It was Euripides in ‘Medea’ who made famous the phrase “ Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. Certainly it would be a fitting description of Muammar Gaddafi, whose gory end was telecast for all to see, on Al-Jazeera and CNN. It would be no less appropriate a phrase to describe Mahathir Mohammed; who has been mad for quite a while now.
We will not delve too much into what drove Mahathir mad, but it does not appear to be the usual reasons of genetics, or grief, or some drug overdose. Mahathir appears to have been driven mad by power. And perhaps certifiably insane by his quest for absolute, unquestioned power.
A crackpot in many ways
In the mid-80s, Malaysia still retained some independent institutions. However when the judiciary, in the form of Salleh Abbas, refused to bow to Mahathir’s dictates, he took drastic steps to destroy Salleh Abbas. And henceforth the judiciary became Mahathir’s creature, rather than a proudly independent institution in the British tradition. He would also go on to clip the powers of Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy. Mahathir became, for all intents and purposes, Malaysia’s dictator. He was surrounded by sycophants and rent-seekers. And that appeared to be exactly how Mahathir liked it, for megalomaniacs are certain they know best, and view the givers of dissenting advice as threats.
Mahathir, uncaring of the fact that Malaysia was a small country with limited say in the affairs of the world, would proceed to attempt to lecture everyone else, particularly the West, on how the world, or their nations, should be run. This despite the fact that he ran Malaysia like a demented despot.
There are two ways that countries can play large roles in the global affairs of nations. They must have either financial or military muscle. Malaysia had neither, yet Mahathir would for years, including after he retired, continue to harangue the west with his ‘advice’. In the case of 9/11, to this day he insists that it was an American or Jewish conspiracy to destroy the Twin Towers. This crackpot conspiracy theorist, to the detriment of his country, was Malaysia’s Prime Minister for 22 years.
Then there was Proton
Three years after becoming Prime Minister, in 1983, Mahathir would decide to create, from scratch, a national automotive industry. This, of course, was, to put it mildly, a really bad idea. Automotive industries require captive home markets. You can only break even, assuming a competitive environment, if you could sell a million cars a year in your home market. Proton, a decade after its formation, could only manage to sell 200 thousand units a year, far short of the required million. There could never be money for genuine R&D. Proton would never meet Mahathir’s fantastical dream of being a world player in the automotive market. Proton only continued to survived on the protection of government tariffs. And it’s cars were merely repackaged Mistsubishis using outdated technology; as Mitsubishi was not willing to share new technology with Proton.
Ordinary Malaysians ended up with the raw end of the deal; they were forced to buy Proton’s sub-standard cars for premium prices. Consumer safety was ignored by Proton and the government turned a blind eye. Protons lacked airbags and and anti-lock braking mechanisms. Many a fatality occurred that could have been prevented if these saferty features had been in place. Export models of course had all the requisite safety features. It was only Malaysian lives that Mahathir deemed cheap. The government tried to rid itself of Proton by selling it to DRB but Proton would come boomeranging back to haunt it. And no real automotive company was interested to buy it. Discussions with Volkswagon and GM would all fall apart. Malaysia is stuck with Proton, thanks to Mahathir, and it is costing us.
Asian Financial Crisis took a heavy toll
Not that Mahathir was bothered by his failures. Like a mad scientist, he would go off on his next experiment. In one case it was to build the tallest building in the world. Money was not an issue; he could expropriate it from Petronas under one guise or the other.None of his advisers appeared to have asked the most obvious question, which would be; why on earth would you want to do that? Instead they appeared to tell him, in toadying chorus, what a wonderful idea it was.
There were endless other ways to spend the money, in development or infrastructure, that would have benefited Malaysia in the long term. Mahathir instead chose to dump it in a concrete monument to his own vanity. Mahathir was the short guy, trying to walk on outsize stilts to prove that he was tall. It was unreal and was bound to end in a big fall, which is precisely what would happen in the Asian meltdown of 1997/98 when Mahathir’s house of cards would come crashing down on him.
Malaysia’s apparent success in the 1990s was at first attributed to good economic management. Yet all the Asian economies were booming including Thailand and Indonesia. It was quite impossible that Asian leaders, including a collection of despots whose leading lights were Suharto and Mahathir, were all providing their nations with good economic leadership.
The real explanation was that foreign funds were fuelling the Asian boom and too much of it was hot money that could disappear overnight. The fact that more and more funds were investing in Asia was an indication of the herd instinct that rules the often illogical global financial markets; rather than anything else. Currency speculators would take advantage of the inherent weaknesses of the economies within this unsustainable system to usher in, starting with Thailand, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
Rushed to blame others
For Mahathir, it would mean a political crisis as well. His way of handling the Financial Crisis was to blame everybody except, of course, himself. George Soros, a currency trader, was suddenly a monstrous leech feeding off helpless Asian countries. Yet currency traders were a part of the complex global financial system. If there was an imbalance in the system, the currency traders would, in their own way, correct it. Mahathir would not admit that he had been spending money on failed grandiose schemes. It was all, Mahathir insisted, Soros’s fault.
The Malaysian political crisis of 1998 would test Mahathir as never before, and it would illustrate the lengths that Mahathir would go to hang on to power. His deputy Anwar Ibrahim would be jailed, based on concocted evidence fabricated, allegedly, at the behest of Mahathir’s friend and crony, Daim Zainuddin. The trial was a farce; one of the key prosecution witnesses, a policeman, stating that he would lie to the court if ordered to do so and yet managing to have his evidence admitted.
In 1999 Mahathir would move his administrative capital to Putrajaya, a fantasy city built from scratch at enormous cost. As usual, Mahathir had Petronas pay for it. For Mahathir, oil was not a finite resource for Malaysia as a nation to carefully manage, but a means to realize his own grandiose visions, often with no particular benefit to the country.
Putrajaya would cost an irreplaceble RM 12 billion to Malaysia. The money went into grand designs and buildings filled with expensive furniture. It went into expensive ornate lamp posts instead of functional ones. Wanting to have bridges, but not having either rivers or lakes in Putrajaya, Mahathir dug his own lakes! He then built bridges over the ground he had just dug up! All this at taxpayer cost!
And what did we have to show for it? A bunch of civil servants sitting in nice buildings instead of functional ones. Nice buildings do not produce any economic activity. Factories do, private business does, and infrastructure facilitates the two, reducing the cost of goods and services and reducing time to market. Putrajaya’s buildings and unneccessary just sit there; a huge crater of waste.
Handover to Badawi
In 2004, Mahathir handed over power to Abdullah Baddawi. He was certain that he would be able to control Baddawi from behind the scenes. Baddawi, however, decided to go his own way. He cancelled projects that Mahathir had approved. He would not build Mahathir’s lunatic ‘crooked bridge’ to Singapore. Mahathir then engaged in a ‘war’ with Baddawi which would end with Baddawi’s ouster after the 2008 elections; though Baddawi was forced to leave office more because of BN’s 2008 election debacle rather than Mahathir’s attacks.
Over the past 2 years Mahathir has been trying to rewrite history by claiming, for example, that he had not ordered the the infamous 1987 Ops Lalang where more than a hundred opposition figures were arrested. Nobody was fooled and his audience actually laughed.
Not satisfied, Mahathir wrote a book with the misleading title of ‘Doctor in the House’. The book is filled with hypocrisies and in some instances, outright lies. His intention, one supposes, was to try and make himself look like a doctor who cured Malaysia’s ills. In fact, Mahathir was a cancer in Malaysia’s gut, and his malignant effect will be felt long after he is gone.