The ghosts of Mahathirism


By Stanley Koh, FMT

Is Mahathirism back with a vengeance?

Recent events do make it seem like the Najib regime has decided to adopt the former prime minister’s authoritarian style in saving its flagging political fortunes. It has resorted to using draconian laws and shameless propaganda in the face of an awakening electorate and increasing exposures of its misdeeds.

The government seems to have ignored the strong signal given by the 2008 election result that Malaysians want more democratic space. And what was Bersih 2.0’s July 9 rally if not a reaffirmation of that demand?

But instead of using the occasion to promote his much-vaunted liberalist image, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak seemed to have done what Dr Mahathir Mohamad would have done—crush them and damn what the world says.

After May 13, 1969, Mahathir ominously proclaimed: “There is not going to be a democracy in Malaysia. There never was and there never will be.” He was speaking then as a critic of the government, but during his 22-year tenure as prime minister, he seemed to have applied himself to ensuring that his prediction would be realised.

Khoo Boo Teik, in his Paradoxes of Mahathirism, wrote: “Certainly Mahathir did not balk at using authoritarian means to restore his control over mass dissent in October 1987. Then he professed to lament the irresponsibility of misfits who had abused his liberalism, not unlike how, after May 13, 1969, he spoke of the immaturity of the people as an obstacle to the full practice of democracy.”

The Mahathir era witnessed the full exploitation of repressive laws, notably the Internal Security Act and the Police Act. The latter law requires police permits for public gatherings. This condition was stringently enforced against opposition groups but ignored for government parties. Things have not changed.

Mahathir’s government amended the Societies Act in 1981 and the Official Secrets Act in 1986 to constrict further the arena of public debate. It also consistently exploited its two-thirds majority in Parliament to make constitutional amendments aimed at strengthening its political position.

Money politics

It was also during the Mahathir era that the Malaysian judiciary lost its independence and respectability. Mahathir tried to keep whittling away at that independence even in the last years of his tenure. In 1999, he was quoted as suggesting that the judiciary needed further reform because judges “tend to favour” the opposition.

The practice of “money politics” deepened its roots during the Mahathirism era. Scholars Graham K Brown, Siti Hawa Ali and Wan Manan Muda wrote in their research paper on Policy Levers in Malaysia: “Initially, under the guise of the 1971 promulgated New Economic Policy, the regime developed a fearsome machinery for dispensing patronage to supporters of the government. This money politics involves both state and private funds the BN parties control between them, a massive corporate empire that operates on the individual, corporate and even state level. The abuse of public funds is often unabashed.”