An Epic in the Making? The Other Side of the Mahathir-Anwar Story

Category: Life & Society Topics: History, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia Views: 1208

Writing history is as much a question of style as it is of facts. One can write the history of a person, a nation or an event according to a number of stylistic modes and tropes. The choice of style in turn decides whether the history in question becomes an epic, a farce or a tragedy. But sometimes the facts of history themselves can determine how that history is written, for they are themselves ironic and tragic in their own way.

All these elements seem to be at work in contemporary Malaysia today, and the writing of contemporary Malaysian history invariably leads to the production of a narrative that is rich with the contradictions, variables and uncertainties that have come to haunt us in the present.

The fact that the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is more unpopular now that he has ever been is almost beyond dispute or question. In an interview conducted by Asiaweek recently (Asiaweek, 26 January 2001), Dr. Mahathir himself conceded that his own UMNO party has lost its way and that maybe he should never have gone into politics. In his own words: 'I should have stayed a doctor. When I was practicing, I was very popular. People loved me.'

The Prime Minister's despondent tone is understandable under the circumstances. A cursory reading of the contents of many of the opposition and alternative websites out there in cyberspace (perhaps the only discursive territory that remains beyond the control of Dr. Mahathir and the government) will show that he is despised more than ever by a significant section of the Malay-Muslim community who make up his natural political constituency. Labelled as Mahazalim, Mahafiraun and likened to the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto, Dr. Mahathir has been effectively ostracised and expelled from his own community.

It is indeed ironic that the man who was once dubbed the Malay 'Ultra' and the champion of the masses now finds himself being branded as the enemy of the same people he has come to lead. No doubt, the history books (written by the hands of different writers of different political and ideological persuasions) will judge the legacy of Dr. M differently. There will be those who will undoubtedly sing their praises to the man who was seen as the driving force behind the modernisation and industrialisation of Malaysia, and who almost single-handedly tried to lift the Malays out of the moral and cultural morass they had sunk into by the late 1970s. Then there will be those who will put the blame for the cultural degeneration of the country at the feet of Dr. M himself, and accuse him of betraying the country's interests and the interests of the Malay-Muslim community in particular.

Whatever the outcome may be, the facts of history have the tendency to remain rigid and indifferent in the face of sectarian demands and partisanship. Before we rush to write the political epitaph of the man who is now the longest-serving ruler in Asia, it might we wise to reconsider some of the facts of recent Malaysian history.

Return of the Jedi: Mahathir and the New Generation of UMNOputras of the 1980s.

The PAS Member of Parliament Mohamad Sabu once referred to the return of Dr. Mahathir from the political wilderness in the early 1970s as the 'return of the Jedi'. (This always gets him a lot of laughs, as those who have been to his talks will be able to tell you.) But in a sense, Mohd Sabu actually hit the nail on the head when he first made the comparison. For it has to be said that when Dr. Mahathir re-appeared on the political scene on in 1970, he was widely regarded as the 'great hope' for a whole generation of young, urban-based, university-educated Malays.

Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad was born in Seberang Perak, Kedah in 1925. In his youth he was drawn to the Malay nationalist struggle and he wrote extensively on Malay-related issues and concerns in the local press using the pseudonym 'Che Det'. By then he was deeply worried about the state of the Malays in the British colony and their economic and political future should the country be granted their independence from Britain. He later studied medicine at the King Edward VII College of Medicine at University Malaya which was then based in Singapore. After graduating he practised medicine at his MAHA clinic in Kedah (where he now longs to return to apparently) before he became an active participant in Malay politics. In the 60s he was widely regarded as an outspoken radical who condemned both the ineffectiveness of the Malay elite as well as Chinese domination of the Malaysian economy. His conservative approach to politics, staunch defence of Malay rights and privileges and his sustained critique of the traditional ruling elite made him a popular figure among UMNO radicals by the 1970s and early 1980s.

After writing his hugely controversial book The Malay Dilemma in 1969, Dr. Mahathir was momentarily removed from the UMNO party. He was only allowed back into UMNO after the Tunku himself had resigned and taken up the post of Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Dr. Mahathir made his way back into the UMNO fold and slowly rose to become the Deputy Prime Minister under Hussein Onn in the late 1970s.

When Hussein Onn stepped down, he was replaced by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Dr. Mahathir became the first UMNO president and Prime Minister who was not from the royal families or the Malay aristocracy. (He was also the first PM who was a non-golfer, it seems.) When he took over the leadership of UMNO, many observers at the time felt that the position of deputy president should have gone to Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the UMNO leader and aristocrat from Kelantan. But Dr. Mahathir left the matter open during the UMNO General Assembly and the delegates voted instead for another UMNO 'ultra', Dato' Musa Hitam. Musa Hitam was subsequently made Deputy Prime Minister as well.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad came to power with the support of a large section of the Malay-Muslim community and the Bumiputera statist-capitalist class in particular. These were the urban-based Malay-Muslims who had benefited from the NEP era and whose economic lot had been greatly improved since the early 1970s. Thanks to the policies introduced by Tun Razak and Hussein Onn, the Bumiputeras' share of the Malaysian economy had gone up to 12.5 % compared to the measly 1.5 % in 1969. (Though it should be noted that the government did not manage to reach the NEP's stated target of increasing the Malay share of the economy to 30 %).

Though Dr. Mahathir's standing before the Malay-Muslim students in the local universities is at an all-time low today, few of his critics remember the fact that when he first came to power he was widely seen as a 'hero' by the Malay-Muslim students of the local campuses in particular. For the first time in Malaysian history, an UMNO leader had come to assume control of the State with the backing of the UMNO Youth assembly and university student unions all over the land as well.

The other thing that many of his critics have chosen to forget is the fact that it was the UMNO radical, Dr. Mahathir, who actually released many of the political detainees in the country who had been arrested and detained under the ISA during the time of the Tunku, Tun Razak and Hussein Onn.

Though today he is contemptuously referred to as the great Mahazalim, it was this very same Mahazalim who freed all the opponents and critics of the Tunku from jail and the detention centres of the country. (It must be remembered that the fervently anti-Communist Tunku was convinced that newly-independent Malaya was constantly under threat from Communist infiltration and insurgency. During the Tunku's time, hundreds of political opponents, unionists, journalists and activists were routinely arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act for al,leged crimes against the state. This included the president of the Islamic party PAS, Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy and the president of the People's party PRM, Ahmad Boestaman.) As soon as he came to power Dr. Mahathir released all the politicians and student leaders who were detained under the orders of the previous administration. The number of political detainees in the country dropped from 1,200 in 1980 to less than 100 in 1985. By September 1987, the number of detainees had dropped to 27, the lowest in the country's history since the ISA was first introduced in 1960.

But those who hoped that the rise of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad would lead to a radical change within the neo-feudal political culture of UMNO soon realised that the man himself was very much a product of the same feudal values and practices which he tried to reform in the 1970s. After serving as the loyal Deputy to Hussein Onn, Dr. Mahathir had come to expect the same degree of loyalty and commitment from his own subordinates and followers: those who refused were dubbed 'ungrateful traitors' who were disobedient and disrespectful towards UMNO, the protector of Malay interests.

With Dr. Mahathir at the helm of the State UMNO's main rival the Islamist party PAS now found itself facing the one man who seemed to represent the aspirations and longings of an entire generation of urban-based middle-class Malay-Muslims. While PAS's president then Mohamad Asri Muda had spent his life championing the cause of Malay culture, language and identity, Dr. Mahathir had risked his own career by condemning the traditional feudal culture of the Malays as antiquated, decadent and corrupt. In his book The Malay Dilemma he had set out his vision to radically reinvent the Malay race anew and to bring into being a new generation of Malay elite who were economically dynamic, competitive, outward-looking, cognisant of the needs and demands of Modernity and the material world, and also beholden to the State.

Dr. Mahathir's vision and understanding of Islam was also radically opposed to that of the traditional Ulama and radical Islamists. A believer in his own brand of pragmatic modernist Islam, Dr. Mahathir had shown that he was unable and unwilling to tolerate both revolutionary Islamist politics and traditional obscurantist Islam. In 1979, while serving as Deputy Prime Minister under Hussein Onn, he had already warned the Islamist groupings in the country of the danger of emulating the tactics of the Iranian revolutionaries. This was a clear warning to Islamist groupings like ABIM who were openly supporting the Iranian revolution at the time. Dr. Mahathir's strong aversion to outdated and traditional Islamic practices were also well known. While the Ulama laid stress on fiqh, the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet and lamented the fact the younger Malays could no longer read and write in Jawi, Dr. Mahathir lamented the fact that the Malays were poor in the fields of business, scientific research and heavy industries. To prove that Islam was compatible with Modernity and secular development, Dr. Mahathir spent his life trying to develop his own school of Islamic modernist thought. One of the lesser known outcomes of this project was the invention of the world's first Islamic toilet- installed in the Putra World Trade Centre, bastion of the UMNO party's pride and self-confidence.

In both his words and his deeds, Dr. Mahathir seemed to be diametrically opposed to everything that PAS and the Islamist opposition stood for. With the rise of Mahathir Mohamad to power the frontier between PAS and UMNO should have been drawn more clearly than ever before, were it not for one variable factor that was overlooked by all: Anwar Ibrahim.

Enter the Other Jedi: Anwar Ibrahim's entry into UMNO.

Jedi knights, as any teenage science-fiction buff will tell you, tend to come in pairs. If Dr. Mahathir was the first Jedi, then Anwar Ibrahim must sur,ely rank as the second.

In the wake of the 1998 intra-party crisis within UMNO, the history of the conservative-nationalist Malay-Muslim party has been hastily re-written by all the competing factions within and without it. Anwar Ibrahim's supporters claim that his was a crusade to alter and reform the UMNO party from within and to Islamise the conservative-nationalist party so that it would be able to serve as a vehicle for Muslim concerns. Anwar's enemies, on the other hand, have denounced him as an infiltrator who entered the party just so that he could use it to propel himself and develop his own political career at the expense of the other leaders of the party, including his mentor, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that Anwar's entry into UMNO in 1982 was one of the biggest coups scored by Dr. Mahathir at the expense of PAS and the other Islamist movements in the country. In march 1982 Anwar Ibrahim shocked the membership of his own ABIM movement by announcing that he will stand for the upcoming elections as an UMNO candidate.

For the members of ABIM, PAS and the other Islamist movements in the country Anwar's decision was scandalous: ABIM was then widely regarded as one of the most vocal critics of the government and Anwar Ibrahim himself had openly attacked the government's 'Look East' policy on the grounds that countries like Japan and South Korea were secular capitalist states that should not serve as models for a Muslim country like Malaysia. Up to 1982 ABIM was thought to be firmly allied with the Islamist opposition.

ABIM even came to the help of PAS during the election campaign of 1978, and it was ABIM that lent itself to Asri Muda's PAS in an effort to give the party more Islamic credentials and credibility during its time of crisis. Not only was Anwar regarded as one of the brightest Islamist activists in the country (in 1979 he was received by the government of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and was later awarded the Maulana Iqbal Centenary award by none other than General Zia'ul Haq of Pakistan himself), he was also thought to be a potential candidate for the leadership of PAS at the time.

But many observers had forgotten the fact that Anwar had a 'special relationship' with Dr. Mahathir whom he admired. It was Anwar, after all, who had distributed excerpts of Dr. Mahathir's banned book The Malay Dilemma during the meeting of the Malaysian Union of Muslim students in 1970. (The excerpt was taken from the chapter 'The Mood of the Malays' and it was distributed as part of the souvenir program for the conference. This took place in 1970, one year before the book was officially banned by the government.)

It must also be remembered that during the 1970s Anwar was also a Malay 'ultra' in his own right. Long before his latest avatar as the politically-correct politician who is sensitive to issues related to multiculturalism, pluralism, human rights and inter-cultural dialogue, it was Anwar who led the radicals on campus as they obliterated the signboards and notices that were in English on the campus of University Malaya.

As the president of ABIM and the MBM (Majlis Belia Malaysia- Malaysian Youth Council) Anwar Ibrahim soon made his impact felt in Malay-Muslim circles by championing a number of controversial causes. One of his first public confrontations with authority came when he challenged the Cabinet Minister for Youth and Sports Ali Haji Ahmad over the latter's suggestion that Malaysian students who were being sent overseas for further studies should be issued with condoms so that they would not contract any venereal diseases while abroad. Anwar and the other leaders of ABIM argued that such a move was tantamount to encouraging Malay-Muslim students to engage in free sex, and as a result of the public outrage caused the Minister in question was forced to back down.

Though Anwar claimed that his decisi,on to join UMNO was made only after extensive consultation with others, it was clear that the move was made without consulting the rank and file of the ABIM movement that he had come to lead for so long. Anwar's critics accused him of treason and claimed that he had come under the influence of the American-based Islamist thinker Ismail Raj Faruqi, who was impressed by the commitment of the Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed towards the cause of Islamisation in the country. Anwar's close friends and confidants like the prominent Ulama Ustaz Ahmad Awang warned him that he was more likely to end up sharing the fate of other activists who had been swallowed up by UMNO, like Othman Abdullah and Sanusi Junid. Ustaz Awang's warning to Anwar came in the form of a letter which listed ten 'dangers' which he had to avoid at all costs. These included not working too close with the kafirs of the other non-Muslim Barisan parties, not indulging in the immoral and decadent lifestyle of the 'secular' UMNO elite and to avoid contact with women as much as possible.

Anwar's sudden resignation from the post of ABIM president caused a major split within the Islamist opposition movement in Malaysia. After Anwar had left ABIM, Siddiq Fadhil became its third president, but even he could not halt the further haemorrhaging from within the movement as more and more ABIM members left to enter the world of politics. Some of the ABIM leaders followed Anwar and joined UMNO as well, promising that they would further the cause of Islamisation from within the ranks of the conservative-nationalist party. But other ABIM leaders like Ustaz Fadzil Noor, Ustaz Abdul Hadi Awang, Ustaz Nakhaie Ahmad and Syed Ibrahim Rahman chose to be more active in PAS instead. With the promotion of these ABIM activists within PAS's leadership structure, the character of the Islamist party changed accordingly. The 'ABIMisation' of PAS and the rise of the Ulama faction within the party led to the radicalisation and internationalisation of its concerns.

What saved UMNO from the renewed challenge from PAS was Anwar Ibrahim's presence which gave the nationalist party the Islamist credentials that it badly needed at the time. Thanks to the entry of Anwar into Dr. Mahathir's UMNO, the government of Dr. Mahathir was able to take on the Islamist challenge offered by PAS, ABIM, Darul Arqam and the other Islamist opposition movements more effectively. During the campaigning period up to the elections of 1982, it was Anwar Ibrahim who served as UMNO's 'hammer against PAS'. Caught off guard at a time when it was experiencing a major leadership crisis, PAS was hardly in a position to fight off the challenge from UMNO and the Barisan. When the elections of 1982 were held PAS performed badly.

Today the political and ideological frontier between Dr. Mahathir and the man he chose as his heir-apparent seems to be drawn bolder than ever. Both of them (and their supporters) claim that an immense gulf exists between them that can never be bridged. Yet those who still care to remember the tumultuous events of the 1980s will recall a time when Anwar Ibrahim and his mentor Dr. Mahathir were seen as the perfect match and the country's peaceful development during the 1980s remains as a testimony to the success of the working partnership they enjoyed. But the magic spell was not destined to last, and like all Jedis they eventually became mortal enemies. The question is: who was turned by the Dark side first? The epic unfolds...

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Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is currently teaching at the Islamic Studies Department, Freie Universitat of Berlin and writing a book on the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS. This article originally appeared on Malaysiakini.com and was re-published with permission from the author.


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