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A tale of two Ms: Mahathir and Margaret

 | April 19, 2013
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Are Malaysia and Israel opening diplomatic channels?

It is said that Margaret Thatcher’s policies divided Britain but it appears that in death, she has uncannily managed to reunite two old foes. Spotted at Thatcher’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, on Wednesday, was the Malaysian representative, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, sitting beside the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. Mahathir did not look a happy man and we suspect it is not just because of Margaret’s death.

Malaysians must be confused by the close proximity of Mahathir and Netanyahu, while a few of us are amused by Mahathir’s discomfort. Did the Brits genuinely want the Malaysians to get to know the Israelis better and attempt to resolve the Palestinian conflict? Was this an inadvertent snub to Mahathir? After all, the British are known to have a wicked sense of humour.

Thatcher and Mahathir had little in common. Their acquaintance started by air-craft landing rights disputes, the dawn raid on Guthrie companies in the London stock exchange, the tin corner scandal and university fee increases for Malaysian students to the UK. Despite Mahathir’s “Buy British Last” call, he conducted secret deals with Thatcher which culminated in the Pergau Dam scandal.

Last week, “The New Straits Times” ran an article in which Mahathir claimed that he and Thatcher had similar characteristics, such as a willingness to put forward unpopular strategies, the courage to be confrontational, the desire to instil discipline and introduce competition.

Mahathir denied that he was “copying” Thatcher and claimed that he liked to take initiatives. He also failed to realise that his New Economic Policy (NEP) stifled competition.

Many people will agree that like Thatcher, Mahathir ruled with an iron fist and many people found it difficult to oppose them. Unlike Thatcher, Mahathir had a variety of ways to deal with dissenters. He had a choice of three emergency laws which permitted indefinite detention without trial: the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Emergency Ordinance 1969 (EO) and the Dangerous Drugs Act 1985 (DDA).

At other times, Mahathir employed more creative methods. Allegedly, prominent judges, senior politicians and high-ranking civil servants were among the people who are in Mahathir’s Who’s Who “Buku 555”, a dossier which lists their proclivities and peccadilloes.

In today’s Britain, just as it was in Thatcher’s time, an independent judiciary and police force still exist. In contrast, Malaysia’s judiciary and police force are stooges for the Umno Baru government.

Bumbling monster

The BBC may have been biased in its reporting of the Thatcher era but, by and large, there is relative press freedom in Britain, a boast which Malaysia cannot make now, or during Mahathir’s time.

Both Mahathir and Thatcher were keen for their respective countries to do well, but then which leader would not? Thatcher dismantled the heavy industries of her country and privatised many British state-run institutions.

Mahathir may well have emulated her but unlike Thatcher, the move to get rid of state-run companies only benefited Umno cronies. In some states, privatised companies hold the citizens to ransom by threatening to withhold services, like Syabas, which claims it cannot supply sufficient water to Selangor.

Thatcher reduced the big bureaucratic structures in government and modernised the civil service by firing about 171,000 civil servants. According to “The Daily Telegraph”, Thatcher disliked waste and wanted to make the civil service “more business-like”.

Mahathir may not have been as radical in reforming the civil service, but his successors especially caretaker Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, have made the Malaysian civil service into a bumbling, obese monster.

Thatcher, despite her unpopularity, was quick to defend those territories under British control. Her decision to send troops to defend the Falkland Islands in 1982 against an Argentinian invasion, and the subsequent British victory, made her a hero and instilled patriotism.

The same cannot be said of a prime minister who gave out several hundred thousand identity cards to foreigners, in Sabah, in exchange for votes.

British prime ministers like Thatcher, rarely interfere in politics once they have retired from public office. Mahathir has remained active in politics to the detriment of the caretaker prime minister.

Both Thatcher and Mahathir had humble origins with fathers who told them to work hard to succeed. On her resignation, Thatcher made millions, legitimately, from giving public lectures on both the local and international circuits.

Mahathir is allegedly a multi-billionaire and his children have benefited from allegedly dodgy deals emanating from his time as prime minister.

During Thatcher’s funeral, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, gave a sermon in which he related the story of a nine-year-old boy, David Liddelow, who had written to Thatcher about Jesus. David asked Thatcher, “Last night when we were saying prayers, my daddy said everyone has done wrong things except Jesus. I said I don’t think you have done bad things because you are the prime minister. Am I right or is my daddy?”

Thatcher was known for her ability to reach out to the young and she replied to say that David had posed a “difficult question” but that she would “try to answer it”.

In a handwritten letter she said, “However good we try to be, we can never be as kind, gentle and wise as Jesus. There will be times when we do or say something we wish we hadn’t done and we shall be sorry and try not to do it again…

“As prime Minister, I try very hard to do things right and because Jesus gave us a perfect example I try even harder. But your father is right in saying that we can never be as perfect as He was.”

Contrast this with a letter written by another 10-year-old English boy, Darrel Abercrombie, to Mahathir in 1987. The letter has been mentioned in articles in “The Star” and “Sin Chew Jit Poh”. Darrel had requested Mahathir to stop logging activities in Malaysia because he wanted to study animals in the tropical rainforests when he grew up.

In a lengthy three-page typed document, Mahathir said: “It is disgraceful that you should be used by adults for the purpose of trying to shame us because of our extraction of timber from our forests.

“The timber industry helps hundreds of thousands of poor people in Malaysia. Are they supposed to remain poor because you want to study tropical animals? Is your study more important than filling the stomachs of poor people? Are Malaysians expected to lose millions of pounds so that you can study animals?

“If you don’t want us to cut down our forests tell your father to tell the rich countries like Britain to pay more for the timber they buy from us… I hope you will tell the adults who made use of you to learn all the facts. They should not be too arrogant and know how best to run a country…”

Thatcher, despite her iron-rule, had more compassion. Mahathir’s arrogance stands out.

Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT columnist.


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