Since the “Sheraton Move” in February 2020 that had caused the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, not many Malaysians have nice words to say about Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Some even use derogatory language to condemn this former Prime Minister, who had ruled the country twice.
This disrespect is a stark contrast to praises showered on him on May 9, 2018, when he led the PH opposition coalition to oust the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) led by Najib Razak, who was besieged by 1MDB scandal and other corruption-linked issues then.
After winning the May 2018 general election, Mahathir was touted by Malaysia’s richest man Robert Kuok as “the man who had saved Malaysia” when the Hong Kong-based tycoon came a-calling. It was no easy feat to bring down the Umno-led BN coalition, which had ruled the country for 61 years.
But like many Malaysians, Robert Kuok might regret what he had said after the unexpected “Sheraton Move” that sent Malaysia back to square one, bringing an end to a 22-month cleaner but chaotic rule by the PH coalition.
Mahathir, who shocked the nation by quitting as premier in February 2020, was seen as approving the political coup staged by his own men to deprive premier-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim the chance to succeed him.
Malaysians are angry that for the past two years, the country was hit by one political upheaval after another, with two changes to the premiership. The current Prime Minister is now pressured by his own party Umno to hold a snap general election.
The return of Umno and corrupt practices in government has brought utter disappointment to the people. Young people, including my son, are asking whether Malaysia has a future.
While many voters are hoping the old man, who still wants to be premier for the third time, will quit the political scene totally, I hold a different view. I see him as still having a role to play – at least on international stage.
Just last month, the 97-year-old made some commendable remarks that few leaders in Asean would be bold enough to voice out when facing Washington.
Amid tense US-China trade war and non-stop US sanctions imposed on China, Mahathir told the Financial Times of London late August that Asean “should be close to China” as China is a big market for Malaysia and the region.
Asean needed to stay away from the US and the West’s “provocation” of China as maintaining economic relationship with Beijing was crucial, he added.
Washington and its Western allies have destabilized the region immensely as they constantly send their warships to the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. This has caused Beijing to react with military drills.
Although the US says it subscribes to one-China policy, it regularly sells arms to Taiwan – a province of China – to challenge the sovereignty of China.
Mahathir’s other nice comments about China – calling it a “very good trading partner” and has not invaded any country – is what most leaders feel.
In fact, the world needs some fearless souls like Mahathir. His comments are timely and enlightening, even though he is no longer in power.
Mahathir, very often with his justified anti-West stance, has indeed placed Malaysia on the world map.
His policy to “buy British last” in the early 1980s in response to British premier Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s move to raise tuition fees for foreign students was shocking and impactful. So were his other comments made against the West.
My elder sister who was then working as a nurse in London told me: “I feel proud to be a Malaysian. We have a prime minister who dares to say no to the powerful West.”
Mahathir’s world views are valuable because he can and dare to articulate issues faced by the small and weak nations.
Asean leaders know that China is very important to the region. China is the largest trading partner of Asean and a key investor in the region.
The US is expected play a role in regional security, but it should not destabilize the region just because it wants to contain China. And the US is expected to know it will never be able to replace China in economic terms.
According to China Daily, China has remained the largest trading partner of Asean for 13 consecutive years. China-Asean trade hit US$544.9 billion in the first seven months of 2022, up 13.1% year-on-year. This accounted for 15% of China’s total foreign trade.
As of end-July 2022, China-Asean’s cumulative two-way investment exceeded US$340 billion. And Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects in Asean totaled over US$380 billion by end-July, according to China Daily.
While Asean nations have benefited economically from President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a new impetus for trade and investment is the entry into force in January 2022 of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Asean and China are major players in RCEP, an international binding pact that allows preferential tariffs to be enjoyed by member nations and their companies.
In fact, before the Financial Times interview, Mahathir had already caused discomfort to the US at a Tokyo conference in late May. He criticized a new US-led economic grouping IPEF, saying, “it is intended to isolate China, and will not benefit regional economic growth without Beijing.”
US President Joe Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) during an earlier visit to Japan. He said the IPEF, strongly supported by Japan but excludes China, would help the US work more closely with Asian countries in supply chains, digital trade, clean energy and anti-corruption.
But Mahathir said, “Many countries recognize that this is not an economic grouping but is truly a political grouping” to isolate China. The latest development saw India refusing to join the IPEF.
Given that Mahathir is a much sought-after person for interviews and speaker at international conferences, it appears that the world does pay heed to Mahathir’s views and analysis.
Indeed, Mahathir’s world views are valuable because he can and dare to articulate issues faced by the small and weak nations.
When he was prime minister in the 1990s, poor African and under-developed nations looked up to him. This was why the Langkawi Dialogue was so successful when he was prime minister then.
However, Mahathir as a politician in Malaysia is no saint now. His outdated views and political maneuvers, which at times cause racial tensions and hurt the country, do not endear him to most voters now.
The Chinese in this multiracial country are particularly upset when Mahathir made unfair and distorted remarks about the race to gain Malay support. Chinese contributions to Malaysia’s economic development and nation-building should not be negated by politicians with selfish agenda.
Mahathir would have been remembered as a statesman who had transformed Malaysia into a tiger economy in the 1990s and helped bring down a corrupt government in 2018, if he had honored the PH political pact to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim in 2020.
Unfortunately, his political missteps have caused people to instead scrutinize his past policies that had pioneered corruption culture, nepotism and failed projects.
At 97, maybe Mahathir should focus on playing a bigger role at international stage as there is a ready market for him out there.
(Veteran writer Ho Wah Foon is a freelance journalist after retiring as editorial consultant from The Star. Prior to this, she had worked for Reuters, Chinese Forbes magazine, The Straits Times of Singapore and The Edge. The views expressed here do not represent those of Sin Chew group.)