One of the hallmarks of a vibrant and thriving democracy is the presence of healthy debates and exchange of ideas and perspective from groups and individuals, especially of varying philosophies.
It would be an understatement indeed to say that for 22 years Mahathir was someone who showed no tolerance and respect for dissenting voices, whether within his government or otherwise. Indeed, his approach to governing essentially boiled down to, in my view, three basic rules: First, manufacture a sense of insecurity among Malays about the other races so that you can 'divide and conquer.' Clearly, his former colonial rulers were masters of this craft and Mahathir seems to really understand how to work this method. Second, don't tolerate dissent: 'it's my way or the highway.' Third, if there is dissent, it will be cast aside at just about any cost.
I suggest to you that if you look back to any national episode in his 22 years of rule, his modus operandi can be summed up by the above three rules of thumb. Of course in 1969, we got a preview of what was to come. Back then when the country found itself at a political crossroads, Mahathir took it upon himself, to some extent, to play king-maker. As the social cauldron got stirred into a frenzy, we found ourselves as a nation at odds – and in conflict – with each other. The opportunists undermined our nationhood in part by manufacturing and then exploiting some of our insecurities about each other. Especially critical back then was the fact that we heard, not unlike today, warnings about 'unrest' and 'political turmoil' because of so-called 'extremists' among various quarters are making 'unreasonable' demands on the government. [Note: here's an example of the 'divide and conquer' rule at play.] Out of this episode was born the Malaysia that, as prime minister, Mahathir nurtured and championed: a Malaysia in which we were reminded by the UMNO elite, at every turn, that non-Malays should 'know their place' and not question the new status quo of privileging Malays. [Note that this message was often delivered, to put it mildly, as a kind of admonishment to non-Malays and served as a seemingly populist rhetoric for ordinary (non-elite) Malays to consume. Indeed, contrary to the NEP agenda, the UMNO elitist deliberately set up the Malay agenda as a zero-sum game between Malay and non-Malay progress.
No doubt, while the post-1969 UMNO elite did exploit the situation to create a new political arrangement, non-Malays consented to the need for social reform and the uplifting of our brethren who were economically disadvantaged. So, it should be realized that there was a reservoir of goodwill and realisation among non-Malays that served to advance the NEP agenda. And this is a critical point: despite [not because of] the animosity that was manufactured in 1969, we were able to come together, to transcend our differences and consent to work to build a common destiny. But the UMNO elite always played the 'race-card' to manufacture a false division and elected to 'remind' non-Malays to steer clear of, and 'not to trample' on Malay rights. In other words, the UMNO elite chose to legitimate themselves as the standard bearers of and 'natural protectors' of Malay rights! What was lost in this UMNO - and subsequently Mahathir's – rhetoric was the fact that Malaysians of ALL racial groups- and by mutual consent - had decided to move forward…beyond 1969.
But Mahathir's formula of 'divide and conquer' dictated that the way to affirm Malay progress was to repeatedly remind the average Malay that the threat to his/her future came from the non-Malays. [But notice PAS, with all its emphasis on a Malay-Muslim agenda, did not advance itself on the 'divide and conquer' formula.] And the best way for Mahathir to manufacture the zero-sum message was to frequently 'remind' non-Malays to know their place in the pecking order. [Of course, by having set the tone for others in UMNO to follow suit, the performances and 'keris waving' at UMNO general assemblies were part of this theatrics.] Mind you, over time, even the non-Malay component parties in BN began to see themselves as subservient; this was self-evident in their lack of a backbone and in their demeanour. But why would the component parties in BN care about it? The bottom line was the elite in MIC, MCA and Gerakan were themselves rewarded out of this newly emerging culture of Ketuanan UMNO. Mahathir simply perfected this 'divide and conquer' practice. (Needless to say, with the acquiescence of the component party elite who were riding the Mahathir 'gravy train.'] Hence, so long as this 'divide and conquer' formula worked, there was no need for much else.
Well, we know all about the second and third rules of Mahathir's method. Dissent anywhere was not acceptable. And when challenged, he deployed any means at his disposal. Nobody could step out of line, and if anyone did, the supremo was quick to deploy all weapons at his disposal – even to the point of compromising the well-being of the country - to get others to walk lock-step with him. We saw this most vividly with Operation Lallang, in his response to Ku Li's challenge of the UMNO presidency, and the Anwar episode respectively. In each instance, it was 'my way or the highway.' Dissent? How dare they challenge his supremacy?
Since leaving office, we all know how bent-out-of-shape he has gotten that Badawi has in fact marched to his own drummer and not to Mahathir's tune. The latter's response? 'Well, how dare Badawi!' And, as we all know, our former premier has been preoccupied with undermining Badawi – but with no success, thus far anyway, at toppling him. Well, fast-forward to March 9, 2008 and Mahathir's mission of deposing Badawi was resuscitated. Sticking to his tested practice of 'by any means necessary,' he has stooped, once again, to using the 'race-card' as a means to get his way – this time, to end Badawi's tenure as prime minister.
For someone who has arrested and imprisoned others for apparent 'race-baiting' and presumably promoting 'instability,' it is ironic and disgusting that this person's whole career has in fact centred on precisely such practices. And now, he is at it again; whipping up fear – by manufacturing a zero-sum scenario for Malays by posturing that, for example, Hindraf's grievances threaten Malay progress; just like he did in the past with Siqui [remember that episode?]. But nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, this ploy is necessary for him as a way of frightening the UMNO base and destabilizing UMNO and the country, only to get back at Badawi. Further, using the outcome of the general elections to argue that Malay progress and interests are being threatened and undermined – and Badawi is the root of this problem - Mahathir is again trying to sell us, but especially the UMNO base, the same snake-oil he's peddled for years. Here's another irony for you: During his years as PM, no private citizen would have been able to get away with spewing the kind of venom and poison as he's been doing of late. This alone speaks volumes of the kind of 'democracy' he practiced as PM. Indeed, for many he truly belongs among the legends – the Mugabes and the Marcoses of the world: the legends of dictatorships. There was no legitimate exchange of ideas and debate permitted in those 22 years. There was nothing resembling a free press, nor was there free speech to be had.
But the more open climate of exchange of ideas now – in a post-Mahathir Malaysia – is precisely what will save us from the snake-oil he continues to peddle. For we Malaysians - yes, Malays, Chinese, Indian, and all others from whatever faith who want to transcend the politics of 'divide and conquer' and who do care about building one united Malaysia – are more discerning than he gives us credit for. That's precisely why he could not accept dissent or openness. Yet, the new Malaysia affords him this very basic democratic right he denied the country.
And that's the beauty of a more open system; it allows for flawed prognosis like his to be expressed; it even can take fear-mongering like the kind he's now again offering up, but we the people – Malays and non-Malays alike know a flawed remedy when we see one. And by golly, is his remedy ever so flawed.