Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Phantom Dictator

Apparently Mahathir claims he was not a dictator during his more than two decades of reign. Now I wonder just how anyone could imagine otherwise. How foolish these observers and critics must be to think Mahathir’s rule in any way resembled a dictatorship.

It may be true that there aren’t too many former dictators or even current ones who would easily and candidly admit being so. After all, it doesn’t bode very well for their image. In fact, you can rest assured that Mahathir’s once close ally across the Indian Ocean in Zimbabwe doesn’t regard himself a dictator. Now here is a man who has been in control since the country was founded, and has systematically suppressed the press, free speech, and a viable opposition in that country, but do you think Mugabe considers himself a dictator? Don’t count on it. Officially, Mugabe has been time and again “elected” by the Zimbabweans to lead the country; much the same way I suppose Mahathir was “elected” time and again here.

As a matter of fact, come to think of it even Saddam Hussein and Ferdinand Marcos were repeatedly, just like Mahathir and Mugabe, “elected” in one election after another in their respective countries. In fact, I recall that in the last election before Saddam’s…shall me say “overthrow,” it was known that he was “re-elected” with 98 percent of the vote! So when you have such leaders who are repeatedly “elected,” how can one claim that these were all dictators? No sir, definitely not. Now maybe Mahathir wasn’t so fortunate as Saddam to have won elections with 98 percent of the vote, but he sure was easily “elected” each time, no?

Also, there were always real constitutional checks and balances such as a legitimately independent judiciary during Mahathir’s rule, no? The judiciary, much like it is now, really stood up to Mahathir’s power and control. And I am sure we all believe that he had no power to affect the independence of the judiciary even when there were judges who seemed to go against his intentions. All that stuff about the dismissal of Lord President Salleh Abas and other judges in 1988 were just the sort of things you would expect to happen in the normal course of any democratic country. They do not in any way reflect on Mahathir’s reign and nor was he a dictator. A “democratically elected” leader clearly had all the constitutional powers to unilaterally dismiss Salleh Abas and castrate the judiciary.

This was all perfectly legitimate and consistent with how democracies and non-dictators not just all over the world but here too tend to act. I have a strong feeling for example that if you ask the “elected” leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea), Kim Jong Il, not only will he agree that he’s also not a dictator, but that like Mahathir, he too is entitled to unilaterally dismiss justices and rearrange the judiciary.

What? You say, dictators don’t really respect the idea of a free press and free speech? Well, now surely you cannot accuse Mahathir of that! During Mahathir’s reign, we had the NST, Star, Utusan, Chinese and Indian newspapers, multiple tv stations, and so on. Ah! I know what some of you are probably thinking. How can government controlled press, which shuts you down in any way be considered “free”? But you see, our journalists who worked for these government-approved media preferred to “freely” not question anything about Mahathir’s regime.

That doesn’t mean it was Mahathir’s fault, right? You see, the “free” mainstream media simply preferred to buat bodoh only. Just as now, the mainstream media journalists are so inept and incompetent that they merely like to report the empty slogans of the government in their newspapers and their broadcasts. I’m sure they will all tell you they were “free,” and still are, to report, investigate and write stories as any self-respecting journalists should do. Although they did not, that had nothing to do with Mahathir’s rule. We can’t blame that on the tone and climate of intimidation and centralisation of power in Mahathir’s rule, can we? Not fair, you know.

Finally, you must understand that the draconian ISA crackdown during Mahathir’s reign is also not really the trait of a dictator-style ruler. Even though arresting and imprisoning people indefinitely without trial is the way Saddam Hussein and Hafez-al-Assad in Syria did things, like Mahathir, they were not dictators. Of course every time Saddam and Assad cracked down on dissidents, they were deemed a threat to the nation and to these “elected” leaders, just like the crackdowns under Mahathir were a threat to our “elected” leader's monopoly on power.

So see? If you just think a little bit, ah, you’ll realise. Even though all the key things that make a government a dictatorship and someone into a dictator were present during Mahathir’s reign, he was not a dictator, you know. Where got dictatorship during Mahathir’s time? Actually, it was very much same as now: very democratic and non-repressive, lar.

G. Krishnan