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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.
The Many-Faceted Dictatorship of Mahathir
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
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?