By Farish A. Noor ~ October 28th, 2006. Filed under: Syndicated Columns, TOM_Main.
Political scientists have to play the role of politician-watchers, observing the behavioural norms of this strange breed of creatures who bear an uncanny resemblance to the more numerous species of homo sapiens, but who nonetheless have characteristics and capabilities unique to themselves. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that politicians are like ordinary human beings. Just because they drive cars, scratch their noses and use hand-phones like the rest of us does not mean that we belong to the same species.
Politicians have several unique character traits, and among them is the curious ability to invent and re-invent themselves in a chameleon-like manner. Another trait that many of them possess is to have a selective memory that allows them to remember only the facts that they are most comfortable with, and conversely, to forget whatever is inconvenient to them. As an ardent political scientist I have been studying this species for more than a decade now, and have come across some outstanding specimens worthy of the best anthropological museums. I have come across hardcore religiously-inclined communitarian politicians who can wear the snappiest suits and yell “the Taliban are our Brothers” at the same time. I have also come across politicians who can alter their shape and form from sectarian ethno-nationalist bigot one day to world-wise pro-American client the next.
The recent comments made by the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, demonstrates the characteristics of many a politician in many respects. During a press conference held shortly after a meeting with the current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir lashed out at his chosen successor. Malaysia-watchers have sensed for some time now that the relations between the two men have been anything but rosy. For a start, the former PM feels that many of his complaints (some legitimate, mind you) against the conduct of the government have not been taken at heart and have not been given a public hearing. Neutral observers of the political game in Malaysia may be inclined to agree with this observation, as it is the case that the former Prime Minister of Malaysia has not exactly been given his share of time and space to make his feelings clear to all on issues such as the management of the national car company Proton and the (cancelled) construction of the bridge between Malaysia and Singapore.
But it was in during the same press conference that Mahathir aired the following complaint: “I consider this a police state. I also consider that my civic rights have been taken away.” During the same press conference Mahathir also added that “the habit of asking the police to frighten people should be stopped.” Here was homo politicus in its environment.
It is ironic that Mahathir should lash out against the Badawi administration in such a way, and on such terms. Malaysia remains far from a secular democracy by any stretch of the imagination, but for him to label the state as a police state beggars belief. For a start, the human rights fraternity in Malaysia and abroad would be the first to point out that it was during his tenure that the fundamental rights of Malaysians were most hastily and decisively trampled upon. Mahathir governed the country from 1981 to 2003, and during this period Malaysia witnessed numerous police operations against the country’s opposition parties, civil society and NGOs. It was during Mahathir’s time that notorious police crackdowns such as Operation Lalang (1987), Operation Kenari (1988), the crackdown on the Darul Arqam movement (1993-94) took place, sending hundreds of opposition leaders, journalists, academics, activists, union leaders and members of the public to jail, many to be put under detention without trial. Mahathir now laments the fact that he has been denied the right to speak, and that his civil rights have been taken away. It is curious that the same moral outrage was not demonstrated during the 1980s and 1990s, when many other Malaysians were sent to jail or detained without trial and denied their right to speak and have their voices heard…
It was also during the Mahathir era that the country witnessed the judicial crisis that led to the crippling of the judiciary; the muzzling of the press; the growing conflict between the state and the Islamist opposition; and the tightening of controls over the university campuses of the land. If anything, the spectacular development that took place during the 1980s and 1990s were underwritten by two factors: foreign direct investment and an increasingly authoritarian political culture in Malaysia itself.
How then can the former Prime Minister of Malaysia complain about the state of the country he left behind, when it was he who presided over the period that saw the erosion of fundamental human rights and liberties? It is this curious ability to reinvent the past and to forget their own role in the political process that allows politicians to stand out from the rest, as a breed apart.
Today Malaysia is poised on the brink of a national crisis. The stalemate between the Prime Minister and the former PM shows no signs of improving or correcting itself. Worse still is the fact that in the midst of this uncertainty there are no clear signs of leadership and direction that may deliver the country from the present impasse. Having lived under more than two decades of authoritarian rule, Malaysian society shows little sign of being able to adjust to a more open society governed by democratic norms. The rise of an increasingly communitarian, sectarian and religiously conservative middle class is just one of the indicators of all that is wrong in the land. But if Malaysians today do not know how to live in a democratic society and in a democratic manner, we have to look to its recent past to understand why that is so. The answer lies in the neo-feudal culture of centralised power that was personified and personalised in the form of Mahathir himself, who laid the foundations to the ‘police state’ he himself bemoans today.