Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 06:40 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 06:40 | SYDNEY

What Mahathir has done to Malaysia


Graeme Dobell

4 February 2010 12:20

The new Anwar Ibrahim trial — Sodomy II — is yet another demonstration of how the Mahathir effect permeates Malaysia's polity. In his two decades in power, Dr Mahathir changed every important institution. Not the least of his negative achievements was to subdue Malaysia's judiciary.

To try to understand what is happening in Malaysia today, you must factor in the many ways Mahathir transformed his country. And in seeking that perspective, a detailed new map is on offer. One of the great Australian journalists in Asia in recent decades, Barry Wain, has produced a masterful biography: 'Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in turbulent times'.

To follow the alliteration of its title, Malaysian Maverick is both meticulous and magisterial. This is journalism of the highest order.

Barry Wain was posted to Kuala Lumpur from 1977 to 1979 as staff correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal. Wain went on to be editor of the Journal and had managerial responsibilities for the coverage of Malaysia from 1984 to 1992. He is now writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

As is customary in dealing with Dr M, the book has generated fireworks. It went on sale in Singapore on 4 December and has been in such demand it is in its third reprint. The Singapore sales have been helped by the Malaysian Home Ministry's refusal so far to pronounce the book suitable for sale in Malaysia. The freeze merely means that the Malaysian middle class makes a mental note to pick up a copy of The Maverick any time they are passing through Singapore. The blogosphere is doing the rest.

Dr Mahathir has also boosted interest by attacking the book several times on his personal blog. Dr M's blog is always lively (and notable for his habit of numbering his sentences).

Much of the controversy has been generated by Wain's estimate that Mahathir wasted or lost RM100 billion (US$40 billion at then exchange rates) pursuing his vision to modernise Malaysia. Wain writes that the spectacular financial scandals that exploded with startling regularity would have bankrupted most developing nations. Malaysia's natural resources and expanding economy 'absorbed the shock of much of the dissipated wealth' and the gaps were plugged by exports of oil and gas.

The common thread through all the scandals was that businessmen and officials were all tightly plugged into the ruling party, UMNO: 'Public funds were stolen in various ways, or simply poured into a big black hole in the name of ventures that bordered on the reckless, improbable or criminal.'

Mahathir waved away or hushed up the scandals as he 'sought change on an historical scale'. Mahathir is described as a 'forceful, quirky outsider' who captured the Malaysian political system by being 'harder, faster and smarter.' Unfortunately for Malaysia, Mahathir misused the institutions he captured.

As one example of the Mahathir method, the Prime Minister hushed up a disgraceful episode in 1987 when the then King, the Sultan of Johore, lost his temper on a golf course and attacked his caddy with a club, killing the caddy. The following year, the King had to do Mahathir's bidding when the Prime Minister emasculated Malaysia's judiciary. Mahathir attacked the Supreme Court because of the chance that it would uphold a legal challenge that threatened his control of UMNO.

Mahathir's reign was notable for how he weakened the independence of the judiciary, hit at the traditional rights of the Malay aristocracy and remade UMNO as a political institution. UMNO was transformed from the patriotic party that led the campaign for independence into a powerful patronage machine. Wain quotes the view that UMNO is 'morally exhausted' and 'ideologically hollow', concluding that it has lost its idealism and is rotting from within.

Just as Mahathir personalised control of the party, he sought the same influence over the police, courts and bureaucracy. Wain writes that Mahathir 'emasculated almost all institutions so he would meet no obstruction. He handed them to loyalists, shrank their authority or bypassed them altogether.' The Mahathir era created an official culture that 'rewarded obedience and short-changed integrity.'

One of the sharpest points Wain makes in his concluding pages is that Mahathir failed the goals that he had set himself as leader. 'Judged by is own high-minded rhetoric', Wain judges, 'Mahathir failed Malaysia.'