Mahathir's Rule - A Brief Review

by K George

One of the first things that Dr Mahathir Mohamad did after becoming prime minister was to introduce privatisation as a result of which he developed his political patronage. Such patronage enabled him to consolidate his power. In fact, privatisation also resulted in the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. This is why many Malaysians believe that cronyism, nepotism and favoritism became the order of the day.

Scandal after scandal surfaced. But they were suppressed systematically. The mass media have been totally tamed. Editors and journalists started discarding their professional ethics in favour of selling their souls. Through the process of nepotism and favouritism, a circle of favoured supporters was created. Obnoxious statutes such as the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Police Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and the Sedition Act were used by the government to instil fear in the people's minds.

For Mahathir, democracy, freedom, and human rights have different interpretations. The principles of natural justice and rule of law apparently have no place in his dealings with the people. He has often reiterated his belief that a person is innocent until convicted. But when he was faced with the problem of dismissing Anwar Ibrahim from the cabinet and UMNO, Mahathir found no difficulty in throwing that well-established belief to the wind.

To further consolidate his authority, Mahathir, the then Home Minister, resorted to "Operation Lalang"; suspended the licences of vocal newspapers that occasionally hurt his ego; and subdued the judiciary. The judicial crisis saw the Lord President, Salleh Abas, and two other Supreme Court judges dismissed. The High Court's declaration of the original UMNO as illegal cleared the way for Mahathir to register UMNO Baru without wasting any time. He was thus able to eliminate all his political opponents in the party.

His next step was to clip the wings of the Malay Rulers, which he succeeded in doing with the support of the majority of Malaysians. Thus, he established himself as the "supreme feudal leader".

Since the 1970s, the Malaysian economy has enjoyed steady and sustained growth, along with the other countries in the region. Nevertheless, Mahathir deserves some credit for such a boom. To satisfy his ego, he wanted to associate his rule with mega projects - the longest bridge, the tallest buildings, the grandest airport, the Bakun dam, Putrajaya with an official "palace" for the Prime Minister which alone would cost the people millions.

He ignored analysts' warnings of a possible economic recession. If he had not squandered all that money and saved it for "a rainy day", we would have been more resilient in withstanding the present recession.

The split and the dismissal

For sometime, there had been differences of opinion between Mahathir and his deputy Anwar on policies, views and commitments. Anwar was not prepared to support the bailout of Mirzan and other cronies with the peoples' money. Mahathir, grown accustomed to praise and flattery for several years now, has become incapable of tolerating dissent and criticism. He wanted total endorsement, which was not forthcoming from his deputy.

Mahathir and his supporters perceived in Anwar a threat to their survival. So, Anwar had to go, they resolved. But Anwar steadfastly rejected the suggestion of resignation, knowing full well he would have to face dismissal from the cabinet and UMNO for refusing to meekly resign. His refusal to go quietly resulted in his arrest, detention and the assault while in police custody.

Who is on trial?

The trial, which began on 2 November 1998, was an unprecedented event in Malaysian judicial history. Even before Anwar was charged, Mahathir, who has repeatedly maintained an accused person remains innocent until convicted, totally deviated from this stand and virtually "convicted" Anwar when he declared that he could not allow an immoral person like Anwar to be the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The strangest thing that can happen in a democratic country is to charge and convict the alleged victims of sodomy separately in a 20-minute trial in two different courts without the presence of the alleged "perpetrator", who was already in police custody. After their convictions and while serving their sentence, the so-called victims vehemently retracted their earlier "confessions", claiming they were they were made under coercion. One of the alleged victims was even medically examined and it was later revealed that there was no evidence of any sodomy in the past five years or so.

The trial attracted unprecedented national and international attention. But Justice Augustine Paul seemed to agree with Mahathir and ruled that "the presence of (foreign) observers would be an insult and will amount to interference in the powers and functions of the court." The decision of the judge was at variance with the established practice in this country. There are precedents where the courts have granted observer status to foreign representatives. So, how can it be an "insult"?!

Nikkol Weekly Japan quotes Dr Wan Azizah as having referred to the trial as "Justice is on trial".

The editorial of the New York Times (4 November 1998) says inter alia: "The most likely reason for his (Anwar's) arrest is that Prime Minister Mahathir, worried by the fall of President Suharto in Indonesia, felt threatened by Anwar's popularity and reform agenda. But Dr Mahathir has miscalculated. His attack on Anwar, the most important of a new generation of Asian leaders, is fuelling support for reformist ideas across the region".

The Economist of London (7 November 1998) asks: "Will Anwar have a fair trial? Will he be found guilty? Will the outcome rock the country?"

Asiaweek carried a cover story "Nation on Trial" and quotes Param Cumaraswamy as saying: The whole nation is on trial including the judiciary itself.

What does New Straits Times group editor Abdul Kadir Jasin say? "All of us, no matter how remotely connected we are to (Anwar's) case, are on trial in one way or other".

Marina Yusof, a former magistrate and ex-UMNO stalwart, was quoted in the 16 November issue of Newsweek as saying: "In its over zealousness to convict Anwar, the prosecution is actually opening up a Pandora's Box of police and legal excesses that make the case against Anwar look ridiculous".

The 16 November 1998 issue of Time opined: "Anwar is in the court room, but Mahathir and his political legacy are also in the docks."

Professor Chandra Muzaffar summarises the trial in a nutshell: "If Anwar is acquitted, it would be difficult for Mahathir to survive. If he is convicted, and the people feel that the evidence is overwhelming in his favour, Anwar's conviction won't help Mahathir. Either way Mahathir will be in trouble."

Enter the Mattress and the DNA

Three months after Anwar's arrest, a mattress entered the courtroom. The prosecution claimed that it was from Trivoli Villa, a highly sophisticated and luxury condominium. No bed-sheet was produced. Chemist Lim Kwan Boon, in his evidence, told the court that he found 13 seminal stains on the mattress and that a DNA test revealed they belonged to Anwar. But what happened to the slides? They were destroyed; Lim answered, so there was nothing more to discuss on the DNA test.

But suddenly, my friend Lim Guan Eng, who is presently languishing in Kajang Prison, comes to my mind. He might like our Attorney General to order a DNA test on Rahim Tamby Chik, that 15-year-old Malay girl, and her child. All of them are around. After all, she told the court that Rahim had sex with her.

Amendments to the Charge

After 45 days of trial, at the close of the prosecution's case, the charges were amended and the court ordered all evidence as to whether sexual misconduct had actually taken place be expunged from its records. The defence was thus not allowed to disprove the allegations.

A member of the English Bar, Richard Satloukal comments: "In Mr Anwar's case especially given the advance stage of the proceedings, no English judge would even contemplate allowing the prosecution to amend the charges as the Malaysian judge has done: The prejudice is obvious - even to a woodlouse".

Mahathir who sacked Anwar on grounds of sodomy and sexual immorality - what explanation does he have now for the people of Malaysia?

The Black Eye and the Resignation of the IGP

Anwar was arrested by police on 20 September 1998. He was handcuffed and blindfolded and locked up at Bukit Aman. He was brutally and cowardly assaulted. He fell unconscious and was denied medical attention for five days. This is the complaint Anwar made to the judge when he was brought to court on 29 September 1998, nine days after the police brutality.

Dr Shukri, the consultant ophthalmologist who examined Anwar, stated in his report: "In my expert opinion, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was assaulted over the left forehead and neck, and received blunt trauma that resulted in the residual bruises over the left upper eye-lid and lower eye-lid."

Responding to persistent public pressure, the Attorney General, after three months, made an announcement putting the entire blame for the assault on the police. Although the announcement did not pinpoint the actual culprits, IGP Rahim Noor tendered his resignation by accepting full responsibility.

Much earlier, when the assault had become the talk of the town, the Prime Minister, who was the then Home Minister, had flippantly suggested that the injuries could have been self-inflicted. What a mindless, crude suggestion for a Prime Minister to make.

"Mr Clean" New DPM

After months of uncertainty and dilly-dallying, the Prime Minister finally appointed Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as his deputy. Amongst UMNO leaders, he is known as "Mr Clean". I will go one step more and describe Ahmad Badawi as even cleaner than Samy Vellu, who once claimed to be the minister with the "cleanest hands".

As a person, Ahmad Badawi is clean. But is he capable of cleaning the dirt that has accumulated over the years? The answer can be easily traced to his recent statements. For instance, when the people raised a hue and cry against the proposed increase of tolls and demanded the disclosure of the contracts, his reaction was "There is no need to make public the agreement - the government is not lying. If the government makes this agreement public, it would never end. There will be calls for others (to make public)" (The Sun, 25 January 1999).

In another statement, he praises Daim Zainudin as a better Finance Minister than Anwar, forgetting the controversy Daim was involved in while he was Finance Minister from 1984 to 1991.

A Word to Anwar

I am deeply grieved at the way Mahathir and some others have treated you. What has been happening to you has not surprised me. Over three and a half years ago, in an open letter to you, I had predicted that your justifiable ambition to step into the shoes of Mahathir would be thwarted by the evil forces in UMNO.

Now that you have fallen, some of your close associates and friends have changed camps. They may have done so because of fear or opportunism. This is not unusual in politics.
But don't you lose heart, tens of thousands of people in Malaysia and even foreigners have become your friends, supporters and sympathisers. In our struggle for justice, freedom and democracy, sacrifices are inevitable. Like many others, I am proud of you.
Malaysia has, in recent times, witnessed the birth of two heroes - Lim Guan Eng, who is languishing in Kajang Prison, and Anwar Ibrahim, who has been sentenced to 6 years' jail.

A Humble Plea to Mahathir

You have been the Prime Minister of Malaysia for 18 years. You have done some good things. But you have also done some bad things. The Anwar episode has brought shame and disgrace to this country. It happened immediately after what was done to Lim Guan Eng.

You have said on several occasions that when you are no longer required, you would quit. I am an ordinary citizen five years older than you are. In my humble opinion, the time has come for you to say "Selamat Tinggal" (goodbye) to politics.


A book titled Anwar Saga authored by Fan Yew Ting was very helpful in the preparation of this article.