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MBD: TOI: The Many-Faceted Dictatorship of Mahathir
By Harvey Stockwin

7/11/2001 2:29 am Wed

[Sempena kemunculan Anwar bulan November ini, kita terbitkan beberapa Siri Paper Lama. Mahathir sebenarnya sudah keresahan sekarang ini kerana reformasi tidak mati-mati walaupun sudah ditetak beberapa kali dan ekonomi semakin melumpuh walaupun sudah disuntik ubat yang mahalnya pasti. Sekarang tiga sektor penting - elektronik, pelancungan, dan minyak kelapa sawit sudahpun tergugat akibat perang. Perang menyebabkan kos penghantaran semakin meningkat dan jika ini dicampur dengan kawalan matawang sudah tentu barangan Malaysia tidak akan kompetetif. Tidak hairanlah banyak kilang gulung tikar dan pelabur berduyun-duyun keluar menuju ke negara China.

Kerajaan mahu rakyat berbelanja - jika tidak lebih banyak lagi kilang akan lenyap dari mata. Malangnya Mahathir sudahpun terlambat dan banyak wang negara sudahpun 'terguna'.... oleh itu duit rakyatlah yang 'terkena'.
- Editor

Times of India

The Many-Faceted Dictatorship of Mahathir

Harvey Stockwin

The overall crisis is painted merely as Mahathir versus Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy Prime Minister, when it is altogether far more serious than that. Anwar's dismissal, arrest and prison mistreatment are, of course, are symptoms of what ails Malaysia. But Anwar has also been a key element in the disease that now afflicts the country.

For far too long Anwar made his peace and sought to benefit from Mahathir's dictatorial ways. Anwar belatedly adopted the slogan ``Reformasi'' only when Mahathir moved against him, thus leaving himself open to the charge of opportunism. But the need for Malaysian reform, especially political reform, has long been obvious and has, indeed, become urgent. Anwar was so part of the Mahathir system that he did not espouse reform much earlier hoping maybe that there would be time enough to rectify matters when an orderly succession eventually made him prime minister.

If the Malaysian situation is to be personalized, then it should be done in terms of Mahathir versus the older generation of leaders. Former prime ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, and Tun Hussein Onn, former deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail and former finance minister Tun Tan Siew Sin together handed over a Malaysia which was significantly more tolerant a society than Singapore, a modestly free society, an open economy, with a less controlled media than Singapore's, unpretentious politics and -- a rarity in the post- colonial Afro-Asian world -- a polity wherein political succession was agreed in advance of any such change becoming necessary.

Mahathir, had he been a true modernizer, could have taken all these trends and improved upon them. In reality, given his dictatorial bent, he has made all of them worse. Far from abandoning the Internal Security Act which allows for arrest without warrant and detention without trial, Mahathir has used it more often against his political foes than his predecessors ever did. Far from expanding freedom of expression and press, he has diminished both.

His excessive political dominance and press control increasingly make elections meaningless. The older generation of Malaysian leaders feared the direction the country would take under Mahathir. Hussein Onn (Mahathir's predecessor as prime minister) never ceased to wonder if he had done the right thing in appointing Mahathir as his deputy. At the time he saw greater danger in abandoning the unwritten rules of succession which had been followed since independence.

If the older leaders were apprehensive, the younger generation of politicians --particularly in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) --appear to be seduced by the fast development of money politics, as well as of the economy, and have been less clear- sighted. The net result is that Mahathir's dictatorship could turn out to be much more firmly rooted than its Asian predecessors.

Thus Filipinos initially did a good job, lamentably, of trying to forget their democratic habits when Marcos imposed martial law in 1971. Yet even at the height of his authoritarian powers, Marcos could never impose the political and mental uniformity which Mahathir is apparently now able to command. Indonesians reached great and sustained levels of sycophancy in trying to keep Suharto in power over the last 32 years.

Yet, even at the height of his authoritarian powers, Suharto could never expect the Indonesian press to be as completely docile as the Malaysian press has now become. When the Marcos regime went one step too far -- and assassinated Ninoy Aquino -- there was no lack of Filipino leaders willing to confront the dictatorship. When the Suharto regime finally went one step too far and prolonged itself in power and corruption once too often, there were a few former supporters who turned against him. Contrast this with what is happening in Malaysia today.

Perhaps Malaysian politicians fear that Mahathir may use the Internal Security Act against them. Perhaps they now believe what they read in the Mahathir-controlled press. Perhaps they are intellectually intimidated by the pro-Mahathir think-tanks which rationalize his every move. Whatever the reason, not a single major UMNO figure utters any dissent as Mahathir moves one step too far, blatantly using the supine press to defame his dismissed deputy, and to condemn him in advance of any trial.

Similarly, there are no rumblings within the ruling party when Mahathir imposes capital controls and seeks Malaysian secession from the ebbs and flows of the globalization process. It all suggests the sad, and even terrifying prospect that Mahathir has succeeded, much more than Marcos or Suharto ever did, in creating the sycophantic state wherein personal dictatorship can so easily grow and flourish.

The last time this correspondent met Tun Tan Siew Sin, the former Malaysian finance minister, who had first instituted Malaysia's adherence to market forces, he bemoaned Mahathir's rise to power because he was ``a dictator who will do untold harm to this country.''

``In the last election he fought before he died, the late lamented Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's beloved first Prime Minister, fought alongside the opposition he had long disdained in order to end what he saw as the Mahathir dictatorship.''

Like all dictators, Mahathir will not go quietly or quickly. Southeast Asia's economic crisis continues because he has come to believe in his own infallibility, and because no one has talked back to him for far too long. The (crisis) will not end unless Malaysia's younger leaders gather together the inner strength to tell Mahathir bluntly and forcefully that it is time to depart. Belatedly Anwar tried to talk back --but Mahathir forced him out rather than the reverse. So one can only wonder --will Mahathir succeed where Marcos and Suharto failed?