Reflections after a chance Q&A session with Dr. Mahathir – on his support for Perkasa, the 1988 Judicial Crisis, and other inconsistencies between what he claims now and what has been allowed to happen (if he was not complicit to) during his tenure as Prime Minister.
Politicians and humility: ne’er the twain shall meet?
DUBAI May 6, 2010
It was the usual daily grind for me until at about 4.30p.m. when I was informed that Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was to deliver a speech at 7.00p.m. at The Dubai World Trade Center Convention Tower, at a talk hosted by the Dubai School of Government.
I rushed to the venue right after work and manages to duck into the same lift with Tun. The audience included students from a university in Egypt who watched and heard Tun through a live web-cast. Tun’s speech was an interesting one that began by briefly covering Malaysia’s history and went on to discuss some of the past and contemporary challenges the government faced in developing the country.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that there would be a Q&A session. My hastily scribbled notes formed much of the basis of what I said to Tun.
What follows is a rough transcript of the interaction, and having been written up as soon as I returned home from the event it has a fair degree of contemporaneity. Given the very short time I had to prepare, I hope readers will forgive me for any errors or inaccuracies on my part.
Q: Assalamualaikum, Tun. I am proud to say that I am a Malaysian. My name is Umran.
In discussing Malaysia’s history earlier you spoke of an “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” population. I would also refer to your recent support of a Malay rights group known as Perkasa which has been characterised by some as obsessed with race and even borderline racist.
I would submit that the challenges faced by Malaysia today are very different to the problems faced 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The challenges Malaysia is presented with include globalisation, increased competition from our neighbours and the well-known “brain drain.” I would further submit that what is needed is a more unified Malaysia, to borrow a term we need a “Bangsa Malaysia,” a term that was made famous by none other than yourself, Tun.
What is needed then is to focus not on our differences but on our commonalities; to do so is not to ignore our history but to face today’s reality. In order for Malaysia to continue to flourish and thrive in the years ahead we need all Malaysians, irrespective of their ethnic background to feel that they have an equal stake in Malaysia, that they all have a place under the Malaysian sun.
I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter, Tun. Thank you.
A: Tun’s reply focused on how he agreed about the need for greater interaction between the races and that one way of doing this was having a unified school system, i.e. an indirect reference to his concept of visions schools, but that this idea had been rejected time and again by ethnic interest groups (quite true from my limited knowledge and he has been consistent on this issue).
The compere was about to move on but I quickly interjected despite his protestations,
Q: But Sir, how do you reconcile what you have just said with your support for Perkasa, a group that has been viewed as race obsessed and borderline racist by many?
A: Tun’s counter was that some Malays feel vulnerable as they feel that UMNO is no longer looking out for their interests and that these sentiments caused them to form and/or support Perkasa. He added that there were UMNO members in Perkasa as well and that during his time and that of his predecessors no such movements existed.
The compere then swiftly moved on to the next question.
Having had a few days now to reflect, here are my thoughts.
In my view, while what Tun said regarding the impetus for the formation of Perkasa may be correct, I don’t believe it is helpful for Tun to have thrown his weight behind what is clearly a divisive movement. While I would agree that the sentiments which underlie such a movement should be addressed rather than ignored, I don’t believe it was helpful for Tun to have publicly supported such a movement in the manner he did as it has merely caused Perkasa to harden its stance rather than to adopt a more conciliatory and diplomatic tone. I believe the latter approach would ultimately be more conducive to fostering better relations between all races in Malaysia.
On a separate note, an educationist I know that has many years of involvement with education institutions in Malaysia had this to say regarding “vision schools“:
His reference to vision schools (sekolah wawasan) appears to be a convenient red herring. There was never a serious attempt to design and implement an education system that would truly foster a feeling of national unity among the younger generation.
The “vision school” was really a plan to locate schools of different cultural streams in propinquity to one another, and sharing the same football padang. The padang would tend, I think, to sharpen ethnic rivalry, rather than foster national cohesion.
A truly serious move would have been to have students from all races attend the same school, and infused with the same national ethos and learning environment. When I was in secondary school (V.I. in the early 1950’s) we were more “Malayans” then, than school children today are “Malaysians.” We were all more “Victorians” than Malays, Chinese or Indians – fluent in English (and some Latin hammered into us). I am, frankly, astonished and worried by the polarisation among school children in Malaysia today. And they will be the adult citizenry tomorrow!
The event on 6th May was the second occasion I attended a talk by Tun in which I was able to put a question to him. The earlier occasion was in London in 2008 at BPP Law School where he was before a much tougher crowd – Malaysian students. My question on that occasion centered around the then Prime Minster Abdullah Badawi’s initiative to make the Anti Corruption Agency answerable to a Parliamentary committee and why a similar initiative was not made during Tun Dr. M’s time as Prime Minister and his indirect answer was what one would expect of a seasoned and adept politician.
However, there remains one question that I have wanted to ask Tun for years and it is this:
Why did he take steps towards or permit the removal of the Lord President of Malaysia’s Supreme Court in 1988 and why did he subsequently take steps towards or permit an amendment to Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, i.e. Article 121(1), which caused the judiciary to derive its authority from Parliament where before it derived it from the Federal Constitution; this in effect made the judiciary subservient to Parliament.
If indeed he was not complicit in those events, then why did he not take steps to correct those wrongs during his many years of power?
Following on from this, bearing in mind that the doctrine of the Separation of Powers is crucial to a functioning democracy, was he (a) simply ignorant of or (b) not bothered by the implications of Article 121(1)?
At one point during Q&A session in Dubai, Tun was asked if he regretted any of his actions whilst in power. His answer was tantamount to a flat “no”. I must admit I was rather disappointed by his answer. As much as I admire Tun’s many achievements and accomplishments for our country, if there is one type of person I cannot put my faith in it is a person that displays unrestrained hubris.
In the meantime, my search for a Malaysian politician without hubris, in other words a politician I feel I can put my faith in, continues.
LB: The writer has been living and working in Dubai for the past year.
Surat Terbuka Kepada Dr.M: “Kaki Dalam Kasut” by Bong Chan Siong
Che Det: Mahathir’s Man in the Mirror by Kwan Will Sen
Related Internet Links:
1988 Malaysian Constitutional Crisis – Wikipedia