In Memoriam: Mahathir
He’s not dead. Everyone just wishes he was.
For as long as I have been politically conscious, I have been waiting for Mahathir to die.
Waiting for Mahathir to die has become something of a spectator sport to me and my most morbid group of friends.
Every time the news of his hospital stays hit page 5 of The Star, every time news about “how bad this IJN stay is” and what his prognosis is like, dark jokes about his flagging health and next world awaiting him abound. And, inevitably, when news arrives that he’s been discharged with a smile on his face and somehow more light in his eyes, there are mocking groans of half disappointment, and half-hearted “we’ll get him next-time”s.
I am sure I am not alone. From the eve of his premiership to his increasing haggardness over the course of 2018–2020, and numerous IJN trips and heart-attack scares, has arisen a peculiar genre of spectatorship. When is it going to happen? When is he going to do it? What manner of ailment will, finally, rid us of this meddlesome priest?
And indeed, Mahathir has died a dozen peculiar deaths already.
He died his first death when he was expelled by the Tunku. He died another when the schism within Ku Li ruptured the Grand Old Party of Malaysian politics. He died another when the rising tide of Anwar’s popularity took the shine off his authoritarianism. He died when Badawi came doddering onto the political scene, and his decades-long rule came to an end. He died when the Sheraton Move ousted him again from the chair, and he was reduced to impotent spectatorship yet again. This man will not stop dying, inviting critics and pundits to proclaim him prematurely at the end of his rope.
Still, with a peculiar, nonagenarian stubbornness, borne perhaps part from triumphal glee that he outlived Lee Kuan Yew (and his remaining hope that he might yet outlive Anwar), that man has come roaring back to life each and every time, like a particularly stubborn rash that won’t go away, or a Lazarene figure haunting our political corners, pronounced risen again and again. Inevitably, his fortunes will recover and his heart rate will stabilise, and he will again find the ear of some impressionable young protege he can use as his lifeline to power. Try as his enemies and nature might, Mahathir simply will not die.
Neither will, it seems, his legacy. Tarnished though his return to power was, embarassing though his enduring racism remains, floundering and aborted though his attempts at new political parties are, the Mahathir Factor remains largely intact. And there it sits, on the shelf, tempting, waiting for any ambitious youngster to imagine himself fit to manipulate and use to his own benefit, before snapping shut around his wrist and turning him into the puppet of the old fox.
Mahathir has all the tenacity of Sauron’s ghost: dispossessed of the One Ring, but still lurking in the shadows. He needs only the weakness of one man to come roaring back to life, to haunt our headlines for another few months, and send us into convulsive groans of international & domestic embarrassment.
So “waiting for Mahathir to die” has become something of my most consistent, spectator sport: rather like waiting for Manchester United or Ferrari to get their act back together. It’s going to happen. It has to happen. But it hasn’t yet, and its absence has become increasingly conspicuous since 2014.
Mahathir’s legacy is complicated.
Did he do great, admirable things for Malaysia? Perhaps. There is a reason his name and image still commands such loyalty, and his vision, for all its blind spots and blinkered limitations, did shape the unevenly developed wealth of Malaysia today, which does have its upsides.
His is the legacy of a man with the will, the power, and the cunning to shape Malaysia however he wished: the quintessential Modern Malay, born from peasant roots, the only man to ever lead Malaysia with unimpeachable postcolonial, non-aristocratic credentials. He stood against the West and divested us from the last vestiges of empire, trying (and failing) to draw us into alliance with the rising, ephemeral sun of late-twentieth century Japanese economic exceptionalism. He could have been a hero of the third world, standing for a better future against enduring colonial domination.
Instead, like a latter day Napoleon, Mahathir used the power he had amassed not to bring us out of the past, but to return to it. He turned himself into a latter-day king of Malaysia, all but displacing the still-extant but culturally and institutionally obsolete Sultans, with his numerous cronyistic connections and cultural image of importance.
The blood on Mahathir’s hands cannot be overstated. All Malaysia’s contemporary evils: the tyranny of our premiership and the executive concentrated therein; the rash of cronyistic projects and our aimless, undirected mass of stolen oil money funneled into the hands of their pet loyalists; the casual murder and violence directed at dissenters & disruptors of the status quo; all of it can be traced to his brow.
Perhaps he did not invent dictatorship. Perhaps he did not invent corruption. Perhaps all the cudgels he used were in existence, long before he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.
And indeed, to label him as someone absolutely evil would be to credit him with power he does not own, nor deserve. He is not the devil.
He is a crafty, cunning man, who hogged the political stage for a few decades by dint of wit and privilege. He did not singlehandedly create the tides of Malaysian history: no man or woman did. He merely dipped his hands in its current, and steered us towards a stream of blood.
I will miss him, when he is gone.
When the inevitable occurs, and the eulogies come pouring in uneven measure from former allies and enduring enemies; when the news breaks and we all pretend, briefly, that he was anything more than a dictator and use the excuse of his death to (temporarily) exorcise his ghost; when that overcast day comes when flags are hung at half mast; I will miss him.
There are few things as comforting as a fixed point, as an enduring adversary against whom all vitriol and rhetoric can be uncritically directed. And we have so few fixed points in our world, that even an evil one brings with it some comfort.
In the end, I do not hate Mahathir. He is a tired old man, waiting to die, and whatever justice he will face is between him and his God. There is no point in hating a man so, whose historical time has come and gone, and whose legacy is, for better and worse, already written.
When I look back on and study Malaysian history, there his pages stand, and there his figure shines, like a beacon over our shared past.
I only wish that his light had lead Malaysia to a better future, instead of fixing us so stubbornly to the past.