Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An unbalanced and unreliable memoir

Apr 5, 2011


By Barry Wain
A Doctor In The House
By Mahathir Mohamad
MPH Group Publishing (2011)

FORMER Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has always been a polarising figure. He expressed strong views and adopted contentious policies during his 22 years in office - dividing Malaysians into blind believers or instinctive opponents - and he has continued to do so in retirement since 2003. The publication of his memoirs will only deepen those divisions.

Nearly nine years in gestation, A Doctor In The House arrived with a thud: 843 pages - inside hard covers, with a jacket bearing a recent colour photograph of a beaming and youthful-looking author - weighing in at 1.7kg. In keeping with his theme song, My Way, Tun Dr Mahathir, who will be 86 years old in July, uses the occasion to discuss his life and career entirely on his own terms.

He sees no reason to reassess most of the major political controversies associated with him: among them, the dismissal and prosecution of his deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim; the sacking of Lord President Salleh Abas; and the campaign to oust his hand-picked successor, Tun Abdullah Badawi.

He makes an exception of Operation Lalang, which saw the detention without trial of 119 people amid rising ethnic tensions in 1987. Yet even while conceding that his government's response was 'excessive', he tries to shift the blame to the police for recommending the crackdown.

Dr Mahathir simply brushes aside or ignores much of the specific criticism directed at him and his ambitious projects over the years, not even bothering to mention some crucial events in which he figured. A bold leader with big ideas and no time for critics who carp about details, he occasionally peeks in the mirror and recognises reality. Marina, the first born of his seven children, 'turned out to be a lot like me: argumentative, stubborn, opinionated and always believing she is right', he says.

It should also be acknowledged that the book goes some way towards answering one question that has long puzzled political scientists: Why Dr Mahathir, a self-proclaimed 'young Anglophile' at 20, later developed a lifelong, virulent hostility towards British colonialism.

He explains that his political awakening made him realise, 'looking back', that he had been 'brainwashed' to the point where 'I forgot that I was one of the natives', triggering a feeling of humiliation.

'It was then that the decolonisation of my own mind and soul began,' he says.

Dr Mahathir might have been expected to take this opportunity to clear up certain personal issues that have long been the subject of intense gossip and speculation, such as his ethnic origins. Rather, he repeats without comment several stories that circulate about his father's ethnicity and religion. He then adds: 'I admit that some Indian, or more accurately South Asian, blood flows in my veins, but from which part of the Indian subcontinent my ancestors came I do not know.'

Also missing is any admission that Dr Mahathir concealed various important policy initiatives and developments while he led the country. For example, he verges on the misleading when he writes that 'nothing of significance resulted from' his first visit to the United States in 1984, when he met President Ronald Reagan.

As I revealed in my political biography of Dr Mahathir last year, he approved the innocuous sounding Bilateral Training and Consultation (Bitac) agreement, which was, in fact, a secret security pact. Without informing Malaysians, he threw in his lot with the Americans, agreeing to naval ship visits, ship and aircraft repairs, joint military exercises in Malaysia and close cooperation between the two militaries.

It would also have been fascinating to get an authoritative insider's account of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), whose history has been described by one former minister as 'a mixture of political subtlety and crudeness, ethical practices and greed, fair play and foul... occasionally expressed with sheer ruthlessness'.

But the only place where Dr Mahathir lifts the veil a little is on the Cabinet, and that is to show the ugly side of his former long-serving trade minister Rafidah Aziz. Nobody dared fault her.

'If you criticised her, even courteously and in good faith, her retort was always to point out how much worse you yourself were,' he writes. 'It was all very unpleasant.'

Dr Mahathir does himself no favours by reopening the debate over Operation Lalang, stressing the point he made at the time, that the head of the police force advised the round-up to prevent a repeat of the May 13, 1969 racial riots. If Dr Mahathir sincerely regrets the clampdown and considers it was a mistake, the honourable course surely would be to apologise. Instead, he justifies his decision by claiming he had to suppress his personal doubts and defer to 'the role and expertise of the police'.

It was Dr Mahathir, as home minister, who signed the detention orders for each of the 119 detainees held beyond 60 days on police authority. He kept then parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, now head of the Democratic Action Party, in jail for 18 months.

Moreover, Dr Mahathir makes the extraordinary claim that on taking office in 1981 he informed his deputy Musa Hitam that he did not intend to use the Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial. After Operation Lalang, he used the ISA freely.

In the preface to this blockbuster, Dr Mahathir expresses doubt that it is 'readable', even after he agonised over the text and rewrote all 62 chapters 'at least five times'. Actually, the more pertinent issue is credibility.

Dr Mahathir has produced a book to burnish his maverick credentials - as Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister, a Third World champion who stands up to the West and a fearless spokesman for Islamic causes.

For instance, while in office Dr Mahathir accepted the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington as the work of terrorists. Now he thinks the whole thing could have been 'an elaborately staged drama' to persuade the world that the US had been attacked.

But opinion, however outrageous, is one thing; facts are another matter altogether.

Dr Mahathir misspells the name of former Singapore president Benjamin Sheares, misnames the Five Power Defence Arrangements, and correctly records the year he defeated Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's challenge for the Umno leadership, only to use two different dates elsewhere.

The late cardiac surgeon Victor Chang was Australian, not Singaporean. Zhou Enlai was premier, not president, of China, and Deng Xiaoping did not succeed Zhou. Tengku Razaleigh was not treasurer of Umno when the party was declared illegal in 1987; he had been replaced by Daim Zainuddin three years earlier.

Similarly, inconsistencies and contradictions grate on the reader and undermine belief.

Dr Mahathir was involved in a housing development in Alor Setar, from which he says 'I did not make much money', but which yielded 'quite a lot of money' in another reference.

'Finding no strong opposition among my colleagues', Dr Mahathir signed up Mr Anwar as a member of Umno in 1982 - but in fact 'many senior members of the party did not like him because he posed a threat to their own ambitions'.

Malaysians were 'usually not aware of any wrongdoing by their Rulers' and other members of royal families. But even when cases of royals being involved in assaults were covered up and not reported by the press, 'the people would know anyway'.

Such blemishes - this is a limited sample only - might matter less if the larger picture was assuredly accurate, but often it is not.

On his first official visit to Singapore as prime minister in December 1981, Dr Mahathir writes that he paid a courtesy call on President Sheares, who had been his professor at medical college.

After the book's release early last month, when it was pointed out that Dr Sheares had died seven months before the visit, Dr Mahathir acknowledged a faulty memory. But he did not reconsider claims that he had been treated rudely by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, not accorded a state dinner or welcome speeches, and 'felt sorely used'.

A little legwork by the unidentified 'team of journalists and researchers' who assisted Dr Mahathir would have revealed that Mr Lee personally met and saw off his visitor at the airport, hosted a banquet and held private talks with him.

Dr Mahathir is almost certainly confusing the visit with the one he made to Singapore in 1990, nine years later, when Mr Goh Chok Tong succeeded Mr Lee as premier. It was the bad vibes of the Mahathir-Goh encounter that put Malaysia-Singapore relations in the cooler for the rest of the decade.

When the Malaysian authorities were considering banning my book, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad In Turbulent Times, Dr Mahathir spoke in favour of allowing it into the country. He made the case for everyone having their say so the public could make up its own mind about his record.

It may be self-serving to say so, but anyone wanting to get a balanced perspective of the Mahathir years should read beyond A Doctor in the House.

The writer, who is writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, is the author of Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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