Legacy issues from Dr Mahathir era

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Most of what Barry Wain, author of Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, has to say about the subject of his controversial biography is frankly critical.

So, the balancing view that Wain, a former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal, gives of the doctor whose presence has towered over the nation for almost half of its existence stands in stark contrast.

Speaking at a public lecture on his book in Kuala Lumpur last Friday, May 28, Wain, now based at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, acknowledged that as a politician, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has few equals. He belongs to that group of leaders, said Wain, whose influence over their young nations has loomed large.

Dr Mahathir invites comparison with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Suharto of Indonesia, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and others who dictated the fate of their people, for better or for worse. In Dr Mahathir’s case, Wain would argue, it was for better and worse.

One trait in Dr Mahathir that is most remarkable, Wain noted, is his ability to divide his life into distinct compartments, a view that Wain confirmed in an interview with Tun Musa Hitam, who was Dr Mahathir’s first deputy. As a result, Musa had told Wain, one could be Dr Mahathir’s friend today, and tomorrow, his enemy.

Despite the impression this creates of a cold, calculative nature, Wain saw an emotional side to Dr Mahathir which he believed to be genuine.

That said, Wain takes issue with many vital aspects of Dr Mahathir’s legacy. He noted that despite Malaysia’s economic success of the past, the fact that the country badly needed to unveil a New Economic Model showed that the old model no longer worked.

The extent of Malaysia’s malaise was hidden amid signs of recovery from the 2008/2009 global economic crisis, said Wain. Although Malaysia was one of the hardest hit in East Asia, the global crisis has largely distracted from Malaysia’s fundamental problems, including in the manufacturing sector.

Wain pointed out that Malaysia’s long-term economic deterioration goes back to the economic crisis that engulfed East Asia in 1997-98. Private investment in Malaysia plummeted then and never recovered. At 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) now, it is among the lowest investment rates in the region. In fact, Malaysians themselves are bailing out of their own economy, contributing to a massive foreign capital outflow for the past several years, he said. This made the domestic economy not only uncompetitive, but stagnant.

So much for the symptoms. In Wain’s analysis, “the state’s intrusive presence in smoothing the road for private companies, vast patronage system associated with affirmative action and a pervasive rentier class” lie at the root of Malaysia’s economic distress. Its other manifestations include a shortage of skilled labour as a result of an ineffective education system. With price control of essential commodities like sugar and fuel, subsidies take up 20% of government operating expenditure, he noted.

“In fact, Malaysia is beset with all sorts of structural problems mainly stemming from Dr Mahathir’s domination of the country and protection of the same coalition partners since independence,” said Wain.

“As the dominant political party, Umno can dispense patronage to well-connected Malaysians. After researching the book, it is obvious to me that Dr Mahathir bears a heavy responsibility for this state of affairs,” he said.

“Although Dr Mahathir did not directly participate in many of the excesses, corruption especially, spread freely and widely, and became entrenched during his watch.

“He may have left the scene nearly seven years ago, but his legacy weighs heavily on the country today. The present is a consequence of the past,” said Wain.

“I don’t mean to create the impression that Dr Mahathir is an unqualified disaster. To meet his obsession to turn Malaysia into a modern, fully developed and respected nation, Dr Mahathir built impressive infrastructure, and lessened Malaysia’s dependence on commodities,” said Wain.

Dr Mahathir sought change on a historical scale, said Wain. He wanted to transform Malaysia into a modern, developed nation, one that could stand tall with others, that would be internationally admired in which the majority Malays could overcome their economic backwardness and play their full part.

Although he had more than two decades at the helm, Dr Mahathir failed to provide for future leadership of Malaysia, and sidelined three men — Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister, Tun Musa Hitam, his first deputy prime minister, and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who would have made capable leaders.

When he finally quit in 2003 and handed the reins over to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, an experienced but bland former civil servant, Abdullah at 63, scarcely represented hope of regeneration for Umno and for Malaysia.

Dr Mahathir almost certainly chose Abdullah thinking that he would be the most grateful and easiest to influence from behind the scenes. That was one of Dr Mahathir’s biggest political mistakes. When Abdullah’s young and ambitious advisers dismantled his predecessor’s legacy, Dr Mahathir turned on Abdullah viciously and drove him from leadership in just over six years, said Wain.

“By and wide, I’m afraid, Malaysia’s prospects are extremely uncertain. I’m not persuaded that (Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) will make the thorough-going reforms that will enable Malaysia to take its place in a highly competitive, globalised world. However, Umno, under his leadership, may still manage to hang on.

“Although I’m optimistic about the long term because of my confidence in Malaysians, I’m rather pessimistic about the prospects for the rest of this decade. Dr Mahathir’s legacy continues to hold Malaysia,” said Wain.