Going beyond Dr Mahathir’s 1.0 quest for vengeance


Recent statements by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad bring to stark relief how the old guard may keep the country trapped in an unending cycle of adversarial politics.

IN a recent Zoom interview with former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad, Reuters reported this:

The Opposition will reject bills tabled by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration unless there is a vote of no confidence in Parliament first, says his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“If everything he brings to Parliament is rejected, how does he continue?” Dr Mahathir told the Reuters international news agency.

“(Muhyiddin) is going to be in very great trouble. Because whatever chance we have to prove that it is not legitimate for him to be the prime minister, we will do that.”

Dr Mahathir said he would seek to oust Muhyiddin at every turn.

Reading this made me sad.

Since I find context and position summaries useful when I read articles, allow me to provide one here: I’m not here to either deify or demonise Dr Mahathir, and this particular article is not about choosing between Pakatan Harapan or Perikatan Nasional.

I do feel however that Dr Mahathir’s latest statement speaks to some core problems with Malaysian politics.

The most important of these problems concern the oppositional nature of our political system, where everyone is constantly incentivised to prioritise competing against each other, instead of collaborating with one another.

I’ll save that bigger picture stuff for the end of the article, and maybe start with a few more personal observations about Dr Mahathir himself.

His statements in the Reuters interview made me sad because his bitterness shone through fairly clearly.

Dr Mahathir is a man who has been driven by great purpose for most of his life. This kind of drive shapes history. It was present in the likes of Gandhi or Mandela, but also in the likes of Hitler or Stalin.

It is clear that even at 94 years, Mahathir’s fire and fighting spirit burn bright. I am concerned however, at how and where he is aiming his energy.

My dad once told me: you’re not successful until you have a successor.

Dr Mahathir’s relationships with his deputies are the stuff of telenovellas. The long story short is that he has never had one that he’s liked, or got along with, in the long term.

Almost every single person he has handpicked to be the future leader of Malaysia has fallen out with the elder statesman.

This reminds me of another saying, which I shall alter a little for propriety: “If you ran into an ass in the morning, you ran into an ass. If you run into asses all day, you’re the ass.”

It is of course technically possible that it just so happens that every one of Mahathir’s deputies have indeed been the ones at fault. But given that there were some half a dozen deputies or successors in a row who have “failed him”, Occam’s Razor would likely suggest a different interpretation.

Dr Mahathir tends to take these failures as betrayals, and betrayals that he takes very personally at that. You can see in his latest statements that the vendetta he is looking to carry out is deeply personal in nature. It is a vendetta connected to the type of emotions and drive that, again, shape history.

It is also worth pointing out that while Dr Mahathir is going all out against Muhyiddin, he has yet to solve the same problem that brought Pakatan down in the first place – the same problem mentioned above: the question of his successor.

While some of us may have harboured hopes in the early days, I think in a post-Sheraton world, we would be stupid to think that Dr Mahathir would willingly hand over power to PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Once bitten, twice shy.

If Pakatan’s house is not in order, what is the point of fighting Muhyiddin to the death? Dr Mahathir is so intent on defeating Muhyiddin, that he has forgotten that he does not bring any credible alternative to the table.

Malaysians aren’t going to fall for the whole “let’s get rid of Muhyiddin first, and sort the rest out later” line. It ultimately didn’t work against Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and it’s not going to work now either.

Going further and further in an attempt to penetrate Dr Mahathir’s psychology can of course make for juicy gossip, but we should return to how this is connected to bigger problems with our political system.

Is Dr Mahathir’s stated strategy something that is good for the nation? He has basically stated that he will simply fight Muhyiddin at every turn, no matter what Muhyiddin brings to the table.

In some ways, this is not entirely out of character for participants in the Westminster system. Somewhat ironically, Malaysia copied this system wholesale from our former colonial masters that Dr Mahathir is so famous for despising.

In the Westminster system, the opposition’s job is to oppose and to provide checks and balances. It is debatable whether it is the opposition’s job to oppose each and every single initiative by the government. But that is the interpretation that Dr Mahathir seems to now be taking.

The question is: is this good for the country?

I don’t think anyone who looks into what I’ve written over time would mistake me for a big fan of Barisan Nasional, or a supporter of the Sheraton Move and its outcome.

That said, we must apply principles consistently, and not based on who is in power.

As a matter of principle, having an opposition oppose each and every single government initiative – no matter its merits – seems counterproductive at best.

I don’t think Muhyiddin came to power in a good way, but if his government brings a good initiative to the table (a scenario I will personally go so far as to say is not particularly likely to happen often, if at all), should those who have problems with him jump up and down in anger and opposition based on the fact that it was Muhyiddin’s government that proposed it, rather than based on the merits or lack thereof of the initiative itself?

Many politicians and Malaysians have been conditioned to think that this is what should happen.

Now more than ever though, we should take a step back and re-examine this system and culture of politics.

Is it productive? Does it bring together the best elements of Malaysia in a spirit of working together to overcome challenges like Covid-19 that affect each and every Malaysian? Or does this system in fact keep us trapped in endless conflict?

If an initiative is bad, oppose it by all means. But oppose it based on its merits – don’t oppose it out of hand just because of who is proposing it. Focus on principles, not personalities or feudal faultlines.

Netflix recently released a movie trailer of a comic book adaptation, called The Old Guard. It involves a group of soldiers who are almost immortal, and who have lived for centuries.

I think Malaysia can learn a lot from its own old guard, who have made invaluable, nation-defining contributions to the country.

But if this old guard insists on dragging the country through unending version 1.0 political wars, holding us hostage to their feudal disputes, then it falls to us to leave behind those still busy fighting each other, and to find our own version 2.0 path forward.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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