Najib vs Mahathir: Let’s Call a Spade, a Spade


Mahathirism is long gone, and along with it, the glue that miraculously seamed together discarded and disoriented factions. 

Raggie Jessy

Once upon a time, there reigned an authoritarian who ordained himself an elected dictator, and saw fit to divide and rule a people so diverse that the Jack began calling the spade, a spade. He struck his arrows at antagonists, tying one string after another to a bow so large, that his henchmen fawned mercilessly while he fired shots across their desks.

He jockeyed them into subjugation in the August House, having them dance in concert to Bohemian rhapsodies. All of the King’s horses and all of the King’s men stood frozen with stable doors shut, fearing repercussions that threatened to swallow even Monarchies whole. That man was Dr. Mahathir, whose arms seemed longer than the King’s.

And then, he left. But it wasn’t the end. No. His successor had barely taken office when Mahathir assembled a propulsion laboratory of his own, launching scathing attacks against the boys at Putrajaya, who scampered for cover amidst a rain of criticism.  Mahathir stood relentless, parting seas and subduing tides for Najib to chair the State. He came out stamping Abdullah a political blunder, whose legacy he badly wanted written off.

But then, Mahathir’s hand-picked successor had inherited a legacy he couldn’t possibly have lived up to. Despite an era delineated by repressive and dubitable policies, Mahathir juggled the economy with a degree of sophistication that as yet stands unparalleled, such that the Chinese dared not risk jeopardizing circumstances by tugging at unwanted threads. To the Chinese, Mahathirism was working out well for their coffers, and they needn’t complain.

Let me put it to you this way; the ushering in of Abdullah was akin to a turtle’s maiden voyage to sea; hatchlings wade clumsily across sandy shores to embrace territories so wondrous, it holds treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross.

People began preoccupying themselves with racial polemics, upshots to policies Abdullah effected for all the wrong reasons. That’s right; Abdullah saw fit to extricate politicians severely encumbered by Mahathirism, hoping to offset his predecessor’s legacy with ‘feel good’ policies. He importuned subordinates with his “work with me, and not for me” catchphrase, granting excessive leeway to the media. The sudden imposition of liberalist attitudes had lawmakers and the media charting adverse courses, ripping apart racial unity to unveil a nation demarcated by picket fences.

Naturally, Abdullah had miscalculated circumstances. While he projected a pillar of strength from Kit Siang and Hadi adherents, they were quick to turn their backs on him the day Anwar walked out from Kajang Prison a free man.

Following a poor showing in GE12, Abdullah backtracked on his liberalist ways, upstaging democracy with chemical laced water he so recklessly aimed at reformists who took to the streets. Now, I’m against unruly behaviour and disorderliness of any form, make no mistake of it. But the people were not to be blamed altogether. These rallies radiated out of misplaced policies, trailing back to a leadership collective that muddled up constitutional paradigms and circumstances as early as 1981.

You see, Mahathirism served the nation well, but only while it lasted. Mahathirism is long gone, and along with it, the glue that miraculously seamed together discarded and disoriented factions. Malaysia is inadvertently bound by its doctrines, whiles any premier who dares dream a dream, would have to dream of Mahathir, or forever be damned by the man himself. And we have nobody but Mahathir to blame for that.

Thence, Mahathir is half right; the nation stands divided, but only because he did very little to engage in lasting and representative policies every man on the street could proudly resonate with. Instead, he negated racial intolerance by calibrating economic uncertainties to gratify diverse socio-political segments into submission. Effectively, he kept resentment thinly veiled with the illusion of coherence.

Perhaps, we could better appreciate these polemics by asking ourselves the right questions:

1. Why did the Chinese stay with BN in 1999 and 2003?

It was all about the money.

The 80’s through to the mid 90’s is best delineated by a burgeoning economy poised on steady fundamentals. Mahathir had singularly impressed the nation with ingenious fiscal policies, much to the delight of Chinese conglomerates and moguls, who weren’t deterred by economics of favour. The then Prime Minister had accorded Bumiputra segments opportunities designed solely for their interests, with other races prohibited from competing on their turf.

Now, Chinese businesses weren’t deterred by this development either; many Bumiputra owned companies went on to ‘sell’ their stakes in various government ventures to Chinese enterprises, taking a backseat while appearing a legion to Government agencies. By the same token, the Chinese stood beneficiaries to a large chunk of an economic pie otherwise apportioned to serve up opportunities for the Malays. Effectively, the Chinese became the Bumiputra, as the Bumiputra, well, remained the Bumiputra.

Chinese businesses in Malaysia are largely heterogeneous, comprising large, medium and small scaled enterprises working in mesh to conform to a network of information, resources and communal clusters. The Malaysian International Trade and Industry Ministry (MITI) defined businesses with revenue from sales exceeding MYR 25 million as large scale enterprises. But the definition remains wide off the mark; some companies have assets in the billions, mostly Chinese, labelling at unprecedented levels if MITI is anything to go by.

Analysts prefer a more practical and phenomenological approach. They decipher stock market scorecards to identify highly capitalized enterprises, often Chinese controlled. This mode of conception paved the way for capitalists to be benchmarked in ‘Forbes’, ‘Fortune’ and the ‘Malaysian Business’ as among the richest Asians. The approach omits a sizeable number of large businesses as defined by MITI, and age old family enterprises that persist on private and limited attitudes. Withal, SME’s and SMI’s account for a large and significant chapter to the Chinese Business enterprise, with an anticipated 80% of the dominion Chinese dictated.

So, when KLSE’s (Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange) composite index plunged to floor at a historic 262 points on September 1, 1998, a significant faction of Chinese businesses were unfazed, while Bumiputra segments to the economic equation scrambled. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shriveled by 8.4% in the first six months of 1998, while the remaining quarters almost resonated with a negative growth of 10%. The future seemed bleak, with the economy hanging by a thread and balancing acts anchored on weakening fundamentals.

The Government extended spades and shovels to ailing Bumiputra enterprises in resolving fiscal impasses, simply because they had to. Should Mahathir have taken heed of NEAC’s proposition, cash-rich Chinese enterprises or foreign owned businesses would have gained leeway towards recapitalizing or gaining acquisition of Government Linked Bumiputra companies with straitened circumstances. Now, we couldn’t have had a Bumiputra segment pillaged off what is commonly understood as their birthright; that would have spelt doom for Mahathir and the Malaysian political quotient on the whole.

All said, some non-bumiputra companies emerged unscathed via ‘ali-baba’ wheeling and dealing, despite a 54% decline in Bumiputra owned equity. Bumiputera connexion with public-listed stock fell off accepted benchmarks, with ownership plunging from 29 percent in June 1997 to 27 percent in February 1998.

Conversely, a sizeable faction of Chinese companies persevered via restructuring exercises, particularly those with diverse business interests. The Lion (William Cheng) and Sungei Way (Jeffrey Cheah) groups were among those that retained a substantial faction of their business concerns. In fact, several groups emerged financially stronger post crisis. The YTL group (Francis Yeoh) diversified into power generation and amassed MYR 5 billion in cash early in 2001 alone, supplementing their financial persuasiveness with steroids.

As Singapore based Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) contended, large Chinese based enterprises in Malaysia were left relatively whole. Sugar king Robert Kuok, timber magnate Tiong Hiew King, Genting Group’s Lim Goh Tong, Sarawak-based Yaw Teck Seng, banker Teh Hong Piow, Hong Leong Group’s Quek Leng Chan, and power and property tycoon Yeoh Tiong Lay emerged relatively unscathed from the crisis.

Perhaps one can now comprehend why, despite the entire hullabaloo pertaining to a Chinese tsunami and chants of ‘reformasi’, the Chinese were reluctant to loosen their grip on Mahathirism in 1999, a year following Anwar’s sacking from UMNO. In 2003, they came in hordes to ink ballot papers in favour of Abdullah Badawi, simply because they expected to devour a larger portion of the economic pie by soliciting favours from Mahathir’s successor. It seems that the Chinese never gave two hoots to nation building, or for that matter, Anwar. As I’ve said, they didn’t need to. They were well fed.


2. What is Malaysia Incorporated?

I’ll be brief on this.

In 1983, Mahathir institutionalized the concept of ‘Malaysia Incorporated’, enabling the country to function as a business conglomerate. The move involved massive restructuring exercises and privatization initiatives, meant to spur the economy by mitigating fiscal burdens from national coffers.

Foreign direct investment began zapping in like greased lightning. As Mahathir had it, debt begets wealth when effectively administered with apposite resources, a notion not too far from the truth. As it were, to properly illustrate Malaysia’s economic health is to regard her as a business conglomerate. We can’t turn policies turtle overnight; the Malaysia Incorporated framework is clearly in place.

As much as Kit Siang and Guan Eng would have you cashing in on their bluff, Malaysia isn’t on the verge of bankruptcy. Large conglomerates, as with the case of Malaysia Inc., work on left-field kinetics that may seem pathological to laypersons, with loan terms sufficiently adverse to their comprehension. Suffice to say, Anwar Ibrahim was a staunch loyalist to the cause when he was Deputy Premier.

The Chinese never ditched BN because they cashed in on Kit Siang’s bluff. No. If Malaysia were indeed on the brink of an economic collapse, they’d be the first to know, and would have long packed their bags and made headway for greener pastures. So, why did they ditch BN?


3. Specifically, who’s to blame?

Mahathir left, and with him, the glue that seamed races on pecuniary perplexities. That is to say, he equilibrated fiscal concerns in a manner that had the Chinese contented and the Malays, docile. When he called it quits, he reckoned that his successors would resonate on divisional and sectarian policies by juggling the economy Mahathir-style. But such were circumstances, that Mahathirism was relegated a disease no Prime Minister dared to inflict on the nation. Malaysia stood imbued with religious dissonance, blown disproportionately into the open the minute Kajang Prison shut its doors on Anwar.

As I’ve said before, Abdullah Badawi went on to experiment with an idealistic variant of liberalism as he granted leeway to local media, a move he probably perceived would resonate well with an electorate weary of Mahathirism. But along came Kit Siang, who capitalized on Abdullah’s apparent candour and laid-back persona, by twirling a people around his finger. To Kit Siang’s defence, he had Anwar, a notion that bode well with the Chinese, eager to rid the country of UMNO and the Social Contract.

Abdullah’s tenure presented to DAP a rostrum to warp cyber spheres whimsically. I firmly am of the opinion that Kit Siang had races up in arms against one another on ineffable pretexts, such that the rakyat partook in a free for all within the social media, with no holds barred. Racial polemics gradually transgressed parameters of orderliness, when faceless cybertroopers began to attack religious doctrines and ridicule Islam, while the Malays retaliated with terms like ‘DAPig’, ‘Cina komunis’ and ‘Cina Babi’.

Najib advocated a more representative market via 1Malaysia. When Chua Soi Lek underscored the need for greater participation of non-bumiputra’s in Directorial Boards of GLC’s, Najib gave in and relinquished the 30% Bumiputra equity requirement. Withal, the Social Contract is very much alive, as is Malaysia Incorporated. Najib merely did away with a requirement that was not constitutionally binding, in an effort to subdue dissonant factions who burgeoned forth from Abdullah’s garden of hope.

But it was Mahathir who hand-picked Abdullah. By the time Mahathir realised his folly, Kit Siang had stealthily fertilized Abdullah’s backyard with enough bullshit to render Abdullah’s garden of hope a dud. His seedlings began sprouting beanstalks that inclined all the way to Kajang, while Anwar came in and took the rakyat for a ride of their lifetime, all the way to Khalid’s backyard.

That’s right; Mahathir tried to shut the stable doors after the horse had bolted. But perhaps, it was Mahathir who failed to build a stronger door, to begin with. At any rate, it is Mahathir’s miscalculations that have boomeranged back at him. He’s merely walking up to Najib, saying “Here, take this boomerang, and fling it towards me.” Now, I seriously doubt that Najib is fool enough to fall for the trick.