80 Minutes with Dr M

I’d spent the weeks leading up to Malaysia’s 9 May election editing stories for New Naratif. Through the pieces filed by Malaysian journalists and artists, I examined the amazing staying power of Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (now the deputy prime minister), admired the grassroots effort ploughed into making sure that voters #PulangMengundi, and had a little glimpse of the ceremah atmosphere

None of that helped me predict the result.

Suddenly, the coalition that had ruled Malaysia for over six decades was out; a new coalition was in. But that wasn’t all: Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who’d been Malaysia’s premier from 1981 to 2003, was prime minister again at the age of 92.

Whut.

 

From my viewpoint across the Causeway, I’d been fascinated by the narrative around Mahathir during the election: a nonagenarian returned to the frontlines of political battle, going head-to-head with a former protege to rescue Malaysia from the clutches of corruption and greed. Once described as a dictator and an authoritarian, Mahathir suddenly became the face of Malaysia’s democratic struggle. (And also an impressive troll.)

I’d read about the #UndiRosak social media campaign, which called on Malaysians to spoil their votes to protest the lack of meaningful political change. I could kind of see their point. I’ve heard Mahathir described as “Melayu Lee Kuan Yew” more than once; as a young Singaporean heavily invested in my country’s politics, how would I have felt if Singapore’s opposition parties had embraced the man who had eroded press freedoms, cracked down on civil society and fostered the climate of fear that we’re still struggling to escape today? Would I have seen it as necessary political strategy, or a compromise of core principles? Would I have supported a Lee Kuan Yew-led coalition, or boycotted it to fight for something truly different? Or would that have just been a naive wish for purity in politics?

I hadn’t arrived at an answer by the time 9 May rolled around, or even by the time Mahathir was sworn in as prime minister for the second time. I hoped that this rare opportunity to observe the man up close would help me figure it out—I wanted to find out, if I could, if this was really a new Mahathir for a new Malaysia.

 

Our meeting was scheduled for 4pm on 30 August; we were told we’d have 40 minutes. We met at the Perdana Leadership Foundation, an organisation set up to, among other things, be a “premier resource centre for the policies, strategies and initiatives adopted under Malaysia's various Prime Ministers which may be used and adapted by other developing nations.” Portraits and photos of previous Malaysian prime ministers hung around the spacious lobby. (No Najib, though.)

 Portraits of former Malaysian PMs at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.

Portraits of former Malaysian PMs at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.

We ended up going in a little late, but staying for a lot longer. We’d been told that it would be “free for all”—the prime minister was prepared to field our questions. We sat in the reception area of his huge office, but the mood was fairly relaxed. He spoke openly; the conversation meandered from Malaysia-Singapore relations and immigration processing times at the Causeway to democracy, political reform, human rights and LGBT equality.

None of the positions Mahathir took came as a surprise; I’d say most, if not all, of them have been a matter of public record for years. Still, I was taken aback to hear the race essentialism in person: comments about how the Chinese work hard while the Malays have “the wrong values” and “are inclined to be laid back so they don’t succeed”. No amount of questioning—pointing to political culture and corruption, or to the legacy of colonialism—would sway him from a long-held thesis.

Since Pakatan Harapan came to power, there’s been encouraging developments on the civil liberties front. The Anti-Fake News Act has been repealed, and other oppressive laws are being reviewed. It’s as if members of the Malaysian mainstream media have found a new lease of life. Activists who have fought for years against corruption and for human rights now find themselves in a position to directly affect policy. At a time when democracy appears to be under assault in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has emerged as a beacon of hope for the region, a symbol that reassures human rights defenders that all is not lost.

(For Singaporeans, Malaysia’s regime change has an added significance. As 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the People’s Action Party coming to power on the island, some opposition-voting Singaporeans are longing for a little of Malaysia’s tsunami rakyat to splash onto our shores come election time.)

But not everything about Malaysia Baharu is progressive. LGBT rights, for example, has been in the spotlight recently as activists’ portraits were removed from the George Town Festival and a lesbian couple was sentenced to caning (which has thankfully been postponed, but shouldn’t be happening at all) in Terengganu.

Just today, Wan Azizah said it was haram for Muslims to support the LGBT community. Although Marina Mahathir has hit back at the comment, Mahathir himself told us that “Muslims would be offended if we accept these [LGBT] values” as the talk of LGBT rights pushes against the beliefs of the majority. 

“A man kissing a man looks so odd!” he exclaimed at one point.

If this is the stance of those in the highest positions of power, the struggle for LGBT equality in Malaysia still has a long way to go—not that Malaysian activists need me to tell them.

 

I came out of the meeting with few answers but a little more clarity. Although he’s been talked up as a champion for democracy in Malaysia—don’t we all love a clear-cut narrative—there are many ways in which Mahathir hasn’t changed. He’s still got his problematic views and stubborn positions, his own way of seeing things. 

(“I should hope during my time, it wasn’t too harsh,” he said at one point in our meeting, while on the subject of human rights like freedom of speech. Later, he pointed to activist Hishamuddin Rais, who had been arrested and jailed under the Internal Security Act, and joked, “He was my former enemy.” Isham was the one who organised this meet—another example of the mind-bending twists in Malaysian politics.)

 Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad with Tan Wah Piow, a former Singaporean student activist living in exile in London.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad with Tan Wah Piow, a former Singaporean student activist living in exile in London.

But there is change in this Malaysia. For the first time, an opposition Member of Parliament has been appointed to head the Public Accounts Committee, and there have been moves towards greater separation of powers

“I as PM have become a victim of my own policy,” Mahathir joked, referring to the manifesto promises Pakatan Harapan had made about reform and democratisation before their unexpected victory.

Herein lies the power and potential of this new Malaysia; the shift that gives me, a journalist and activist working in the country next door, some hope and inspiration. Regardless of one man’s opinions, the people of Malaysia have moved the needle. There were expectations and demands, built on years of political education and civil society struggle, that political parties felt they had to appeal to—now they have to be made to live up to their promises. Savvy politicians like Mahathir (and he is a brilliant politician) are well aware of how the wind is blowing.

 

It’s not for me to tell Malaysians what to do; if anything, I should be the one getting advice from my Malaysian activist friends on outreach, education, and organising. My meeting with Mahathir—which I attended out of curiosity and sheer kaypoh-ness—didn’t result in any earth-shattering revelations or heart-stopping epiphanies. All it did was reinforce in my mind that we can’t rely on any one individual to “rescue democracy” or bring lasting, meaningful reform to a country. Democracy isn’t a commodity that can be acquired; it’s an ongoing project, an aspiration that all of us need to fight for, over and over again.

Kirsten Han