His towering presence in Malaysian national consciousness brought Mahathir back
A campaign video of Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian strongman who has made a spectacular political comeback at the ripe old age 92 defeating criticism, time, authoritarian legacy issues and, some would add, scruples, summarises his mammoth appeal. He is seen acknowledging his mistakes to a child and claiming responsibility for some of the ills that may have beset the country because of them. Staged or heartfelt, this contrite avatar seems to have washed off on the electorate.
For the most part, Mahathir has elicited polarised reactions — labelled dictator and modernist, an ultra-nationalist who put in place a Malays-preferred policy at the cost of the country’s substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian populations as well as Development Man and, of course, Malaysia’s ‘father of the nation’. From mentoring protégés and casting them aside when they resented his authoritarian diktats, curbing dissidence and even switching sides — now becoming Prime Minister as leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan after leaving his long-ruling party Barisan National — he doesn’t seem an ideal candidate for the top job. But much like KL’s Petronas Towers, he is a towering presence in nationalist consciousness. And in a country ridden with corruption scandals whose citizens are aspiring to upward mobility in the deluge of Chinese investment and businesses, the people voted for his monolithic strength. Mahathir himself crafted his image skilfully in the years he was out of power, working on the disenchanted youth, a big reason for his bounce back. In a political system riddled with corruption, sections of society perceived to be drowning the Chinese swamp and the fear of immigrants diluting Malay identity, the youth were feeling left out of the discourse. Opinion polls over the last few years have indicated a youth alienation from politics, with a majority believing that politicians were untrustworthy and had in fact as a class negatively impacted the growth potential of the country. Mahathir craftily empowered the millennials by claiming the opposition space and engaging with them in a series of town-halls, encouraging long sessions of questioning and critique, something which was antithetical to his persona. With this grandfatherly patience, he was able to convince the young voter that s/he could be the Malay timber that everybody wanted. He even talked of skilling the untapped workforce. So, in the run-up to the polls, the young swerved to him as the change-maker, who looked fit and agile enough to give them hope and who promised to vacate his chair in two years after seasoning it with stability, maturity and a reformatory zeal.
But here’s the bigger problem that Mahathir has. In his pre-campaign pledges, he announced abolition of GST, a return to a fair and graded tax regime, reintroduction of oil subsidies and job creation. These populist moves could increase the budget deficit as Mahathir prepares to propel a recovering economy to the next gear. An even greater crisis could loom from his tough line on Chinese infrastructure projects, welcoming investment but not aggressive acquisition of land and resources at the cost of domestic enterprise. While principally being in line with the Belt and Road Initiative, Mahathir is highly unlikely to give in to a stronger economic power. That’s not the kind of weak-kneed stuff his legend is built on, after all — he was known across what used to be called the Third World for famously rejecting IMF bailouts and steering the economy to an even keel in the past against all odds. Expectations are even higher from Mahathir this time around. But for all his mellow friendliness, the grand old man of Malaysian, indeed Asian, politics needs to stay clear of ego and one-upmanship, both of which have proved his undoing in the past. Mahathir must also internalise his new role in the very late winter of his life as an appeal to him by the youth of his country to correct the course of the nation he had such a seminal role in forging, and then stepping away gracefully.
Institutions need to be repaired if Malaysia is recover its lost glory and Mahathir should get down to that task expeditiously, without fear or favour. New Delhi, meanwhile, may want to look at how India can gain some strategic heft by forging closer economic and state-to-state ties with a moderate Muslim country which is increasingly uncomfortable with what it sees as Chinese hegemonic tendencies in the region.