Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad by Khoo Boo Teik (Oxford University Press, 1995, 375 pages).
The book we discussed last week, Bakri Musa’s The Malay Dilemma Revisited was a breezy look at Mahathirism in theory and practice. This week’s book is not so breezy. It is somewhat academic. Breeze is not something that most academics would recognise even in detergent form.
But it’s a valuable book because it grabs hold of its subject and will not let go. This isn’t to say it’s a rabid fan who wants to squeeze him tight or an outraged hater who wants to throttle him to death. It is much more nuanced than that; it’s published by Oxford, for God’s sake!
Oh, how we hacks giggled at the subtitle back when it came out (“What is an intellectual biography? Life as seen through his library cards?”) but it is, I suppose, apposite. Dr. Mahathir has written an awful lot (I even have his little-known book Guide for Small Businessmen, first published in Malay in 1975). You can be sure that his speeches, unlike those of many others, are not heavily ghostwritten. So his ideas are there to read. And Khoo does a lot of reading.
The recent General Elections saw, for the first time, an indie filmmaker getting into Parliament. (The guy who did the Lingam video lah). In the same vein, Dr. Mahathir was the first newspaper columnist to become national leader.
Khoo starts out by analyzing the CHE Det columns (1948-50) and shows how some of Mahathir’s ideas remain remarkably constant. But it would be a boring person who never changed his mind, and we are not dealing with Mr. Grey here.
The cover has several photos of the titular politician rubbing up against one another. You normally see this kind of collage on a CD inlay of a musician who’s fond of image changes, such as Bowie or Madonna. But thankfully we don’t get to see the doctor with peroxide hair or gender-bending trousers. It’s the same point, though: at different times in his career, he has seemed like different things to different people, and it is this changeability that has ensured survival and admiration, although often of the grudging sort.
To illustrate its title, the book starts with a bravura set of ‘paradoxes.’ Some read like epigrams, as witness: “Anxious to secure the survival of the Malays, Mahathir seemed prepared to see the end of ‘Malayness.’”
There are many other paradoxes that you can reel off, too. To pick just one: He is an anti-feudalist politician who managed, in his 22 years at the top, to fashion a modern form of populist feudalism.
It is the populism that some people, especially those who didn’t live here during those years, don’t get. He actually looked like he was trying; he always had a sense of unfinished business; he always seemed ready to grab us by the collars to go who-knows-where, and we would often be willingly dragged along, because we were bullied, true, but also because it seemed like a brave new world, so why not give it a try? Part of his allure was the power of incumbency (of course) but there was also an ineffable glamour, especially in the earlier years.
The Mahathir era, long as it was, was an anomaly in Malaysian politics. No other leader had achieved such a maximalist grip on the country. The institutional damage is well-known by now, but what of the psychological?
Although he’s an ace academic with fastidious footnotes, Khoo is not a wizard. So when this book came out in 1995, he could not have foreseen that things would change so dramatically in three years. He then wrote a follow-up, Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents (2003), a shorter and almost activist-minded report that was very much a sign of those post-reformasi times. Taken together, they form a fascinating portrait of a man who would not keep still.
Even today, in another paradox, the politician often accused of being an anti-democrat is helping to keeping democracy alive by continuously lashing out at the administration. When he uses terms like “police state” and “no freedom”, it’s now up to us to weigh those words and apply them back to his own time. I mean, it’s the least we can do. After all, we’re all grown up now.
(Malay Mail, 11 June 2008)