Malaysia’s chance for some serious soul-searching

Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times
By Barry Wain.
Palgrave Macmillan; 368 pages;
Review by Liew Chin Tong
Liew Chin Tong is Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera, and author of Speaking for the Reformasi Generation.

Sixty odd years after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad first deliberated on politics as a student and almost three decades after he assumed the office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia in July 1981, the nation is still largely defined by his world views and actions. Barry Wain’s Malaysian Maverick will, for a long time to come, be the best companion for a painful national soul-searching for Malaysia.

This is because it brings together an impressive amount of seldom disputed facts. Faced with them now, seven years after Dr Mahathir retired, most Malaysians will find it hard to ignore their significance: the present is the consequence of the past.

Born into a family whose forebears emigrated from India, the young Mahathir was more or less an outcast where the highly hierarchical British/Malay colonial and feudal society was concerned. Even after becoming a Member of Parliament in 1964, he was an outsider who could not even exert enough authority to have trees planted in the city of Kuala Lumpur. As Deputy Prime Minister in 1976, he had to stand by and watch as close associates were arrested under the Internal Security Act.

But once he became Prime Minister, he left no stone unturned in getting what he wanted. From tampering with the tempo of the national anthem to changing the skyline of KL, and eventually abandoning the old city for Putrajaya, built according to his liking, the changes Dr Mahathir brought to Malaysia were permanent in effect, despite the usual haste in initial implementation and the many controversies surrounding them.

A Singaporean friend of mine once recalled having to attend school before the sun had risen, and I had to tell her it was Dr Mahathir who arbitrarily created a “permanent daylight saving” measure by adjusting the clock faster by an hour for Peninsular Malaysia, which Singapore had to follow for practical reasons. More than just tweaking the clock, the accomplished small-town medical doctor who was never wrong (or, at least so he thought) prescribed so much medication over the years for Malaysia that the nation is still reeling from a multiple overdose.

The nation’s population doubled during his tenure, in no small part because of his peculiar policy to have a “70 million population (by 2100)” to facilitate the economy of scale needed to sustain his beloved heavy industry ventures centred around the production of passenger vehicles. In a similar streak, probably thinking of himself as towards modernisation, but of course in his own special way.

While maintaining an image of being a forward-looking man, he still showed how deeply his early experiences had affected him. He was decidedly anti-West and anticolonial. The Twin Towers and other monumental projects were “good

for the ego” of a developing country. “To be noticed when you are small, sometimes you have to stand on a box,” Dr Mahathir said. With all that going on, foreign relations, especially with the West, were rarely diplomatic. On the other hand, Dr Mahathir’s zeal did put Malaysia on the world map; he won admiration from the Third World, and pragmatic policies made him acceptable to many in the West. While the end, even if questionable, was generally admirable, the means were not. Yet, all too often, the means ended up justifying the end.

Malaysia under Dr Mahathir was a get-rich-quick scheme, as Wain calls it, which has now gone awry. The author provides details of all the known major scandals and concludes that, “based on incomplete public information, rm15 billion was a conservative estimate of Perwaja’s losses. Similarly, Bank Bumiputra dropped at least rm10 billion. Bank Negara’s foreign exchange forays drained perhaps rm23 billion from Malaysia’s reserves. The cost of trying to push up the price of tin seemed paltry by comparison, maybe rm1 billion. The total, rm50 billion or so, could have easily doubled if a professional accounting has been made, factoring in all the

invisibles, from unrecorded writeoffs to blatant embezzlement and opportunity costs.”

Malaysia Boleh, along with Dr Mahathir’s time in power, was like a dream that for a while was uplifting. On hindsight, many would readily say it was a nightmare.

Barry Wain spent two-and-a-half years painstakingly putting together this revealing book. Using smooth journalistic language, he presents a wide range of materials, including interviews with the subject and his immediate family. For those who want a peek into the rollercoaster years under Dr Mahathir and at the same time search for a different future for Malaysia, this is an indispensable guide.

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