Dr M, the man plugging the dike

I have always wanted to write about Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the man whom God has given a second chance to right the wrongs in Malaysia. In the wanderings of my wild imagination, I like to imagine him as a comic book superhero who saves Malaysia from the evil of this world.

To me, Mahathir is like the little Dutch boy who saved the Netherlands by putting his finger in the dike to prevent the dam from bursting and washing the nation under the sea.

In Mahathir’s case, he needs more than one finger because there are so many holes in the dike left by the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government. He saved Malaysia from the brink of economic disaster in 1997 as well as on May 9, 2018.

Without Mahathir, we would still be shackled under BN rule with its corruption and excesses. Pakatan Harapan (PH) would not have won GE14 if not for Mahathir, the venerable galvanising point, the epic centre of change, who put together misfits of politicians, parties and groups using his own home-made elephant glue to hold them together.

I don’t see anyone in the ranks of the PH government with enough clout and political savvy to have done the same. PKR president Anwar Ibrahim has been weighed down with his own personal baggage and his deputy Mohamed Azmin Ali has not yet seized the centre stage as a future heir apparent.

The Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) was a brilliant idea by Mahathir to put the derailed country on the right track as quickly as possible without all the bureaucratic trappings.

One of the remarkable success stories of the CEP was its “influence” on the resignations of the chief justice and Court of Appeal president, whose terms were extended beyond the mandatory retirement age. Critics of the CEP said it was crossing the line, but in balance it got the job done.

If we had gone through the usual bureaucratic route, Richard Malanjum, a Sabah native, would not have had a chance to become chief justice.

We all have some form of love-hate relationship in our lives. Who doesn’t? I love Mahathir, and at the same time I hate him. Not hate in the literal sense, but being angry enough to want to strangle someone because of what he does or says, figuratively speaking.

In my office, I used to hang pictures of Mahathir, Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali and myself taken in Brunei during a conference but I became disenchanted with him when he started attacking Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Abdullah became Mahathir’s sitting duck and former prime minister Najib Razak was his punching bag. I can understand his frustration and anger over Najib but not so much with Abdullah.

For Sabahans, the mere mention of Mahathir and his actions affecting the state would definitely bring an immediate climate change, raising temperatures several degrees above normal.

He has been blamed for Project IC which has changed the demographics of Sabah forever and left an unwanted legacy that will simmer for a long time to come. There is a silent acknowledgement of Project IC by the perpetrators, but for some, sweeping it under the carpet is the better option for now, similar to the maxim of the three wise monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

Sabahans now must suffer living with people who came by way of Project IC and share health and education facilities and scarce resources with people who made their way illegally into the country and gained citizenship.

Mahathir previously incarcerated under the ISA sons of Sabah like Jeffrey Kitingan, the current opposition leader in the Sabah state assembly. I met Kitingan, and he related to me the mental anguish and sufferings he had to endure during his detention. I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience and suffer the same.

Under Mahathir, Sabah was the only state that had to go through the infamous rotation of chief ministers from 1994-2004. The rotation system was used as a means to divide and share power with the three main communities in the state, represented by various political parties within BN.

Critics said the rotation was divisive and a waste of time. There was little to show that the state prospered under the experiment. Imagine if the same rotation system was imposed on Johor: even a change of menteri besar under the new government caused a near-crisis and strained relations between the palace and Mahathir.

At the previous general election, it was strongly rumoured that if Mahathir came to Sabah and campaigned for Warisan, the current main ruling party would have won. I think it would not have made any difference – people in Sabah, like the rest of the country, wanted change so badly that they would have voted for any candidate that represented change.

Mahathir could be the lightning rod but he could also be the unifying force.

Few would deny that there is some sort of democracy under the PH government. People are freer to express their opinions than ever before. Although people are still not happy with their lot, we should give the new government a chance to repair the rot that has been around for decades. Reforms are slow and people get impatient but with Mahathir at the helm, I have every confidence we will get there eventually.

When one reaches the golden years, every day is a blessing. I’m sure it’s the same for Mahathir, but he has dedicated his life to serving his country. Leading the country for the second time at the age of 94 is not an easy task. No man is perfect. Stephen Hawking once said: “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply didn’t exist… Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”

People forget that Mahathir was a selfless leader who stepped down as prime minister in 2003 after 23 years in power. He showed his human side when he broke down in tears live on national television in June 2002 as he told a stunned Umno annual congress that he was resigning from all his political and party posts.

We saw a different man, the longest-serving Asian leader vulnerable at the height of power. Nobody knew what was in his mind at that time. It could be that he was tired of fighting for the Malays he represented and seeing little change in their mentality. Perhaps he knew that it was time to stop the political patronage that Malays depended on as he struggled with the “Malay dilemma”.

Whatever his faults, this man has earned my respect for his leadership, his care for all Malaysians and his personal sacrifices to change the country’s image post-1MDB.

I hope one day I can meet Mahathir, the “recalcitrant” prime minister, to thank him personally for his ultimate sacrifice for the country despite his many failures. Love him or hate him, he is still our prime minister. I can’t say the same for those in line.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.