What India should learn from the 2018 Malaysian election Saga !!

Many people I know who’re aged 92 mostly sit back and relax in armchairs, smoke a pipe (if health permits), follow the papers, play with grandchildren, rant about politics, criticize the younger generation and culture, romanticize about the good old days and all that.

But not so for Dr. Mahathir Mohammad. At 92, the veteran politician responsible for putting Malaysia on the economic world map in his previous stint in power has upset all predictions. He has stunned all across Malaysia and the world by winning the general elections to become Malaysia’s seventh prime minister. He previously held the post between 1981 to 2003. This victory makes him the oldest person in the world to be elected as a head of state.

Ironically, he has defeated his own protégé Najib Razak, a man who he himself helped to become the PM in 2009 and in the process also defeated the UMNO (United Malays National Organization), the very party he himself spear-headed to become the most dominant party in the Malaysian political sphere. If there is anything which we can learn from this event, it is that nothing stays permanent. Just a couple of months back, Najib looked to be firmly entrenched in the driver’s seat, his position undisputable. The UMNO was like a juggernaut crushing all that stood in it’s way; it’s power unquestionable.

But come May 2018, all of that has come to an abrupt end. The tables have turned, and how!

They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Najib and his wife have been accused of corruption on a large scale, embezzling millions of dollars of public money (read the 1mdb scam)and living a lavish lifestyle ever since coming to the helm in 2009. Discontent was beginning to spread among frustrated Malaysians which manifested itself across various social media platforms. But instead of addressing these concerns and bringing relief to the people, he further exacerbated the situation by muzzling freedom of speech, eliminating opponents and passing controversial laws in parliament granting him absolute powers. His excesses became so extreme that even some of his own family members such as his brother Nazir and his step daughter Azrene publicly criticized and condemned him for his growing debauchery.

Amidst all this growing discontent, Mahathir could sense that the people were unhappy. Personally, he felt betrayed that the person whom he personally groomed to become the Prime Minister was busy taking care of his own interests while placing the nation on the back-burner. In his own words, he simply could not stand by and watch while Najib dragged the nation into a quagmire of corruption, dishonesty and decadence. People too, were demanding that he(Mahathir) do something instead of just being a mute spectator on the sidelines. So reluctantly or otherwise, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

He decided to run for the post of Prime Minister of Malaysia.

He knew that the UMNO headed by Najib would never accept him back. So he aligned himself with the opposition, the very people he himself tried to put down when he was the PM. The opposition also readily accepted him as they were unified in their single goal: the ouster of Najib Razak from power.

And on the 9th of May, 2018 the discontentment brewing amongst people manifested itself in a shock defeat of the UMNO and a landslide victory to the Pakatan Harapan, the opposition party led by Mahathir. History was made. David had felled Goliath.

Mahathir’s upset win is in many ways similar to Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2014 Indian general elections. A lot of parallels can be drawn:

  • Both persons were up against strong, established and dominant political parties. Mahathir was up against the UMNO ( a party which he himself led in his previous stint as PM). Modi was up against the Indian National Congress, the most dominant political party since recent times on the Indian Political landscape.
  • Both persons capitalized on the frustration and discontentment among the masses caused due to the corruption and excesses of the ruling party.
  • Both persons were the sole reasons for the victory of their respective political parties. It is no secret that the Pakatan Harapan won mainly due to the presence of Mahathir Mohammad. Similarly, it would be safe to say that the BJP won mainly because of Narendra Modi and his popular image among people. I doubt if any other leader would have done the job for their respective parties.

I personally feel Mahathir is the best person to lead Malaysia out of its’ current woes. I have visited Malaysia numerous times during his reign and seen first hand the economic progress which Malaysia and her citizens enjoyed during his rule. Here are some of his achievements as PM in his previous stint:

  1. Malaysia’s currency the Ringgit, hugely soared in value.
  2. Most Malaysians enjoyed an increase in per-capita income with only 9% of the country’s population being below the poverty line.
  3. The construction of the North-South Highway (locally known as the Utara-Selatan highway).
  4. The construction of the Petronas Twin towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world at that point in time.
  5. The advent of the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang.
  6. Construction of the Kuala Lumpur Metro.
  7. Construction of the massive and ultra modern Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

Among others.

Mahathir is a shrewd political campaigner with a steady mind who strategizes, thinks and has a good experience of leading from the front. Most important of all, he has the trust and the respect of the Malaysian people, something his predecessor lacked.

The Skyline of Kuala Lumpur (Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash)

Every coin has two sides. Mahathir himself is no saint. But in this cut throat world of politics, there’s no way you can survive if you are one. There’s a saying which goes thus, “If you dig a firm road on muddy ground, your hands will get dirty.” In his tenure as PM, Mahathir was famous (or rather infamous) for clamping down on the Malaysian Judiciary and restricting their powers. He was also instrumental in clamping down and restricting the powers and privileges hitherto enjoyed by members of the Malaysian Royalty (similar to Indira Gandhi abolishing the privy purse in India). He is known to have come down hard on people who have opposed him; the most prominent example being that of the imprisonent of Anwar Ibrahim, who was the deputy prime minister of Malaysia during his(Mahathir’s) tenure. Mahathir is also known to be an outspoken critic of western influence and is open on his anti-Semitic views, something which has obviously not gone well with the Western media. But his blunt and open nature is probably what makes his supporters and opponents respect him more. At least, he is not a two-faced charlatan who changes his views as the tide flows, as many politicians are these days. Many have often accused him of smothering democracy and creating an autocratic culture of absolute power with no system to keep leaders in check. True as it may be, I think that the good he has done for his country can out-shadow his wrongs.

If Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are aware of these chain of events, there is a huge lesson they should learn. Najib is the son of Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister and nephew of Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third Prime Minister. He has received a good education and has actively been associated with Malaysian politics since the seventies, with several important portfolios to his credit. But these impressive credentials were not enough for him and his party to come crashing to defeat in the 2018 elections. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi comes from the famous Gandhi / Nehru family which was for most of the time at the helm of Indian Politics since independence. His family includes stalwarts such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, all of whom have held the post of Prime Minister after independence. But if he (Rahul Gandhi) aims to become the Prime Minister in 2019 or afterwards, he must look at the Najib Episode and learn from it.

In a country which has been continually frustrated by decades of corruption, nepotism and decadence, dynastic credentials will not go well. The first thing he needs to change is his image. Rahul is seen by many Indians as an elite, spoilt rich brat who has absolutely no touch with the common man and his problems. He is already a target in social media where people rejoice in trolling him. Looking at the episode in Malaysia, he should know that the ‘Gandhi’ tag which he carries will not be enough to carry him and his party forward. Not when his opponent, the wily Narendra Modi has exploited this fact well to the BJP’s advantage. If he comes to power, he has no choice but to deliver. If not, Indians will not wait another six decades for pushing him and his party out of the game.

If there is any lesson to be learnt from the Malaysian Election episode, it is this: In a democracy, power is not a privilege to be used and abused as per will. It is a responsibility; a tremendous responsibility at that which is entrusted to you by the people. Only the strongest, most committed and most selfless and dedicated persons are capable of shouldering it. Earning people’s trust is the most difficult thing to do. Decades of hard work and perseverance can be destroyed by one single foolish act.

Now, the main question for Malaysia is, will we see the same dynamic Mahathir of yore? Can he work the same magic as he did previously? Though he is not short of commitment and enthusiasm, age and health are not in his favor. He is not the same man he was a few decades ago. Some say that he will abdicate the post after a few years and hand it over to Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy (now released) when he was in power. He also has the challenge of leading a fractious party consisting of different people with vested interests. Many people in the opposition are those who had clashed swords with Mahathir when he was previously in power. Prior to the election, they were all united in a single objective: the removal of Najib Razak from power. Now that is done, then what next? How will they react under his leadership is yet to be seen. Will they tow his line, or will there be infighting?

But one thing’s for sure. Millions of Malaysians think that given the current situation, he is the only man capable of leading Malaysia. And they have chosen.

Will he deliver or not?

Only time will tell.

I, Me…. Myself