Mahathir, Then And Now: A Writer’s Impressions

Tun Dr Mahathir, 93, is about to walk through the lifts at his office. In my head, and after two hours of anxious sleep, I ponder on the man I first met 20 years ago...
Tuesday 18 June 2019
A year after the historic Malaysian elections, UNRESERVED's Editor-in-Chief speaks to the man who championed change for his country.

In 1998, he had much on his mind. He had sacked his deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim who had challenged his leadership behind the scenes. Malaysia had hosted an APEC meeting and Al Gore, the then Vice President of the US, while attending the dinner and as keynote speaker, proclaimed, “Long live Reformasi” and exited left of stage. Other foreign leaders such as Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State from the US, Joseph Estrada, President of the Philippines, had met with Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife. The two leaders avoided each other during the summit.

Following the failed political manoeuvre, Tun Dr Mahathir rained hell and brimstone on his former deputy, and the word “sodomy” was splashed way too much all over the headlines, to an embarrassing and shameful point.

So the man I met 20 years ago was dealing with party rebellion, a ravaged economy, he was reviled and derided by the international press and foreign political communities, and was most certainly, an Angry Man. And his wrath reverberated as he tried to take control of the economy, the party, foreign policy and indeed the nation. And take control he did. Absolutely. So meeting him in 1998, formidable as he already was, was downright terrifying.

Fast forward to 2019. He has come out of retirement, and became Malaysia’s first prime minister not under the UMNO banner. (Note, even when he was the PM headlining for UMNO, he was the first not to come from an aristocratic lineage, a man who roared out of ordinary circumstances and into the Prime Minister’s office.) He took on the Goliath that was the Barisan Nasional juggernaut and toppled a 61-year-old government. Prior to that, he was a vocal critic of the Badawi and Najib administrations, and his formation of Parti Pribumi Bersatu was seen as a joke rather than any kind of political reality. The palpable humiliation he endured at the abortive “Nothing to Hide” press conference, famous for Najib’s no-show, where Tun Dr Mahathir was “handled” by the police. Ultimately, he trounced them all – critics and non-believers by becoming the world’s oldest prime minister at 93. Like Thanos in The Avengers, he was inevitable for the country at the time.

This time around, I was expecting an intimidating powerhouse, driven some part by anger, some part by ambition for greatness for the nation, instead I found someone who is at peace. The energy he gave off was of a man who had seen everything, and now had much to fix, but also much to appreciate. Wisdom was not necessarily a quality attached to the Mahathir of old. Reactive? Yes. Clever? Yes. Forceful? Yes. Visionary? Yes.

Kass & Tun M (2) - mahathir

Whilst there was vision, industry, confidence and even brilliance, was Tun Dr Mahathir wise then? Not like he is now. But that is the man today. It’s as if the collective experiences he has had – betrayal, disappointment, hunger for change – had brought him to a place where he reacted less, but was more thoughtful of repercussions. And even surrender to the fact that not everyone would agree with him, but there you are, that’s life, was the vibe he emanated. Older and wiser, to repeat the cliché? There has been an evolution. The Mahathir we see today is just as passionate, astute and strategic, but this time he is wrapped up by a strong sense of commitment to make right all that is wrong with the country.

In the interest of full disclosure, this writer’s views often felt at odds with the great Tun M. I left the country in 1999, feeling despondent about Malaysia. As a bumiputra, I was neither poor nor rich and powerful enough to benefit; not that I felt I needed it, but it just wasn’t an advantage for me. Sometimes it worked against me so I left for Hong Kong. The direction of this country, under Tun Dr Mahathir, broke my heart, even my father’s.

As a citizen, even as a journalist, it’s hard not to get personal about politics – every policy, every tax increase, every new law, will affect your way of life. But two things changed my mind about Tun: No amount of gerrymandering could get in the way of democracy as the 2018 elections proved. The people’s tsunami prevailed and the tide was turned. Democracy prevailed in Malaysia.

Malaysia leapt up 22 places in the World Press Freedom Index (our performance has always been dismal), and congratulating our journalists on this news was Tun M on Instagram. The irony for a man famous for his muzzle on the press that prompted Anwar in the 90’s to use “Freedom of the Press” in his battle cry. That muzzle of course was strengthened by Najib under the Fake News Act (still yet to be repealed, though mooted in Parliament, but was ultimately rejected by the Dewan Negara – mainly UMNO some say, although the prime minister has commented recently that he is determined to abolish it).

I say this, because over time, and in watching events unfold in the last two years, whatever cynicism I had (actually still have) has been diminished by these two factors. Finally, there was one last factor – hope. And on that fateful day of 9 May 2018, that was what Tun Dr Mahathir gifted to the country.

This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s June 2019 issue from the article PATRIOT ACT: TUN M’S AUDACITY OF HOPE.

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