By Farish A Noor, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
What goes around comes around: The narrative of the lives of politicians are often the same, sharing similar structural features that can be read like the predictable text of a story book. More often than not they come to power promising a wave of reforms, but soon enough discoverâ€”as if by shockâ€”that democracy is more complicated when one has to work within its parameters and that a healthy opposition can also be a stubling block to oneâ€™s ambitions. The sad fate of so many politicians in Asia is that they begin with such promise and end up reneging on all of them. Even more ironic is the final chapter of their lives when the sins and mistakes of the past come to haunt them, and the final dish of humble pie is the only plate left on the table.
In Southeast Asia today we see many such cases: Thailands Thaksin Shinawatra came to power promising economic reforms and the strengthening of his country, only to be kicked out of office by the same tide of peoples power that brought him in in the first place. The Philippines Ferdinand Marcos came to power as a fervent nationalist, only to end up being flown out of his palace at Malacanyang on the back of an american helicopter. Indonesias Soeharto hailed himself as the builder of his nation but upon his political demise in 1998 left behind a country divided and bankrupt. The once powerful strongman of ASEAN is now sickly and weak, slowing pining away with internal bleeding and unable to string a sentence together.
In Malaysia we have the sorry tale of Mahathir Mohamad, who was seen by millions as the saviour of the nation when he came to power in 1981. It is undeniable that he was then the most popular leader in Malaysia, the darling blue eyed boy of the rising Malay middle classes who wanted to break into the corridors of power and seize the state from the clammy clutches of an antiquated aristocratic elite. In this respect at least Mahathir had succeeded, and his rise to power marked the opening of the rise of the self-made Malays who apparently had broken from their feudal past.
Two decades on however the Mahathir years have come under closer scrutiny and are being questioned by many. During the first few years of his rule Mahathir was seen as the great reformer, the innovator and even the democrat. Mahathirs experiment with democracy led to the opening up of the press and the emergence of a civil society culture that was at least fairly autonomous from the state.
But Mahathir, like many of his peers in the region, soon came to feel that democracy was more a hindrance rather than an asset, and the predictable round of u-turns and volte-faces soon followed. Following the political crisis of 1987 which nearly led to race riots in the country, Malaysiaâ€™s brief flirtation with democracy came to an end. The police crackdown of 1987 led to the arrest of more than a hundred politicans, intellectuals, activists and members of the lay public, as well as the closure of newspapers. Since than Malaysia was in the hands of a singular individual whose control of the executive wing of government was near total.
Following the economic crisis of 1997-98, Malaysias economic bubble burst and the economic miracle was shown to be nothing more than a febrile tissue of lies. The Malaysian economy, like that of Thailand and Indonesias, was built on foreign investment and indiscriminate credit expansion fuelled more by idle spectulation rather than real concrete developments. The myth had died, but it was Mahathir who took the blame: After all, after taking so much credit for everything that went right in the 1980s and 1990s, it was only fair that he would be blamed for the failures as well.
Following his resignation in 2003, Mahathir bowed out of the picture and many analysts were truly amazed by the mans objective distance from politics. He was no Lee Kuan Yew, whose presence was keenly felt in the corridors of power in singapore. Mahathir vowed not to return to politics and to spend his years on the international conference circuit and writing his memoirs instead.
But of late the man seems to have made a comeback when he felt that some of the things he had struggled for so much were being betrayed by the new administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The straw that broke the former Prime Ministers back was the decision of the Malaysian government to scrap the plan for a bridge to Singapore, ostensibly on the grounds that the project was unrealisable and economically unproductive. Mahathirs reaction was blunt and to the point: Singapore has no right to influence Malaysias own development policy.
Now it appears that Mahathir has come back into the fray, but with no voice of his own. Two decades of Mahathirs rule meant that practically all avenues of the media are now under direct or indirect governmental control, and being former Prime Minister does not allow one to have the same access as before. Mahathir is now forced to make his case on the internet of all places, having his unedited letters put on websites once associated with the opposition he himself so vehemently opposed. His interview this week with the on-line Malaysian daily Malaysiakini.com marks the final u-turn that has brought the man back to where he was.
Claiming that there is no press freedom in Malaysia and that he has been denied his right to speak, one can only ask the most obvious of questions: If Malaysia today is less free a country than it was in the 1970s, who was it that curtailed the rights and freedom of speech in the first place, if not Mahathir himself?