During his 22-year rule as Malaysia’s prime minister Dr. Mahatir found himself at the centre of so many controversies that it is not possible to touch upon even a fraction of them in just one article. Some of the controversies that earned him international attention were his claim that the Jews get others to fight and die for them, his denunciation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, his sacking of three deputy prime ministers that he had himself chosen to succeed him, and his dismissal of the Malaysian Supreme Court judges. Hence when in October 2003 Dr. Mahatir stepped down of his own will, many Malaysians thought that the change of guard would not alter much on their country’s political scene. Abdullah Badawi, the new prime minister, had after all been a Mahatir protÃ©gÃ©. Abdullah did not make any changes in the cabinet and political hierarchy that he inherited from Dr. Mahatir.
Abdullah began his prime ministerial life peacefully. Although descriptives like “uncharismatic” and “lackluster” were evoked while comparing a soft-spoken, gentlemanly Abdullah with the confrontational Dr. Mahatir, it was refreshing to see a new leader. Abdullah sounded positive notes. Although he commended his predecessor’s policies, he declared that he would practice engagement with all types of opinion as a matter of policy and eradicate endemic corruption amongst government officials.
Whether he wanted it or not, Abdullah’s soft image and tone were instrumental in making people voice their opinion: Many heads that could not be raised in the past because of Dr. Mahatir’s style, now actually did take a chance with the new leadership. Weeks after taking over, Abdullah in the annual conference of UMNO (Malaysia’s ruling party) suggested that the Malays should reconsider the decades-old policy of “positive discrimination” that in many ways favors them over the other races. But he was rudely shouted down by some Malay delegates who told him that his own prime ministership owed more to the Malay support for him than anything else. Watching Abdullah–”half-stunned and half-patient–”listen to his critics reminded one of the days of Dr. Mahatir when politicians, analysts, and even academics could not get away with a nasty challenge to Dr. Mahatir.
Not that Dr. Mahatir had gagged his opposition. One remembers how only weeks after Suharto’s fall, Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters argued in UMNO’s annual conference for an Indonesia-style end to “cronyism” in Malaysia. By that they meant Dr. Mahatir’s ouster a la Suharto. (Anwar Ibrahim was Dr. Mahatir’s number two at that time. He had just returned from America after meeting Al Gore and other high officials who had assured him of their support if he challenged Dr. Mahatir.) The following day Dr. Mahatir showed on a giant screen names of all the people who had benefited from “cronyism”. The names of Anwar’s supporters graced the list in profusion. Within days Anwar was in jail, had a black eye, and charged with sodomy.
Abdullah’s peace did not last very long. Six months into office, and Abdullah’s leadership was struck a powerful shot. Dr Mahatir accused Rafidah Aziz (Malaysia’s Trade Minister) for nepotism. That hit her so hard that she was reduced to tears in a press conference and swore by the Koran that her conduct had been above-board. Soon Abdullah’s turn came when he declared that Malaysia would not build its (half) part of the proposed Malaysia-Singapore Bridge after Singapore dragged its feet over some details. The Bridge was Dr. Mahatir’s idea to which he had cleverly converted the Singapore government. The building of the bridge had the approval of the entire Malaysian cabinet, Abdullah included (then Mahatir’s deputy). Dr. Mahatir issued a public statement that Malaysia should have built its part of the bridge and start navigating her own part of territorial waters that should have immensely benefited Malaysia economically. Abdullah committed a faux pas by not keeping quiet. He responded to the bridge issue by saying vaguely that “people’s sentiments” had to be taken into consideration while deciding a matter. Demanded Dr. Mahatir: “Where are the people whose sentiments have to be taken into consideration? Who decides Malaysia’s development policy? Malaysia? Or Singapore? ”
Abdullah, said Dr. Mahatir, was a traitor who had yielded Malaysia’s sovereignty to Singapore. He also attacked Abdullah for cutting tariffs and opening up the auto market, threatening the national car-maker Proton. Soon there was a DVD doing rounds in Malaysia and Singapore in which Dr. Mahatir had given details of the incompetence of Abdullah and his government. That led to Malaysian ministers and UMNO MPs rallying behind Abdullah and condemning Dr. Mahatir. Dr. Mahatir has since disappeared from the government-controlled media; he was not allowed even to participate in UMNO’s annual conference, and recently he was assaulted by a Malay. (No word yet from the investigators about the motive of the assault.)
It is not that Abdullah does not know his facts, or is short on spunk. But there is something in him that differentiates him from Dr Mahatir. Explained a Malay friend of mine: “To be low-profile and taciturn is what makes a Malay a Malay. But the problem with Dr. Mahatir, despite being born and brought up in the Malay society, is his Indian blood. The Indian blood in you cannot let you and others live in peace. It boils all the time, so you must get up and pick up a fight, or else it will burst through your veins. Even if you are eighty-two years of age and have recently had a heart attack! [A reference to Dr. Mahatir.]”
The political history of Malaysia cannot be written without acknowledging the great role of the Indian community. In Malaysia, the presence of the Indians in teaching and law professions, and the human rights movement has been exceptionally high. Trade unionism in Malaysia owes more to the Indians than to any other community. Any human rights or political law suit, rest assured that the lead lawyers will be of Indian origin. But there is the down side to it too: Any time you hear of infighting in a political party, it is likely to be an Indian political party. There is a joke in Malaysia that if you want to hire an Indian, you must make provisions for the establishment of a trade union. And if you hire two Indians in your company, be sure there will soon be two rival trade unions to haunt you and each other.
So, if Dr. Mahatir is unstoppable, it is–”according to popular belief–”because an Indian is by nature a political animal whose staple diet is polemics. Many Malaysians believe that only Anwar Ibrahim can stop or confront Dr Mahatir. They are hoping that Abdullah and Anwar will form an alliance. Like Dr. Mahatir, Anwar too has Indian blood; so the two can be great pound-for-pound rivals, and Anwar being much younger and with a long political future ahead (unlike Dr. Mahatir) might slay the giant. But there is a little devil in details. Anwar’s ambition is to become Malaysia’s prime minister. He would have been one if Dr. Mahatir had not kicked him out so unceremoniously. Anwar will not join Abdullah just in order to spite Dr Mahatir and strengthen Abdullah. Will Abdullah give him deputy prime ministership, an offer that Anwar in all likelihood will not spurn? But given a very long queue of post-Abdullah UMNO pretenders, such an offer to Anwar will cause a big revolt in the party.
In such a scenario what will happen if Anwar and Dr. Mahatir join hands against UMNO and Abdullah? Just imagine the super shrewd and experienced Indian blood of Dr Mahatir mixing with the super ambitious and charismatic Indian blood of Anwar!
There are a lot of Malaysians (mainly Malay) who think that given their extreme animosity a Mahatir-Anwar alliance is not possible. Perhaps they forget that politics is the art of the possible. If Dr. Mahatir and Anwar come together an Indian summer in Malaysia may not be too far.