One Man's Obsession

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CHANDRA MUZAFFARHis power pervades. his authority penetrates. his influence permeates. For almost 18 years, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has sought to dominate and control Malaysian society as no other leader has ever done.Although an active and articulate opposition has resisted Mahathir's power for years, the majority of Malaysians until recently had only accolades for his many achievements. He accelerated economic growth through an export-driven industrialization program, raised entrepreneurial skills and improved the work ethic of the populace. He also developed the nation's infrastructure--though some of his mammoth projects, such as the 88-story Petronas Towers (currently the world's tallest), were economically and socially questionable. Moreover, Mahathir has been an outspoken champion of the developing world. His advocacy of a just international financial system to protect emerging economies from the vagaries of volatile equity capital is winning supporters even in the rich countries of the West.
But as Mahathir waxes eloquent on the importance of justice in the global system, his inability to eliminate injustice at home has become increasingly obvious to a discerning minority. As he concentrates more and more power in his hands, the principle of accountability and the right to dissent--cornerstones of democratic governance--have been subordinated to his frenzied pursuit of growth. Indeed, most Malaysians were lulled into a complacency generated by the economic boom of the late '80s and '90s. That helps explain why the financial crisis that hit Southeast Asia in mid-1997 was such a rude awakening. Malaysians began to realize that Mahathir's overwhelming power had spawned a corporate élite whose interests took precedence over the well-being of the people.

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In the end, however, it was a political crisis that revealed to the Malaysian people Mahathir's preoccupation with preserving his power. While few questioned the Prime Minister's right to dismiss his deputy from the Cabinet, what shocked Malaysians, especially the majority Malay community, was the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim from the ruling party. It was seen as an extreme measure that betrayed a certain ruthlessness toward a potential challenger. What incensed people most of all was the beating of Anwar while under police custody. The assault demonstrated to all how horrible the face of power has become in the Mahathir era. And it created considerable antipathy toward the Prime Minister himself, which has heightened in the wake of the severe sentence imposed upon Anwar. Such a crude and cruel expression of power violates fundamental norms in Malay political culture.

Mahathir has transgressed that culture in yet another basic sense. By publicizing--through the media, the courts and political party networks--allegations of sexual misconduct against Anwar, he has tarnished and humiliated his former deputy. Putting a person to shame in this manner runs counter to Malay cultural values. In Malay legend, the ruler is told by his subjects that, however grave their offense, they should not be shamed in public. When a ruler ignores this precept, his subjects cease to be loyal. Because he violated the codes of the community embodied in its political culture, Mahathir's moral legitimacy has weakened considerably among the Malays.
If anything, his power to shape the vital institutions of society--such as the Attorney General's office, the police, the judiciary and the media--in order to eliminate a political adversary has further eroded his credibility. Consequently, these institutions no longer function the way they should. They are all subservient to the dominant will of a single individual. Over the years, the government has amended various laws in order to tighten the government's grip over fundamental liberties; detained the leader of the opposition, members of Parliament and social critics under the Internal Security Act, which denies its victims the right to a trial; eased out newspaper editors, religious élites, academics and public officials; and dismissed three Supreme Court judges, including the head of the judiciary.

Measured by the standards of democratic governance, Mahathir's performance has been disappointing. He has succeeded in perpetuating his power--he is the democratic world's longest-serving ruler--but democratic values and democratic institutions have not grown any stronger or sturdier. In fact, Malaysia is a shackled democracy. This is a tragedy. In the early '60s, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines were the only East Asian countries that practiced some form of democracy. Today, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and even Indonesia have overtaken Malaysia as democratic societies where freedom of expression and popular participation are celebrated as integral to society. Largely because of one man's obsession with power, Malaysia is straggling behind--a stunted nation gazing at the world's tallest building.

Chandra Muzaffar is a political scientist and a vice president of Malaysia's National Justice Party

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