Who is ‘Comeback Kid’ Tun Dr Mahathir Muhammad?

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The “Father of Modernity” is back in Malaysia. The year 2018 witnessed elections that are believed to have changed the fortunes of politics in Malaysia, a former British Colony.

Before we delve into the “surgical treatment” of which Dr. Mahathir applied to Malaysia in his years as Prime Minister, let’s roll out some historical context. Malaysia gained independence in 1957 and has had a relatively smooth developmental journey post-independence in 1957 compared to many other Commonwealth States. Much of this is due to a man who emerged as the most powerful man in Malaysia in 1981, and subsequently Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Muhammad. Mahathir ruled Malaysia from 1981 till 2003 with a hard hand, often targeted of human rights violations by various organisations. But this period also witnessed the transformation of Malaysia from a low-income country to potentially the next member in the club of high-income countries as early as 2020. The success it has enjoyed since then, displayed in the world-famous Petronas Twin Towers, have grown the fascination that is attached to Malaysia by the international community.

Petronas Twin Towers \ Credit: Shiva Kumar Khanal [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Mahathir may have left office in 2003, but his party, United National Malay Organisation (UNMO), in power since independence, remained so. This all changed, however, in this year’s election. Mahathir, this time standing as an opposition candidate, decided that Malaysia must get rid of its ruling coalition, the Barisan National (BN), mainly due to the leadership of PM Najib Razak, and his scandal-ridden premiership. As Mahathir put it, “Malaysia would go to the dogs” if Najib wasn’t ousted. This compelled Mahathir to join hands with opposition figures he himself quashed during his time in power. Investors banked their hopes of stock-market stability on Najib’s re-election, whilst disgruntled Malaysians who were itching to remove the monster of corruption from politics, chose differently.

The infamous 1MDB Scandal, dubbed as the worst case of embezzlement by even the US Department of Justice, has not only caused an uproar among Malaysians since it broke out in 2015 but has shocked many world observers too, due to the sheer scale of public money being involved. It is currently estimated to be at $3.5 billion. Najib continuously denies this and claims that it was a “wedding gift” from the Saudi and Kazakh Royal families. Today, however, he is on trial, barred from leaving the country, and awaiting judgments. A man well known for his lavish and extravagant lifestyle is now having his properties raided by state authorities. Piles of cash, gold, exclusive handbags uncovered in these raids are only beginning to reveal the scale of the 1MDB scandal. This is an incredibly positive move against corruption in South East Asia and may change the culture of corruption in these countries for many years to come, as well as tighten the rule of law. This isn’t a “political vendetta” as Najib calls it, resorting to any silly alibi to exonerate himself, but a step towards stronger institutions and checks-and-balances on political power. Najib will now become an example for many existing and future politicians. The Malaysian public was rightly concerned, as $3.5 billion of lost public money is not an insignificant amount. Other things that displeased them was the hike in General Sales Tax, which rose the prices of general goods across the country, increasing the cost of living.

Credit: Khairil Yusof, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Besides the economic narrative, there is also a social narrative that can’t be ignored either. Sixty years of power by United Malays National Organisation, a Malay nationalist party, led to decades of positive discrimination towards the ethnic Malay majority, creating a culture of political elitism among ethnic Malays. This, rather unsurprisingly, drowned out the voices of ethnic minorities in Malaysia, particularly the large Chinese population. The victory of the opposition coalition for the first time will most likely end this regime of positive discrimination as it is also formed by parties that represent the voices of ethnic minorities.

The importance of this shift in Malaysian politics is profound. Strengthening of institutions and the rule of law is an encouraging development for countries that are eyeing positions among high-income economies. It is the emerging economies like those in South East Asia that will soon command an influential position in the global economy. The hope is that strong democratic institutions need not be a purely Western thing, after all. This is an important revelation, seeing that the influence of the West on the global economy seems to have hit a gradual decline. Maybe the comeback kid is not Mahathir then, as much as it is the much-loved and broad idea of “rule of law” and democracy.

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