonwealth or United Nations Secretary-General positions. However, first, he became fixated on what he regarded as the poor performance of his hand-picked successor Badawi, sniping both publicly and behind the scenes to play a major role in Badawi’s political demise.
In 2009, now a kingmaker, Mahathir selected Najib Razak to take over. What he got into the bargain was a polished, soft-spoken crook who with his grasping wife Rosmah Mansor perpetrated an unprecedented raid on the public purse through the sovereign wealth entity 1Malaysia Development Bhd, resulting in the biggest losses through public corruption and mismanagement in the country’s history.
But perhaps Najib’s bigger sin, in Mahathir’s eyes, was to not follow closely enough the dictum of Ketuanan Melayu, the concept of Malay primacy. Najib first hinted that Malaysia should modify the New Economic Policy, the third rail of Malaysian politics, but hastily backed away. After Najib detoured away from Mahathir’s advice too often, the former prime minister turned on him as he had on Badawi.
But, unable to counter Najib’s fountains of cash to keep the United Malays National Organization backbenchers loyal in a party that had dominated politics for 70 years, Mahathir reached out to the opposition, which now was led by his alienated protégé, Anwar. The aim was to topple Najib electorally, with Mahathir and a number of ex-UMNO stalwarts forming the tiny splinter party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and joining his arch-nemesis Pakatan Harapan. Bersatu would become the tail that wagged the Pakatan Harapan dog, on the promise that he would lead the coalition for two years, then step down in favor of Anwar, soon to be liberated from another stint in prison via another rigged trial.
Most at the time saw Mahathir as a repented man set upon righting the wrongs of his past. His promise to become an interim prime minister and hand power over to Anwar was seen as humility, from a changed man. There were very few warnings otherwise from the pundit gallery in Malaysia.
Pakatan Harapan, after Mahathir’s steadfast anti-Najib campaign, unexpectedly won the 2018 election on the promise of fundamental political and governing reform. There was shock and pandemonium. People came onto the streets celebrating an event many saw just as important as Malaya’s independence from Britain back in 1957. Malaysia was once more seen as a land with hope, a new Malaysia.
There were at first some worries that Najib and UMNO wouldn’t hand over power peacefully, and some consternation over the delay in swearing in Mahathir as prime minister. A few days later Anwar was pardoned and released from jail, being seen as a symbolic event confirming it was time for reform.
This set the scene for an exonerated Mahathir to right what was wrong, and reform the country, under what appeared to be a massive electoral mandate.
The Great Betrayal
It soon became apparent, however, that the new administration wouldn’t go along with the promises made before the election. The administration failed on child marriage reform, refused to ratify either the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or the International Criminal Court. It failed to repeal the Sedition Act and the Printing and Presses Act, which forces media companies to renew their licenses yearly.
Mahathir’s hand-picked education minister Maszlee Malik didn’t reform education, but pushed it further into the Islamic paradigm through appointments of IKRAM leaning people to key posts in public universities. The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, which made it illegal for students being politically active in society was never repealed. The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, replacing the notorious ISA, wasn’t abolished but instead used against a number of DAP members.
Mahathir’s appearance at the Malay Dignity Congress in October 2019, standing with other ultra-Malay leaders, and his avoidance of the issue of the handover of power to Anwar, led to great dissatisfaction within Pakatan Harapan. This was leading to the inclination by many, that Mahathir had not changed at all, although the PH leadership did nothing about the situation. The Harapan government’s failure to deal with these issues, along with widespread concern about the economy, blighted its promise.
That all ended in February 2020 when Mahathir first appeared to go along with a cabal of Malay supremacists to form a new government that would deny a role to minority ethnic political parties and enshrine the Ketuanan Melayu doctrine, then backed away and resigned as prime minister without consulting any members of the Pakatan Harapan government he had headed. The result is the “backdoor” government that has paralyzed politics to this day.
The Malaysians who voted for Pakatan Harapan in the 2018 general election hoped for a new Malaysia, equality of all races, equal opportunity in education, the end of race-based politics, the abolition of tolls, the end of cronyism and the disassembly of the kleptocratic state. That all came to an end with Mahthir’s resignation, which handed the government back to the Malay elite in the form of Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, which is struggling to survive. That has led to a feeling of deep betrayal and disappointment. Scorn for Mahathir is still strong among those who voted for PH last election.
Mahathir’s convictions and actions spanning 75 years have been consistent. As a ‘young Turk’ within UMNO in the 1950s, he opposed the non-Malay citizenship of Malaya. In 1972, Mahathir was one of the instigators in the fall of Tunku Abdul Rahman as prime minister, taking away UMNO’s moderate approach to multiculturalism, and giving birth to the New Economic Policy, the ideology behind Ketuanan Melayu.
Together with Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir Islamized the civil service, putting the secular Rukun Negara on the back burner as the nation’s secular guiding principle. Mahathirism has become an ideology that has led to the formation and growth of repressive organizations like the police’s Special Branch and the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia with growing repression even seen within public universities.
Mahathirism has been about maintaining Malay-dominated governance. It has replaced colonialism with kleptocracy that has promoted a neo-feudal society. There is an illusion of racial division within Malaysian society, but what has to be realized is that the real division created by the doctrine of Mahathirism is a three-tier class society – the Malay elite, the wealthy rent-seekers, and the rest.
Mahathir has always portrayed the Malays as lazy, and in need of being protected. This has always been unfair, and an excuse for domination by the ruling class. The imposition of an Arabist version of Islam, and ‘look east’ has implied that the Malay psyche doesn’t have its own virtues and ethics. The very substance of Malay culture itself has been suppressed by Mahathirism.
The prime symbol of Mahathirism is Putra Jaya, the gleaming center of Malaysian government, dominated by Arabist architecture but without a people’s parliament located within it. Mahathir’s legacy is a near totalitarian state, driven by slogans to suppress any semblance of individuality, as individuality is a danger to the status quo.
Mahathir altered the trajectory of UMNO. He moved it from moderation to an extremist position. Mahathir has been responsible for all the party’s splits and splinters. He sent it to the wilderness. At this point, it is difficult to see historians being kind to Mahathir.