05 April, 2011

Mahathir Mohamad a polarising figure ?

An Unbalanced and Unreliable Memoir
Barry Wain - Straits Times Indonesia | April 05, 2011


Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has always been a polarising figure. He expressed strong views and adopted contentious policies during his 22 years in office - dividing Malaysians into blind believers or instinctive opponents - and he has continued to do so in retirement since 2003.

The publication of his memoirs will only deepen those divisions. Nearly nine years in gestation, A Doctor In The House arrived with a thud: 843 pages - inside hard covers, with a jacket bearing a recent colour photograph of a beaming and youthful-looking author - weighing in at 1.7kg.

In keeping with his theme song, My Way, Tun Dr Mahathir, who will be 86 years old in July, uses the occasion to discuss his life and career entirely on his own terms.

He sees no reason to reassess most of the major political controversies associated with him: among them, the dismissal and prosecution of his deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim; the sacking of Lord President Salleh Abas; and the campaign to oust his hand-picked successor, Tun Abdullah Badawi.

He makes an exception of Operation Lalang, which saw the detention without trial of 119 people amid rising ethnic tensions in 1987.

Yet even while conceding that his government's response was 'excessive', he tries to shift the blame to the police for recommending the crackdown.

Dr Mahathir simply brushes aside or ignores much of the specific criticism directed at him and his ambitious projects over the years, not even bothering to mention some crucial events in which he figured.

A bold leader with big ideas and no time for critics who carp about details, he occasionally peeks in the mirror and recognises reality. Marina, the first born of his seven children, 'turned out to be a lot like me: argumentative, stubborn, opinionated and always believing she is right', he says.

It should also be acknowledged that the book goes some way towards answering one question that has long puzzled political scientists: Why Dr Mahathir, a self-proclaimed 'young Anglophile' at 20, later developed a lifelong, virulent hostility towards British colonialism.

He explains that his political awakening made him realise, 'looking back', that he had been 'brainwashed' to the point where 'I forgot that I was one of the natives', triggering a feeling of humiliation. 'It was then that the decolonisation of my own mind and soul began,' he says.

Dr Mahathir might have been expected to take this opportunity to clear up certain personal issues that have long been the subject of intense gossip and speculation, such as his ethnic origins. Rather, he repeats without comment several stories that circulate about his father's ethnicity and religion.

He then adds: 'I admit that some Indian, or more accurately South Asian, blood flows in my veins, but from which part of the Indian subcontinent my ancestors came I do not know.' Also missing is any admission that Dr Mahathir concealed various important policy initiatives and developments while he led the country.

For example, he verges on the misleading when he writes that 'nothing of significance resulted from' his first visit to the United States in 1984, when he met President Ronald Reagan.

As I revealed in my political biography of Dr Mahathir last year, he approved the innocuous sounding Bilateral Training and Consultation (Bitac) agreement, which was, in fact, a secret security pact. Without informing Malaysians, he threw in his lot with the Americans, agreeing to naval ship visits, ship and aircraft repairs, joint military exercises in Malaysia and close cooperation between the two militaries.

It would also have been fascinating to get an authoritative insider's account of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), whose history has been described by one former minister as 'a mixture of political subtlety and crudeness, ethical practices and greed, fair play and foul... occasionally expressed with sheer ruthlessness'.......more.

(The writer, who is writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, is the author of Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

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