By Mohamed Harees –
“Malaysia Boleh” or “Malaysia Can Do It” which evolved as a national slogan in the early 1990s appear to have re-emerged in the run up to the recent Malaysian elections. Mahathir Magic worked as a result ,when he as head of an Opposition Alliance ‘Pakatan Harapan’, made an extraordinary political comeback as Malaysia’s leader at the age of 92,, thus ending the six-decade rule of PM Najib Razak’s party in a landmark shift for this Southeast Asian Muslim nation. Mahathir Mohamad, whose historic win was helped in no small part by his legacy as part of the old guard of Asian politics and grandfather of the nation announced,’ “We are not seeking revenge, we want to restore the rule of law”. Thus, in one of the biggest U-turns of his 70-year career in politics , he therefore signalled that he is ready to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim, a popular opposition figure whom he sacked as his deputy in the 1990s.
The elections was dominated by a widely known investigation into allegations that billions were siphoned from a state investment fund, 1MDB, and laundered through foreign bank accounts,which scandal had ramifications even beyond Malaysia’s boundaries. The historic political revolutionary change probably would not have occurred but for the brazen excesses of and alleged widespread corruption alluded to ousted Prime Minister Najib and his high spending wife, which were too much even for the high-living UMNO elite to stomach.
During his earlier reign(1981-2003), Mahathir’s track record was not without blemishes; many criticised his chequered rule. But love him or hate him, no one can deny that Mahathir had nothing but fierce love for Malaysia. Mahathir’s earlier legacy thus made the Malaysians to flock together to re-elect him despite his advanced age. Mahathir’s definition of independence surely struck a chord with the voters, leading them to give him the mandate yet again: “Independence means we enjoy freedom. We are not colonised by people. And we can govern our own country and develop it independently so that our people can live a better life.” The phenomenal growth of Malaysia under the leadership of Mahathir has brought about a patriotic sense of achievement amongst its people. A large portion of the Malaysian electorate possess lasting affection and respect for him because of various successes. Mahathir engineered rapid economic growth. He shifted the country’s economy from agriculturally based to a more industrialised one. He created a sense of civic and national pride through projects such as national car Proton, the Sepang Formula One circuit and, of course, the Petronas Twin Towers, still the tallest twin skyscrapers in the world. Mahathir unleashed the Reformasi movement that at one point saw citizens tear-gassed on the streets of the capital. He is now the leader that Malaysians yearning for change are banking on. For Malaysians, Mahathir’s return to power is more than a palace coup; it is a new era of hope. He also spearheaded Islamic banking institutions too.
One of the true visionaries of the age, Mahathir Mohamad is revered and feared, the world over, for his explicit opinions regarding the ideologies of the West .The Look East Policy was his brain child, aimed in emulating some characteristics of other neighbouring nations. But the principle goal was a shift in focus of relation from the West, in particular, Britain, towards the new rising Asia, specifically, Japan. It economic influence to Malaysia was profound both positively, and also negatively. One of the main focuses of Mahathir on the policy was the Malaysian emulation of East Asian ethics. Economically speaking, he wanted Malaysia to adopt some principles from Japan. He believed that Malaysia should follow the example of Japan Inc. and create the Malaysia Inc., where both government and the private sector worked together to achieved a common economic goal. However, although the policy was not effective in changing the values of the Malays, it did bring out a change in direction from looking to the West towards looking to the East.
Another credit attributable to Mahathir was the “Asian values” model of human rights propagated by him and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in the 1990s. They accused the so-called “Western” model of advocating an individualistic approach to rights that prioritises the individual’s rights against society; by contrast, the “Asian values” approach emphasises social stability, privileging community and duties over the rights of the individual. He thus initiated to develop a more nuanced theory of human rights seen through a Southeast Asian lens, although critics say that the “Asian values” ideology is still theoretically unfounded and politically outmoded, and it is time for a fresh perspective and definitive move toward a more sophisticated model that can better encapsulate contemporary political realities and guide a more sensitive balancing of interests in regional human rights protection. As a prominent leader of the non-Arab Muslim world, and considered outspoken by the West, Mahathir also not only set the foundation for the materialization of the true Muslim identity but has also been bold enough to point out the weaknesses as well.
Malaysia’s national catch cry ‘The Malaysia Boleh’ spirit has produced many achievers and achievements, and has shown that it can unite Malaysians irrespective of colour, creed, culture or class. Perhaps it is exactly what Malaysia needed to vote for a decisive change and to forge ahead to achieve its ideals as a nation, although some use the catchphrase as a sarcasm too. In the same ‘Boleh’ spirit, ‘Sri Lanka Boleh’ can be a reality too if only the Sri Lankans too learn lessons from the developments in Malaysia, apart from many historic lessons from their own failures from within, which unfortunately they have been failing to capture in Post-Independence era.
One of the main issues which led to the recent revolutionary political changes is the subject of corruption and abuse of power by a government whose party has been holding power for 6 decades. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Another issue has been the widening disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. Both these are the issues which have been widely discussed in public discourses in Sri Lanka too, specially in Post-war Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka did not have Mahathir equivalents in their Post- Independence history. DS Senanayake’s sagacity, foresight, judgment and tolerance were unexcelled, and under his leadership Ceylon has been the most untroubled country in Asia and was able to join hands with the minority leaders to get Independence for Ceylon. However as reported, ‘Sri Lanka has followed a chequered path in the post-independence era. From being the envy of the world, it has moved to the brink of a failed state, only to inch back to a slow path of progress. Eras of different leaders have brought diverse results to the country. Some have taken the country on the path of progress, keeping the people content while others have driven the country to the brink of destruction. It is a sad fact that those who are responsible for such misfortunes seldom suffer themselves but only expose the innocent masses to unbearable suffering simply because they happen to live at that time’.
From SWRD, JRJ to MR, leaders had achievements on their own right, but failed to project themselves as national leaders, playing to the gallery for petty political ends and raising communalistic cries. They thus failed to unite the nation. Post-War, MR won the war and failed to win the hearts and minds of the people to promote inclusiveness. Sadly, ‘Yahapalana Nadaya’ too failed miserably on this count, neither able to take effective action against corruption and abuse of power nor promote national reconciliation too. Today, country seems to float aimlessly with many feeling a sense of helplessness with no proper government machinery in place to boost public confidence. Widespread corruption is prevalent in the political hierarchy, law enforcement, the civil administration and even in the judiciary. There is a feeling among the public that the law is not fair to the poor and disadvantaged while facilities are afforded to the rich and the politically powerful( including those in the opposition) to escape punishment or if jailed, at least to rest in the prison hospital. The rogue monks are being given preferred treatment by being immune to punishment. Particularly, those were widely accused of political corruption and those who instigated communal riots like some prominent monks are still roaming free, plundering public wealth and spreading racial hatred.
Mahathir’s re-emergence as a force to be reckoned with in Malaysia is interpreted differently by diverse political groups in Sri Lanka. The MR camp may see it as a good sign for a MR, despite his advancing age (After all, Mahathir is 92 ,isn’t it? ), to comeback to gain power to put some ‘power’ into the government and take some strong decisions without being swayed. They may take up the position that age is no barrier if there is a national need. Political comebacks are nothing new, the latest being the ‘second coming of Mahathir’. Incidentally, MR was widely known to be a strongman in politics despite many other criticisms. On the other hand, the mandate Yahapalana government received in 2015 was exactly similar to what Mahathir got now; to fight wide corruption in politics and government and to re-connect the government with the people. Mahathir was earlier part of the earlier government party, and he left it to join the opposition alliance ‘Pakatan Harapan’. This is exactly Maithree did in 2014 and contested as a joint opposition candidate and won in January 2015 to fight corruption, to ensure social justice and to promote national reconciliation. Sadly, both MS and RW have lost the plot in the end, with none of these goals being not achieved.( at least public do not perceive).
What is apparent in both Malaysia and SL is that public activism can topple the prevailing order of things and change the course of events; but that alone is not adequate. Continuous public activism is paramount to keep the government in power accountable and hold them to account. Revolutionary changes can come to nought if the people, the bystanders go back to their usual sense of apathy and silence leaving everything to the politicians. Even political figures like Mahathir can get swayed if there is no public pressure. It happened to MS who, at the time of his election was seen as an ‘Atlee’ after Churchill. A comedian in Malaysia(I think Habis is the name) underlined this need quite strongly in one of his appearances. He said; ‘My biggest fear is this.you will go back to what you are doing and you give all your trust to the politicians blindly again, Never do that. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have a chance to re-draw everything..We have the chance to re-educate and rebuild everything that we know about this country… we don’t have to be a politician to decide where we are going. There are ways where you can make sure that our politicians, our public officials, our civil servants hold the highest level of accountability to the real boss of this country- which is every single one of you. And for that you need to continue to be vigilant, criticise and to remind politicians that we put them there. Not the other way’. This is true to Sri Lanka as well. Politics is too serious matter to be left in the hands of politicians. Sri Lanka needs leaders who will love Sri Lanka and create real changes than feathering their nests. Already people are feeling that mere change of pillows would not cure a headache. Thus, public activism is a must.