COMMENT | “The ability of the journalist to influence the course of events is out of all proportion to his individual right as a citizen of a democratic society. He is neither especially chosen for his moral superiority nor elected to his post. A free press is as prone to corruption as are the other institutions of democracy. Is this then to be the only institution of democracy to be completely unfettered?”
Those are the words of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, spoken in 1985 at the World Press Convention in Kuala Lumpur.
By Mahathir’s logic, journalists, if left unregulated, would by instinct overly report on conflicts and controversies at the expense of informing the people of the government’s achievements. The media watchdog must be leashed and used as a state apparatus to build the nation.
Contrast Mahathir’s tight rein on the media with this: "I reject the notion that a free press is alien to (Malaysian) society. All the great sages of the past were great because they were able to write and publish freely. All our great freedom fighters... were able to be great because they believed in freedom and they were able to use the media to articulate their positions."
Those are the words of Anwar Ibrahim in an interview with Time Australia (June 10, 1996), when his book Asian Renaissance was published. Anwar, who was deputy prime minister then, noted in his book that the cultural and intellectual reawakening of Asians (and Malaysians) will begin to evolve only when the mind and intellect are free of internal insecurity and independent of external constraints.
By Anwar’s logic, the media should serve as a "vehicle for the contest of ideas and cultivate good taste” to root out corruption and abuses of power in its many forms.
Western media generally frame Anwar as a liberal Islamist thinker and charismatic reformist post-1998, during which he regularly spoke at inter-civilisational forums.
However, Mahathir was seen as an autocratic moderniser who brooked no opposition to his rule and who held a tight rein on the media.
Since May 2008, Mahathir’s unfettered criticisms of his predecessor Abdullah Badawi’s “flip-flopping mismanagement of the country” and Najib Abdul Razak’s fraudulent rule have exposed another side of Mahathir’s persona in the eyes of those who follow his blog, Chedet.
How ironic from a former prime minister who is renowned for shutting down any dissent from journalists, opposition parties and public intellectuals!
What the voters expect
Even as we continue to celebrate Pakatan Harapan’s historic win, many who have worked in the media, and those who have marched the streets with Bersih, will expect the new regime to repeal the Universities and University Colleges Act, Anti-Fake News Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, Official Secrets Act and numerous sedition and security laws that have for too long suppressed open public debates on policy implementation issues and practical matters that affect the daily lives of every Malaysian family.
With the collapse of Umno and the probable prosecution of those who had plundered the country’s coffers, voters now expect the new regime to establish a non-partisan judiciary, an independent anti-corruption agency, and the re-opening of cold cases.
Will Harapan be able to fulfil these campaign vows within its first term in government, led by a 92-year-old statesman heavily tasked with micro-managing a fractious coalition of parties, each with its own interests to pursue, and neutralising the likelihood of ad hoc protests from Umno loyalists?
Even as I am truly inspired by Mahathir’s deep conviction in ‘saving the country’ from the kleptocrats, I am also fully aware of the divisive racialised political and communal systems that had developed during his 22-year leadership.
Decades of partisan politics, erosion of civil rights in the name of economic development, severe measures taken on minor dissent by Mahathir’s past detractors – these fractures will certainly taint his attempt at reshaping his legacy – from that of an autocratic prime minister and an enemy of the press, marked by Operasi Lalang in 1987, to that of a redeemer of a country lost to the kleptocrats and the corrupt in 2018.
The final collapse of the Umno hegemon and the long-awaited regime change does not necessarily imply a clean break from the past.
We will still see shades of ideological, organisational and institutional continuities in the form of political patronage arising from past loyalties and kinship ties, and the jostling for appointments to powerful portfolios. Such are the realities of communal politics and the tribal interests that drive the political agendas.
Mahathir had campaigned on a theme of self-redemption to save the country with the remaining years of his life. Permanent redemption and full restoration of the country, I believe, can only happen if Mahathir, as the oldest statesman to be re-elected as prime minister in the world, is able to bring about transformed hearts and changed mindsets in his new cabinet.
This needs an effective ‘leadership by example’, a slogan which framed the start of Mahathir’s premiership with his deputy Musa Hitam in 1981.
Mahathir hopes to change the way he wishes to be remembered in the history books. While implicitly seeking forgiveness for his actions past and reconciling with Anwar today with a full royal pardon warms our hearts and endears us to him as our eldest statesman, ultimately voters who elevated Harapan to power will want to see real improvements happen very soon in their living conditions.
I hope the new alliance, which is entering a political environment with a new generation of ‘enlightened’ voters who got them into power, will not be akin to shuffling a deck of new cards but dealing in the same old polarised politics of race and religious intolerance of the past decades.
I hope Mahathir’s statement that “this election is not merely about seeking victory for a political party but to redeem the pride of the (Malay) race” does not return us to the type of society that he painted in his 1971 book The Malay Dilemma.
ERIC LOO is Senior Fellow (Journalism) at the School of the Arts, English & Media, Faculty of Law Humanities & Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia. He is also the founding editor of Asia Pacific Media Educator.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.