Thank you, Dr Mahathir

To me, at the core of Mahathir's Machiavellianism is contempt for his fellow citizens. He would have been a great democratic leader had he respected the intelligence of ordinary Malaysians. So, I thank him for his latest statement if it helps us to mature as a nation by deconstructing the cult of his personality.

By Wong Chin Huat, The Malaysian Insider

I WAS not disturbed at all by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's recent communalist remarks that Malay Malaysians have been marginalised after sharing the country with "outsiders". While I applaud the powerful critiques by the likes of Dr Toh Kin Woon, I do not share the anger and disappointment many Malaysians feel. I certainly do not feel hurt.

Another Ahmad Ismail

I did not feel hurt in August 2008 when former Umno Bukit Bendera division head Datuk Ahmad Ismail said non-Malay Malaysians were squatters in this country. At that time, many Malaysians — including some critics of the Internal Security Act (ISA) and some Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders — wanted him to be detained under the ISA or charged for sedition. I wrote two pieces defending Ahmad Ismail's freedom of expression and questioning the authoritarianism in the Malaysian psyche.

I argued that support for the ISA cannot be attributed to the BN alone. The ISA is alive because it fulfills the need amongst many Malaysians for a strong government. We cannot do away with the ISA unless we first do away with our obsession for authoritarianism.

Not surprisingly, the pieces invited some nasty comments in the blogosphere. Some thought that I was supporting the BN or Ahmad Ismail. Some thought that I must be insane. I was, of course, neither. I supported Ahmad Ismail's freedom of speech simply because I always believe that a society should be open and confident enough to tolerate even idiots and lunatics. This applies both ways. Ahmad Ismail is free to see me as an idiot, a lunatic or even a villain, but he must respect my constitutional rights as long as I do not profess violence.

To me, Mahathir was but another Ahmad Ismail when he made the ethno-centrist statement, notwithstanding the intellectual gap between them. So what if he is a former prime minister? Would a drunken man you meet outside the pub be less drunk if he were a former minister or movie star?

Once a Malaysian

There is however a big difference between Mahathir and Ahmad Ismail. Ahmad Ismail was never known for promoting national unity or nation building. He was never a poster boy for all things Malaysian. Dr Mahathir was. Go to his official website and listen to the speeches of Mahathir the prime minister and you will find beautiful images he painted for an inclusive Malaysia, in sharp contrast to what Mahathir the blogger now says.

In 1991, for example, he talked about the dream of "establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny. This must be a nation at peace with itself, territorially and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and full and fair partnership, made up of one 'Bangsa Malaysia' with political loyalty and dedication to the nation."

If we are on track, that dream should be achieved in a mere 11 years from now. It was part of Mahathir's Vision 2020, once the standard essay topic for all Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia and Penilaian Menengah Rendah students in secondary school.

This is perhaps the reason why so many people are disappointed with him. They believed in him, thinking that he was a true leader for Malaysia who would rise above communal politics. He was not. Just three months before his inspiring Vision 2020 speech, he won the bitterly-fought 1990 elections with a smear campaign that could have dwarfed former US President George W Bush's smear campaign against Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004. As in the 2008 elections, the BN lost about 70% of non-Malay Malaysian support in 1990.