Three years later in 1981 Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister of Malaysia, its fourth, succeeding Hussein Onn.
I have followed his career quite closely since and frankly I am not impressed. He started off with promise – and promised a lot – but fulfilled none if any.
In fact I would go so far as to say that he was positively the worst prime minister this country has ever had.
Through destruction of institutions such as an independent judiciary, running roughshod over civil servants, bringing his brand of power, patronage and poor economics into decision making, and making use of oppressive laws he used an iron fist to rule and in the process brought more harm to this country than any other person alive or dead.
Much of the problems of Malaysia can be traced back to him and he has made it difficult for his successors to make major changes going forward, much of which would involve unwinding processes and linkages he had put in place before.
Mahathir, after he stepped down, questioned decisions taken by his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
True to form, he never stopped intervening and systematically undermining Abdullah’s tenure by making disparaging comments and organising dissent against him.
Now he has admitted inflating voter rolls in Sabah during his tenure by giving citizenship to illegal migrants, justifying this by the independence agreement of 1957 which granted citizenship to migrant Chinese and Indians who came here during British rule.
And he has controversially called for the Barisan Nasional to be given two thirds majority in Parliament so that they can revoke the citizenship of Bersih leader Ambiga Sreenevasan, the clear implication being you can change the constitution of the country to take away citizenship of anyone at will, and presumably those who were given citizenship in 1957 and their descendants.
Questions to ponder on
In June 2006, three years after Mahathir stepped down, I wrote an article for The Edge, the weekly business newspaper where I worked then, titled ’22 questions for Mahathir’.
This basically questioned Mahathir’s leadership by asking 22 groups of questions for each of 22 years he held power as prime minister.
Considering all that Mahathir has said recently, here’s a list of those 22 questions to ponder again – but the original unedited ones which were slightly different and with minor revisions to take into account recent developments.
You can judge for yourself what kind of prime minister he was and what kind of weight we should put on what he says.
1. On clean government. You came to power in 1981 and introduced the slogan ‘bersih, cekap dan amanah’ (clean, efficient and trustworthy) the following year. What did you do to further that?
Did you make the Anti-Corruption Agency more independent and effective? Did you ensure that the police did their job properly and reduce corruption in their ranks?
Did you ensure that ministers and chief ministers did not have income beyond their legal means?
Did you make the judicial system more effective? Did you do things transparently?
How many big guns were prosecuted for corruption offences during your long tenure? What happened to ‘bersih cekap dan amanah.?
Tempurung of a different order
2. Press freedom. While your heavy criticism of the government under Abdullah and your ranting and ravings now get plenty of coverage in the local media, during your time criticisms against you by two former prime ministers – Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn – were muted in the mainstream newspapers.
The other, Abdul Razak Hussein, current prime minister Najib Razak’s father, had passed away then. Editors in Umno-linked newspapers, too, were removed during your time for not toeing the line.
What have you done to advance the cause of responsible press freedom? Is it a concept you believe in at all?
3. Proton. You went ahead with the national car project in 1983 despite a number of experts disagreeing with you, especially with respect to lack of economies of scale.
Why, especially when Proton’s profit over the last 28 years came out of vastly higher prices that the Malaysian public pays, resulting in considerable hardship, especially to the poorer people who could not afford cars?
More lately, Proton has been taken over by one of your close associates Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary’s DRB-Hicom. DRB-Hicom’s lack of expertise and economies of scale in car production promises continued high prices for Proton cars which no doubt you will support as Proton adviser.
4. Heavy industries. Why did you push into heavy industries such as steel and cement in the eighties, ignoring studies which suggested developing resource-based industries instead?
They caused major problems and billions of ringgit in losses. The steel industry continues to be protected largely because of moves that you allowed during your tenure as prime minister.
Consequences of thoughtless action
5. Population. Why did you encourage a population of 70 million for Malaysia and change the name of the National Family Planning Board to the National Population Development Board?
How do you expect poor people to take care of five, six or more children? What kind of quality can they provide to their children?
Is this not now reflected in rural poverty and widening income gaps between the rich and the poor?
6. Immigration. Why did you allow hordes of people to immigrate, mainly from Indonesia, in such an unregulated way such that there are as many or more illegal immigrants than legal ones, now accounting for some two million or more people?
Did you not realise that this will cause serious social problems and depress the cost of Malaysian labour? Why did you give citizenship to thousands of them to tilt the balance of voting in Sabah? Where were your moral standards?
7. On his first deputy. Some five years after you came to power, there were serious rifts between you and your deputy Musa Hitam. What was the cause of these problems and is it because you were heavy-handed and did not consult your ministers?
8. On the first serious Umno split. When Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Musa took on you and Ghafar Baba at the Umno general assembly of 1987, it caused a serious split in Umno with you winning by a very narrow margin (761 to 718).
Why did you not seek to heal the rift in Umno post the elections? Instead you purged Umno and its successor Umno Baru of those who opposed you causing an unprecedented split in Malay unity.
In 1987 were you not the leader with the least amount of support that Umno had ever had? Were you not directly or indirectly responsible for the most serious split in Malay unity?
9. Operation Lalang. Why did you have to resort to this move in October 1987, when you used wide powers of detention under the Internal Security Act to detain over 100 people, close down four newspapers and cause a wave of fear throughout the country?
Was it to consolidate your tenuous hold on power then by using an oppressive law? You could have used your position as Barisan Nasional leader to defuse the racial tensions at the time over the appointment of non-Chinese educated headmasters to Chinese schools.
Ghost entity ruling the roost
10. Umno Baru. You are of course aware that Umno’s correct name now is Umno Baru because the old Umno was declared illegal by the courts in 1988.
Why did you not take steps to legalise Umno? Is it because the formation of a new Umno Baru made it easier to keep out members who opposed you?
And why did you amend rules to make it extremely difficult to challenge the incumbent president and deputy president?
Was it to forestall any more challenges to you? Didn’t Umno Baru become less democratic as a result? Did you put inplace measures to prolong your rule?
11. Judiciary. What was your motive in taking action in 1988 to remove the Chief Justice and several Supreme Court judges from their positions under allegations of judicial misconduct, a move which was heavily criticised by the Bar Council and other bodies?
Is it because you needed more compliant judges whose rulings will not threaten your position of power in a number of cases in court?
Was this the first step in dismantling the judiciary’s role as a check and balance against the legislature and the executive?
What have you to say to repeated assertions by many, including prominent ex-Chief Justices, who maintain that this led to the erosion of judicial independence and perceived abuse of power?
Why did you not take any action against a Chief Justice who had taken a holiday abroad with some lawyers?
Responsible for education decline?
12. Education. You presided over the education system at an important part of its transformation first as education minister in the seventies, then as prime minister.
Would it be correct to surmise therefore that you were responsible for its decline during those years?
Why did you not spend more money and resources to ensure that our education system was excellent and continued to improve but instead spent billions on other showpiece projects?
13. Former finance miniister Daim Zainuddin. Why did you give this one man so much power, allowing him to decide on the award of virtually all government projects and tenders, and other projects?
14. Cronyism and patronage. Did you not encourage cronyism and patronage by dishing out major projects to a few within the inner circle, and especially connected to Daim?
People such as Halim Saad (the Renong group – toll roads, telecommunications etc), Tajudin Ramli (mobile telephone TRI group and Malaysia Airlines), Amin Shah Omar (the failed PSC Industries – multi-billion ringgit naval dockyard contracts), Ting Pek Khiing (Ekran – the Bakun Dam) to mention just a few? Why did you not use open tenders and auctions?
15. Privatisation. Why did you allow privatisation to take place in such a manner that the most profitable parts of government operation were given away to cronies?
Toll roads had guaranteed toll increases and compensation in the event traffic projections were not met. Independent power producers had contracts that guaranteed them profits at the expense Tenaga Nasional.
No pals in politics holds true
16. Ghafar Baba. Although Ghafar had the highest number of votes among vice-presidents when Hussein Onn became prime minister in 1976, you, who got the lowest number of votes, were chosen as Hussein’s deputy.
Yet when you called upon Ghafar to be your deputy in 1987, he obliged, helping you to win the Umno presidency.
But you did little to back him up when he was challenged for the deputy presidency in 1993 by Anwar Ibrahim. Can we say that you stabbed him in the back?
Did you use the entire government machinery at your disposal to get him sentenced under trumped up charges of sodomy? Do you think he got a fair trial? Don’t you think the country suffered terribly because of this power struggle involving the two of you?
18. Bank Negara losses. How could you tacitly encourage the central bank, Bank Negara Malaysia to engage in speculative trades, using as an excuse the need to protect foreign exchange reserves?
Bank Negara lost some RM32 billion in 1993, according to some accounts, as a result of taking positions in the foreign exchange market. In current prices, using an average inflation rate of 3.2% a year, that amounts to nearly RM60 billion!
The airport was operating way below capacity for years and it probably is today, 14 years later, judging by its emptiness at some times during the day. The RM130 million low-cost terminal carries more passengers that the main terminal!
20. Putrajaya. What is the justification for spending RM20 billion on a grandiose government city at a time when office space was available in Kuala Lumpur? Could not the money be put to better use such as improving educational resources?
21. Government-linked companies (GLCs). Why did you not make efforts to improve the performance of GLCs?
Why did you allow funds such as the Employees Provident Fund and Kumpulan Wang Amanah Pencen to take up dubious investments to basically help cronies out of their problems?
These have led to billions of ringgit in losses to these funds. Thankfully, there has been improvements in these areas after you left.
22. Don’t you think you owe it to the nation and the people to offer explanations over your 22-year tenure which is replete with examples of incompetence, corruption and cronyism, mismanagement and misallocation in the billions of ringgit and which has set the country back years?
Don’t you think, more than anyone else, you deserve to be branded as a traitor to this country for grossly abusing your position as prime minister?