One Year Later - The September of the Patriarch

The choice of Anwar as the Alternative Frontís leader if it wins the election is a blow to Mahathir and a black eye to the Barisan Nasional

By Dr Maznah Mohamad

Farewell to Mahathir?: Time to shed strong leadership syndrome

A year ago when Anwar Ibrahim decided to be sacked, he thought that by refusing to resign, he was giving up a comfortable pension and a chance to escape the distasteful charge of committing "unnatural acts". At worst, he was to be deprived of his human rights and civil liberties. Little did he know that he was also gambling with his life. Such is how grim politics has turned out to be and such is how heavy a price political dissent has been made to pay in this country.

As each day passes, the prospect of knowing the truth about Anwarís actual condition seems more and more remote.

The mainstream media has shown no signs of letting up. The lies and distortions have become even more obnoxious, even more awkward. The greater the sense of denial that newspapers and television news show, the more fatuous they read and sound. One would hope that aside from die-hard Mahathir-idolaters and Anwar-haters (these two are mutually inclusive), only the most dim-witted would still fall prey to the mediaís mendaciousness.

A Most Enervating and Energising Year

A year is not a long time to hope for drastic changes to occur, at least not when it comes to changing a government, a regime or a way of life. A year is not a long period for history to take its course. A year is a drop in the ocean of time as far as bringing about a cultural revolution is concerned. Yet the year which went by was a year that will be etched in this countryís history as one of its most enervating, and ironically also its most energising. For a year, we have seen great rumblings from underneath the pavement yet the edifice of authoritarian power has withstood the shocks and aftershocks of people power, so far.

As soon as Anwar was sacked, the nature of Mahathirís 18-year rule began to be unravelled. Many people used to know Mahathir as the nonconformist who never failed in the risks he took at tiding over one controversial episode to another, from one political dare to another. One would say that he was always getting away with murder. Today, with the poisoning incident still unanswered, are we seeing a case of someone, somewhere, literally getting away with murder?

Mahathirís control of almost everything from judges to jailers have left large sections of society too overwhelmed to even contemplate meek questioning. They have been fed with slick images of modernity, gleaming skyscrapers and pappy advertisements on television of idyllic bourgeois children espousing their plastic philosophy about the good life. Further, guileless youths taking up the Mahathir clarion-call for conquests have fashioned the man into a supposedly unassailable pilot of a dazzling land peopled with high achievers and record breakers.

Still Waiting For The Right Time

For the whole of the turbulent previous year, scores of people continue to remain fixated with Mahathirís fix-it-all formula. One and a half years ago, and a few months after the start of the Asian economic crisis there was already anticipation that the general election was going to be held soon. Till date this has not occurred. Why? If the Mahathir government is waiting for the right time to do so why has not the right time emerged? The truth is, the much sought-after Barisan Nasionalís formula of a combined prospering economy with widespread political unanimity, fusing at the same time and all attributed to the hands of Mahathir have not come about. Never mind if half of Malaysia is determined to cling on to vestiges of the old world, the other half is waiting anxiously to give its mandate to a leadership for a better future.

Shocking Labels

Callous, Machiavellian, shrewd, scheming, high of hubris and low on tolerance. Some people say that these are qualities akin to Mahathirís. Even more intriguing are some of the shocking labels given to him, during the spate of just one year. An Internet web-site has chastised him "Mahafiraun", or the great pharaoh. A recent New York Times article has called him a "tinpot tyrant". One of Malaysiaís literary laureates has popularised the use of a Malay swear word that has the abbreviation, P.M.. So far Mahathir has displayed little sense of being mortified by the prospect of being remembered in history as the bearer of such colourful but off-putting labels.

The opposition has claimed that Mahathirís 18 years of rule have been tainted by numerous financial scandals and even some politically-linked killings, almost all remaining unsolved till today. They say that his 18-year rule has also been inscribed by a tightened grip over the judiciary, unfettered manipulation of the media and boundless hold on a servile civil service. Essential qualities in a leader for people who are desperate to elevate their self-esteem (read egos) through a powerful icon? That he happened to be iconoclastic would make his stature even more appealing.

Time To Shed Strong Leadership Syndrome

The time has come for people to shed this need for a strong-leadership syndrome and move on to a new phase in the countryís history. The fact of the matter is that, from the Philippine of the Marcos-days to the Indonesia of the Suharto-days a strong leadership has only wreaked social havoc in one way or another. A strong leadership does not necessarily protect public goods. A strong leadership is not defenceless against the temptations of corruption and material profiteering. Worse, a strong leadership could not even be persuaded to be morally answerable to simple virtues such as honesty and compassion.

Strong leaders have employed everything within their midst, both legal and extra-legal to see that their ends justify their means. In the Asia of the Mahathirs (and the Lee Kuan Yews), economics is always the end and everything and anything seems to be their means. They might have made their contributions to Asiaís revolution of rising material expectations but beyond that they should not be expected to contribute much else. The Mahathirs are mired in their time-warped framework of an amoral servitude to the gods of greed, conquest and control. In trying to stand tall among their more powerful oppressors from the west, Mahathir at least has stood on a box to come up to the height of his foes. Why bother at all? Strange that one should put down the "enemy" by trying to look more and more like it and using artificial contraptions at that!

A Blow for A Blow

Exactly a year after Anwar Ibrahim was arrested and delivered a black eye, the opposition coalition has proved its mettle by recognising its most potent unity symbol ever. When the Alternative Front announced that it had chosen Anwar Ibrahim to lead the country if it should get elected, that must have been a blow to Mahathir, and a black-eye to his Barisan Nasional retinue for failing, during an entire year, to quash the rising tide that would be rejecting their rule.

The announcement of Anwar Ibrahim as leader for the Alternative Front would have solved the two needling issues haunting the four political parties. Before this there was a stalemate over the selection of a legitimate leader, acceptable to Muslims, non-Muslims, business leaders, liberals, social democrats and human rights advocates alike. The other issue was on the setting up of the Islamic State, which would not go well with some quarters. The choice of Anwar Ibrahim as possible prime minister would have killed two birds with one stone.

Anwar: The Most Thinkable Alternative

As the most credible choice to be prime minister Anwar would be more acceptable to larger sections of the Malaysian community. As a mediator with sound Islamic credentials he would be able to moderate on the issue of the "Islamic State" without giving in unfairly to one side at the expense of the other. Truly, thatís the best that we can expect in a functioning democracy where all views, majority and minority would have to be fairly heard. The present leaders within Barisan Nasional never proved themselves capable of rising to this level and capacity. In fact there are circulating rumours to suggest that some UMNO personalities are even surreptitiously plotting under cover to stage their own coup against Mahathir. If true it can only be seen as yet another cowardly act to affect political processes through subterfuge, deceit and duplicity. "Our Way", perhaps?

A Clear Choice In The Next Election

Having said all that we should be confident that Malaysians can look forward to a new Malaysia; unfortunately with two grim conditions. First, that Anwar survives the assault on his life and, second, that the present regime will not be forced to take even more extreme measures to protect their power, wealth and a Pandoraís box of alleged criminal acts from being uncovered in their safe haven of a despotic armoury.

Ultimately, the Barisan Nasionalís campaign is not about winning an election. Itís about a massive exercise at abetting a small cliqueís effort to wipe out its record of wrongdoings and conceal its long list of the abuses of power. As the Mahathir regime approaches the September of its years, the choice for the rest of us at the ballot box should be clearer by now.