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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The ghosts of Mahathirism

Sulaiman Kamal | 1:47 AM | | Best Blogger Tips

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Najib has failed the leadership test in his handling of Bersih 2.0.

Is Mahathirism back with a vengeance?
Recent events do make it seem like the Najib regime has decided to adopt the former prime minister’s authoritarian style in saving its flagging political fortunes. It has resorted to using draconian laws and shameless propaganda in the face of an awakening electorate and increasing exposures of its misdeeds.
The government seems to have ignored the strong signal given by the 2008 election result that Malaysians want more democratic space. And what was Bersih 2.0’s July 9 rally if not a reaffirmation of that demand?
But instead of using the occasion to promote his much-vaunted liberalist image, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak seemed to have done what Dr Mahathir Mohamad would have done—crush them and damn what the world says.

After May 13, 1969, Mahathir ominously proclaimed: “There is not going to be a democracy in Malaysia. There never was and there never will be.” He was speaking then as a critic of the government, but during his 22-year tenure as prime minister, he seemed to have applied himself to ensuring that his prediction would be realised.
Khoo Boo Teik, in his Paradoxes of Mahathirism, wrote: “Certainly Mahathir did not balk at using authoritarian means to restore his control over mass dissent in October 1987. Then he professed to lament the irresponsibility of misfits who had abused his liberalism, not unlike how, after May 13, 1969, he spoke of the immaturity of the people as an obstacle to the full practice of democracy.”
The Mahathir era witnessed the full exploitation of repressive laws, notably the Internal Security Act and the Police Act. The latter law requires police permits for public gatherings. This condition was stringently enforced against opposition groups but ignored for government parties. Things have not changed.
Mahathir’s government amended the Societies Act in 1981 and the Official Secrets Act in 1986 to constrict further the arena of public debate. It also consistently exploited its two-thirds majority in Parliament to make constitutional amendments aimed at strengthening its political position.
Money politics
It was also during the Mahathir era that the Malaysian judiciary lost its independence and respectability. Mahathir tried to keep whittling away at that independence even in the last years of his tenure. In 1999, he was quoted as suggesting that the judiciary needed further reform because judges “tend to favour” the opposition.
The practice of “money politics” deepened its roots during the Mahathirism era. Scholars Graham K Brown, Siti Hawa Ali and Wan Manan Muda wrote in their research paper on Policy Levers in Malaysia: “Initially, under the guise of the 1971 promulgated New Economic Policy, the regime developed a fearsome machinery for dispensing patronage to supporters of the government. This money politics involves both state and private funds the BN parties control between them, a massive corporate empire that operates on the individual, corporate and even state level. The abuse of public funds is often unabashed.”
Another defining feature of Mahathir rule was electoral gerrymandering. A Commonwealth observer group invited to oversee the 1990 general election concluded that the conduct of the elections in the country was free but not fair.
Academician Lim Hong Hai, who conducted research on the delineation of electoral constituencies, said regular constitutional re-delineation exercises carried out by the “nominally independent” elections committees invariably favoured the ruling regime.
In the 1999 general election, the BN regime won more than three quarters of the electoral seats on a popular vote of barely 56%. There were allegations of actual fraud during the election, but these have always been difficult to substantiate with proof.
In October 2003, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Mahathir, inheriting a governing structure and a political system centralised in the hands of the prime minister. But he promised reforms and, largely on the strength of those promises, helped BN win a landslide victory in the 2004 general election.
But the ghosts of Mahathirism got the better of Abdullah. Vested interests in BN, particularly Umno, prevented him from delivering on those promises. And so he met his Waterloo in 2008.

Leadership blunders
Will Najib repeat the same mistakes? Before Bersih 2.0, many used to argue that Najib, born a snake according to the Chinese horoscope, was unlikely to commit the same leadership blunders, despite the limited success of his 1Malaysia campaign and widespread criticism surrounding his “transformation from within” rhetoric.
However, his handling of the Bersih issue has changed that perception somewhat. In the age of the social media, it is indeed a major mistake to resurrect the ghosts of Mahathirism, which thrived on government propaganda aimed at an electorate that had little access to alternative information.
The glossary of words used in Internet discussions about the anti-Bersih operation are telling: “demonise, discredit, doublespeak, double standards, draconian detention”.
Najib has failed in the leadership test, principally because of his failure to exorcise the ghosts Mahathirism.
Should we allow our nation to be made the laughing stock of the 21st century by our dependence on the communist bogey to silence dissent and by our use of black ink to censor articles widely available on the Internet?
Ironically, the one way we can escape ridicule is by following an advice given by Mahathir himself. In a press interview in 1995, he said the only form of censure he found acceptable for an elected government was its replacement through an election. “Hence, if they prefer another government, they are welcome to it.”
The choice is yours, Malaysians.

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