Many people talk of Mahathir's legacy. What legacy?
Proton has been a failure. After 20 years of existence and protection, at huge costs to the nation, they are barely able to produce original designs. They had to spend hundred of millions in 1996 to acquire UK's Lotus to overcome a lack of in-house engineering capability. They are still not able to penetrate the US market, the world's most lucrative car market. It has not spawned an auto industry, unlike the Korean car industry which grew from the bottom up, making and supplying parts to Japanese auto-makers long before making their own cars.
Perwaja Steel has been a failure. Set up to realise Mahathir's heavy industries policy. Loss-making till today. Riddled with corruption, inefficiency and lack of direction. Unsalvageable.
DRB-Hicom has been a failure. Another one set up to realise Mahathir's heavy-industries policy. Couldn't even run a decent bus service. What has it achieved, and, what does it actually do nowadays?
Renong has been a failure. Set up to realise Mahathir's policy of conglomerates, copying Japan's sogososhas (conglomerates). Gets involved in everything. Builds a highway, then charges so much for it that, today, it's possible to fly up to Penang for less than driving. Starts up a telco, spends billions on fibre optic cables running up and down the country, then gets into financial trouble.
MAS has been a failure. Cornerstone of Mahathir's privatisation policy. He had the audacity to arm-twist enough people to grant loans to an individual to buy the airline. That much trust he has in that one person. That single action exposes, more than anything else, his poor judgement. People who has worked or associated with MAS knows that its internal problems have existed for decades - inefficiency, corruption, racism, favouritism, abuse of power. Because MAS' competition is international, these problems are cruelly exposed. Yet when Tajuddin Ramli took over, he decided to spend RM20 billion ringgit to expand the fleet. Shouldn't you solve the internal problems first? Of course, we now know that he failed miserably. Now, who picked him for the job?
Commonwealth Games Village has been a failure. Mahathir's pride - symbol of his "Malaysia boleh" call. Now a target of vandalism - missing chairs, tiles, etc. Have to spent millions on maintenance every year. Occasionally used for political gatherings and pesta . A definite 'white elephant'.
Bakun Dam has been a failure. What was Mahathir thinking of? The project is just not justifiable. And the proof of that must be Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary's proposal to sell half the electricity generated to his (proposed) aluminium smelting plant. Imagine - you have to build an aluminium smelting plant in order to justify building that dam!
The 1998 financial crisis. This must be Mahathir's greatest failure. In the years leading up to the crisis, the KLSE Index reached 1,400 points and property prices was going through the roof. Labour and skills shortage led to ever higher salaries. New car models led to ever higher car prices. Interest rates went up to historical highs. But rumours and speculation fueled ever higher stock prices.
Profits from stocks moved into more stocks, then moved to property, and then moved back to stocks. Everyone was speculating and no one was working. It was the height of lunacy. Obviously the economy was overheating.
A responsible leader would have engineered a soft landing. Cool off the economy. But Mahathir did the opposite. He announced even more mega-projects, in the midst of other projects ongoing at that time. He even spoke about us running a zero per cent inflation on the back of 10 per cent growth ... indefinitely.
We were already running 22 consecutive months of deficit. The ringgit became indefensible. When you spend so much more than you earn, in the long run, you become very vulnerable. True enough, the crisis struck the country. But Mahathir did an even more irresponsible thing: he sacked Anwar, triggering a political crisis.
Mahathir's policies and actions leading up to the crisis, and during the crisis, have shown him to be irresponsible and incompetent. Mahathir should be condemned for his failure to avert the crisis, rather than praised for his actions to "cure" the crisis.
On the eve of his departure, Mahathir defended his legacy. He said, amongst other things, that the failure of Perwaja was due to "mismanagement", not the failure of the heavy-industries policy.
Mahathir is only half-right. The failure of Perwaja, and all the rest, is due to both mismanagement and policy. Both of which can and must be blamed on Mahathir. Why?
A powerful leader must take the blame for such failures, if he/she were to take the credit for other successes. It is a well-known fact that most of the top management of these companies were hand-picked, or at least vetted, by Mahathir.
It is also well-known that Mahathir has a fondness for micro-managing his pet projects. It is common for corporate directions to be influenced by him. For example, when Tajuddin owned MAS, Mahathir used it as a pawn to aggressively push his South-South agenda. MAS started flying to all the unprofitable routes: Argentina, South Africa, Turkey, Mozambique, etc. Tajuddin obviously cannot say "no".
But to offset losses, MAS ingeniously lobbied for higher domestic tariffs, citing "loss making" domestic routes (as if the Mahathir-approved Argentina flights weren't loss-making). But now, or course we know that even domestic routes can make money as shown by AirAsia.
Mahathir's heavy-industries policy is grandiose, not reality. Why start with such huge projects? Those of us who have worked umpteen years in large organisations would know the complexity and difficulty in running such huge and complex operations. A car manufacturing operation consists of thousands of complex processes. Has to be done right all the time. We have no history of such manufacturing. Why not start with something less complex and with less risk ?
Malaysia does not need to own a car industry. We do not need to own a steel industry. We do not need to own an electrical appliances industry. We do not need to own a software industry. What do we need?
We need to focus on petro-chemicals, tourism, oil palm and other agricultural outputs, food products, wood products, rubber products, cruise and merchant shipping. We need to go downstream. We need to undertake research and development in those areas. We need to use satellite imaging to detect spread of pests in oil palm plantations.
We need to automate, create uniquely designed vehicles for use in the plantations to increase efficiency. To create the best clones. To write software for managing plantations. To make plantation management a sought-after career in this country. To pay our plantation workers decent salaries, not one that depends on the weather. To create thousands of middle- and end-products, from cooking oil, margarine, coffee, to Vitamin E extracts.
If we do need a role model, perhaps it should be Nestle and Ikea, not Mitsubishi and Kawasaki. Because at the end of the day, it makes more sense for our country to capitalise on our natural advantage, historical strengths and intimate understanding of oil palm, wood and food, rather than steel and cars. There lies Mahathir's greatest mistake.
While he focused on this beloved heavy industries, Mahathir ignored other industries, calling them "sunset industries" amongst other things. The term "sunset industries" was fashionable then but you don't hear it mentioned these days. People now know that there is no such thing as a "sunset industry".
If you check out the website of the state of California, you will find that agriculture is the second largest industry in the state, a place that has the highest concentration of high-tech industries in the world. Of course, California has Mediterranean weather suitable for certain crops, and producers turn that into a very lucrative business (helped by high technology, excellent marketing, sustained research and cheap Mexican labour).
Sounds familiar? The amount of time, money and effort that Mahathir wasted on his failed pet projects could have been used to modernise and expand Malaysia's agrifood industry and turn the country into a major producer and exporter in this part of the world.
Our country has so much natural wealth. All we need is to add our intellect, some discipline, lots of unity, a dash of hard work, and plenty of common sense, to succeed as a nation. And yes, some humility.
We don't need a car industry, a failed steel company, Twin Towers (which isn't even the tallest anymore), an empty stadium, giant dam, 'Malaysia boleh', and seldom-used race-track.
Mahathir has shown us what not to do. Let us all learn from his mistakes. Let's not repeat it. That's the legacy.