Dr M and Ku Li at it again?

Interestingly both men appear to enjoy a degree of immunity, criticizing the government with impunity. No one will act against them. This suggests that they both command a high level of respect if not wariness from the authorities.


Contemporary Malaysian history is cyclical, not linear. We are fated to repeat ourselves: why have one Razak as Prime Minister, when you can have two? Or settle for just Lim Kit Siang instead of Lim Guan Eng as well?

On a more dispiriting note, if we can have Sodomy1, why not Sodomy2? And since Dr Mahathir toppled one Premier–Tunku Abdul Rahman, why not a second, Tun Abdullah Badawi?

Thankfully though, we’ve never actually repeated the race riots of May ’69–proof perhaps that we Malaysians are more evolved than our leaders.

Still, we retain a healthy respect for age. Whatever we might really think about the increasingly irascible Dr Mahathir, we continue to defer to him in public.

For much of the past twenty years Dr Mahathir–having wiped out all the opponents from his generation–has dominated the political stage. Indeed, his toughest challengers have been much younger men–most notably, Anwar Ibrahim.

Now, however, we’re presented with a curious development: Dr Mahathir has suddenly got company in the ‘Grand Old Statesman’ category once again.

Tengku Razaleigh, the Kelantan prince has found his voice. Sidelined for decades, Razaleigh has emerged as a potent voice for Middle Malaysia. With his princely pedigree and easy-going personality, he straddles the nation’s contradictions comfortably, from Nik Aziz to Anandakrishnan, ‘Joe’ Pairin and any number of prominent Chinese tycoons.

At the same time his familiarity with the Malay elite–the various Royal houses, the military, the police, the Bumiputra businessmen and the civil service means that he is accepted by those who’ve always felt a little discomfited by Anwar’s populism. Invigorated by his arguments on oil royalties, Razaleigh has staged an almighty comeback.

Indeed, it appears as if we’re witnessing a replay of their mid-80’s battle to dominate UMNO. However, back in 1987 when their rivalry brought the country to a near halt, the contest was factional. Frankly, there was little to differentiate them ideologically.

This time round the differences are stark. Indeed they represent contrasting views of both UMNO and Malaysia. In one respect, at least someone in the political firmament is moving forward!

So what has happened? Basically, Dr Mahathir has gravitated to his traditional conservative position. He now graces events organized by Perkasa, a ‘Tea Party’-like pressure group seeking to force UMNO into greater ethnocentrism.

He has resurrected the Malay-ultra rhetoric of his angry youth, warning the community to unite lest the community lose power to Malaysia’s restive minorities.

There is no doubt that this has caused difficulties for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is currently trying to win back non-Malay support without antagonizing Dr Mahathir. The PM is walking a tightrope.

Razaleigh on the other hand, has called for greater pluralism and civil liberties. Indeed, in doing so he has noticeably broken ranks with UMNO’s leadership who have rejected such ideas altogether.

The Kelantanese prince’s independent-minded remarks reached a crescendo at a gathering in Kota Baru where he called for the Federal government to honour its obligations under the Petroleum Act.

Razaleigh has also decried the state of justice in Malaysia and the growing ethnic polarization. To him, Malaysia’s democracy was “existing in name, but grievously compromised in substance, reality and fact.”

Malaysians are presented with a richly-ironic situation. Two of the most venerable political leaders are presenting a very young nation with entirely separate visions of the country’s future.

Interestingly both men appear to enjoy a degree of immunity, criticizing the government with impunity. No one will act against them. This suggests that they both command a high level of respect if not wariness from the authorities.

Moreover, they also represent a living connection with Malaysia’s first two premiers, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak. This invests them both with a mantle of authority–especially as UMNO is trying to find its ‘groove’.

Nonetheless, the really important link is with the late Tun Razak. Both men were instrumental in implementing the New Economic Policy. As such, both are responsible to some degree for the fraught race-relations that we are now facing up to as a nation.

However, Tengku appears to be stepping back from the NEP–not unlike Anwar Ibrahim–concerned at the abuses and losses. Dr Mahathir, conversely, has clung to the policy steadfastly.

To be fair, Dr Mahathir’s current stance is also indicative of what appears to be his frustration at the possibility of seeing his legacy destroyed. He has been straight-forward in condemning UMNO’s poor human capital.

The cyclical nature of our politics I mentioned earlier means we tend to be enamoured with dynastic politics. This often leads to more paradoxes.

On one hand, we have an aristocrat pushing for more openness in Malaysia. On the other, a scion of the middle-class opposes anything of the sort. But perhaps this is not so surprising.

Sadly, I’m not sure UMNO members recognize the ideological differences between Tengku Razaleigh and Dr Mahathir. Patronage politics–contracts and more contracts–remains the central issue and Tengku doesn’t have the money to splash around.

In the end it’s not about the men themselves, it’s about UMNO and where the party chooses to go. Will the members veer to the right or will it assume a more moderate stance? At least we have two contrasting visions.