Mahathir: Renaissance man

The word “karma” is on the lips of many Malaysians, at least those who have some idea about what the Sanskrit term means and who need to explain to themselves what has just taken place in their country.

Wikimedia Commons

The use of that resonant word is best understood through observation of the recent fates of Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim—the once almighty prime minister and icon of the Third World and his deputy whom he cruelly dismissed and jailed. Two men whose fates are connected the way that few are.

When the 92-year-old Mahathir, the past and present prime minister of Malaysia, decided to return to politics ostensibly to correct the mistakes he had made during his 22 years as leader of the country (1981–2003), onlookers nodded knowingly. The man had had the fortune to live long enough to baulk at the enduring effects of his wrongs. Whether that was good or bad fortune depended on what he intended to do about it.

“Karma’s a bitch” was a casual but cutting phrase going around, one that summed up nicely Mahathir’s ethical dilemma. On 5 September 2016 he had unexpectedly appeared as a member of the viewing public at a court hearing to greet Anwar. It was the first such encounter since the latter’s sacking and subsequent jailing in 1998. That was Mahathir’s first move at reconciliation with his protégé-turned-foe.

Mahathir was putting into play his plan to return to politics, 13 years after his retirement, in order to topple the prime minister Najib Razak. And the opposition fronted by Anwar, once formed to oppose Mahathir himself, was the only force nearly capable enough of pulling off that stunt. What that opposition effectively lacked was strong enough support from the Malay community outside of the urban areas. This Mahathir could provide.

Since his retirement in October 2003 Mahathir had been watching and meddling in the politics of his successors. He appeared to evince greater and greater despair at what he had done during his tenure, when his authoritarian methods undid many of the checks and balances that had been Malaysia’s proud though slowly eroding legacy.

A total of 18 years of hurt and pain separated Mahathir and Anwar when they met in court that day. These two men were once the ‘dream team’ government—when the country enjoyed the status of being one of Asia’s golden geese of economic growth and a beacon for developing nations. Anwar’s Asian Renaissance was published in 1996 to herald the approaching age of Asian economic prowess and moral leadership. That was two years before he was jailed for abuse of power and sodomy, charges always properly seen to be politically motivated.

While neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Thailand saw their regimes fall in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997, Malaysia continued chugging along, its crippled political establishment saved by Mahathir’s insistence on pushing ahead without external help and without institutional reforms, and with its economy falling into deeper and deeper debt. His then nemesis, Anwar, though in prison, came to represent the call for change. And his supporters rallied under the cry of “Reformasi”. 

Despite strong showings by the opposition in the elections of 2008 and 2013, the fortress that is the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (which had ruled the country continuously since independence in 1957) withstood the onslaught of discontent. For good measure, Najib put Anwar back in jail in 2014.

For two decades, then, Malaysia endured an era of suspended transition that threatened to become the new normal—at least until 9 May 2018.

Mahathir formed a new party, and managed to convince Anwar’s supporters in the Pakatan Harapan coalition not only to embrace it but also to make him the coalition’s chairman. The opposition parties knew all too well that it was heading for another failure in the coming elections, and that Mahathir was their only hope. And so Pakatan Harapan went into battle led by Mahathir, their former arch-enemy, with Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, as his deputy, and all under the banner of Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party).

The shocking election results that came in through the night on Wednesday could not have been predicted, except by those who were merely going for the highest possible odds given by bookies. The once all-powerful Barisan Nasional lost power in all but three of the country’s 13 states.

The joining of forces by Mahathir and Anwar had proven successful, and decisively so. Not one to hesitate, especially now when he has much to do and little time in which to do it, Mahathir acted quickly on his promise to get a pardon for Anwar. And so less than a week after he returned as prime minister, Mahathir righted one of the cruellest and significant wrongs that stained his earlier tenure. Anwar will be released to the fresh air of a new Malaysia. 

Mahathir was given the chance to free the man he had once jailed. He now also has the chance to reform Malaysia’s governance and, as he has promised, hand over power to Anwar within two years. 

Not many are given that blessing to correct grave wrongs within one lifetime. A karmic circle has been allowed to close. For the country, the lessons learned from the Asian financial crisis may now be put to good use, and this will have positive repercussions for the rest of the region, if not the world.


Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, Malaysia

May 13, 2018
May 15, 2018