Monday, May 12, 2003

Dr M and the Malaysian Malaise

Back from a two month break, Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohammad is back at his chastising best. As usual the ones at the receiving end of his displeasures are the Malays themselves.

"They are complacent, often not thinking about the potential danger ahead, and are keen to have fun. They are also not disciplined."

Like errant schoolboys, Malaysians and the Malays in particular have come to expect this kind of schoolmaster reprimands. Only Dr M himself gets away with calling the Malays "lazy"; because he has earned the right to do so. He has led by example: even at an age when most people would be contented with playing with their grandchildren, he is still keeping a hectic work schedule and exhibits the energy and enthusiasm of a young executive.

Come the end of October, he'll finally get the "rest" he truly deserves when he officially steps down as PM. He has an interest in writing, so I'd think we'll hear a lot from him from newspaper articles and books. Dr M is always brimming with ideas to make Malaysia a more advanced nation. For those who get to travel around the region, they would recognize how much he has achieved compared to our neighbours over a span of more slightly more than 2 decades.

Being outspoken and idiosyncratic, he has as many critics as admirers. But the fact is, every Malaysian owes Dr M the good life that they now enjoy. Nation-building is a difficult task. No leader and no country is perfect. For a developing country, laden with a potentially explosive mix of race and religion, Malaysia could have so easily become a failed state.

The young will never fathom how fragile peace is and how perilously close the region was to chaos during the early days of independence when we were facing the communist threat and a belligerent Indonesia. Unfortunately, the recurrent lesson from history is that we never learn from history. Every generation thinks they have the answers and inevitably repeats the mistakes of the past, albeit wrapped in a different political philosophy or system.

He may be beating the same messages to death, but what Dr M has to say to Malaysians still warrants heed. I am part of the Mahathir generation who grew up with his propaganda and policies; I could be excused if I feel sickened by a government that is seemingly authoritarian and showing a lack of respect for human rights. But at the same time, I could understand why we are unduly cautious in adopting a Western-style democracy and civil society.

We have been walking a tightrope successfully so far. We have done a wonderful balancing act between extremism and racial chauvinism on one side and meritocracy and tolerance on the other. I fear if we do not have leaders like Dr M who constantly jolts us out from our complacency, we might find out one day that we have nothing to walk on, and figured too late that there is no safety net either.

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