Given his reconciliation with Anwar, many people – me included – thought that Mahathir has learned from his past mistakes and will not spoil his grand return to Malaysian and regional politics by indulging his old vices.
Sadly – we were mistaken.
Despite historical success in general election and a country in need of competent governance tackling its most pressing issues – from national debt, through corruption to woefully inadequate infrastructure – Malaysian prime minister simply cannot resist throwing regular jabs against his favorite punching bag of old – Singapore.
Within weeks of being sworn in he attacked the high-speed rail project. As both countries wrestled over this issue, new provocations followed – the old dispute regarding prices of water Singapore receives from Johor, the folly of the “crooked bridge” – which Dr. M proposed back in 2000s – and now the conflict over airspace control as well as Malaysian encroachment on Port of Singapore, with a unilateral decision to intrude into Singapore’s waters.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
20-30 years ago, before the age of Facebook and Twitter and ubiquitous internet access the ruling class, controlling the main media outlets, could sway the public opinion with its own, manipulated stories. But we’re not in the 90s anymore. Anybody – regular Malaysians included – can see through Mahathir’s maneuvers.
Worst of all, they can see the ineptitude with which he handles many important domestic affairs as well.
With widespread access to various news sources, old tricks no longer work. In the past, drumming up nationalistic narratives could serve well to galvanize mass support for the ruling party – but today it’s as entrancing as seeing through a conman’s hoax. It looks clumsy, predictable and disgustingly dishonest. Even if it appeals to some, its influence is far smaller than ever.
Mahathir could even be excused for his irrationally bullish stance against the neighbors down south, if he was dealing with domestic problems well. But the honeymoon is over and people don’t want to hear about the next national car project (being fully aware of what a monumental rip-off the Proton was and how deprived they are of access to modern vehicles, which are subject to horrendous taxes).
They want to hear how their lives are going to be tangibly improved. And, so far, there’s not so much the government can show.
East Coast Rail Link was axed. High-speed railway connection with Singapore delayed by at least 5 years. And, worst of all, the flailing public transportation within Klang Valley – recently receiving a boost with the completion of the first MRT line – is likely to wait many years more to receive new, badly needed connections as MRT2 and MRT3 projects are delayed or shelved. What means the metropolis of ca. 8 million people is going to continue suffocating in the fumes of millions of cars jammed up everyday on its forever insufficient roads – with few alternative means of commute.
When and how is Malaysian government going to deal with corruption and cronyism that Mahathir himself is partly responsible for? When is it going to combat rampant and often violent crime? When is it going to overhaul its legal regulations, its tax system, put forward ambitious infrastructural plans? Playing childish games with Singapore is the last thing it needs.
A few short-term populist handouts and a bait-and-switch scheme that replaced GST with SST are not quite enough to inspire hope Pakatan Harapan promised.
Good Politician, Mediocre Executive
Dr. M is a capable politician – cunning and charismatic at the same time. He was able to cement political power and influence for several decades thanks to high aptitude at both manipulation and intimidation – going as far as jailing political opponents on bogus charges, as it was with Anwar 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, unlike Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir failed to translate his political prowess into tangible progress of his country.
This is not to say Malaysia had not developed over the years, but surely this growth could have been higher – as the Lion City demonstrates. When Mahathir took over, Malaysian GDP was over twice that of Singapore. When he departed in 2003, they were roughly equal – and remain so even today, despite the fact that the prosperous city-state has five times fewer inhabitants than Malaysia (and lacks abundance of resources its big neighbor has access to – not to mention land).
So far, after returning to power, his only remarkable achievement is making corrupt Najib look like a thoughtful statesman who sought good relations and common investments with the closest neighbors. Building bridges.
The only bridge Mahathir is trying to build is, quite tellingly, the “crooked” one.
But it’s not even about Singapore and appalling Malaysian maneuvers in attempt to distract the public from problems at home. The Lion City is going to continue to thrive regardless of the annoyances that the leadership in Putrajaya is going to create.
The real problem with Mahathir is that he lacks any vision for modern Malaysia.
He clings to outdated ideas. He indulges nationalistic fantasies rather than try to forge a mutually beneficial partnership. The 93-year old man clearly has not grown beyond the time of his political heyday. He continues to treat politics as a zero-sum game, where for him to win everybody else has to lose. And while it works well at wresting power from domestic opponents, it is a foolish way to manage a country.
Mahathir’s ego is once again in the way, disrupting not only the lives of peaceful neighbors across the Straits of Johor, but the future of Malaysian rakyat.
Dr. M may consider himself to be a grand fighter back in the ring but to outside observers he is only putting his Malaysian inferiority complex on display. And it’s such a sad spectacle.
As the highest political representative of the nation what he does reflects poorly on it as well. Malaysians simply deserve better.
He’s like the dog in the manger – incapable of moving the country to the right tracks the most he can do is try to wreck or disrupt what others have managed to build just across the border. It rankles…
It rankles so badly that a tiny island, devoid of natural resources and even drinking water, has managed to outgrow its big neighbor, rich in oil and land, to become one of the shining beacons of developed world – safe, clean, organized, a trade and business hub for the world. Mahathir simply cannot stand it.
That’s why he tries to scuttle the high-speed rail project. It’s not about the price tag or lack of economic benefits for Malaysia – which would be plenty, as the forever congested country badly needs means of mass transit.
He attacks it because in his twisted view it would effectively make peninsular Malaysia a vassal to the wealthier, more developed Singapore. KL would become a satellite city to it. So instead of looking at the benefits for his own nation he is hell-bent on making sure Singapore gets nothing out of it – even if it means Malaysia is going to lose a lot more.
But Malaysia simply cannot afford to go through this all over again. Every year of incompetence at the helm is going to require a lot more time fixing the things that are being broken – including cross-border relations.
Yes, Najib had to be ousted – after nearly a decade in power, he ended up pushing the country into more debt, more chaos, more corruption, more nepotism and fraud of monumental scale.
But the alternative to his governance cannot be even more recklessness and a return to divisive politics of the 20th century.
So it’s time for Malaysians to thank Mahathir for getting rid of his predecessor and ask him to step aside and leave the country in the hands of those more in tune with the times.
More importantly – those who will actually have to live with the consequences of the decisions made today.