COMMENT | When Anwar Ibrahim returned to politics around 2006, his detractors called him a “chameleon”. They said he often switched sides (which was an exaggeration) and was untrustworthy (which was debatable).
Right up to the 2008 general election, the late DAP MP Sim Kwang Yang recalled, “I was constantly bombarded with the question of whether Anwar would return to Umno, just like Ku Li did in the 90s after fighting Umno in vain with Semangat 46 as his political vehicle.”
Kwang Yang decided that Anwar could be trusted because prison had changed him and the public badly needed him to lead a struggle for democratic reform.
The rest is history but, funnily, history is back with a twist. Quite a few people worry that Dr Mahathir Mohamad will not change. They ask, “If Mahathir becomes prime minister again, will he be the same old Mahathir?”
Will “Mahathirism”, which some only understand as Mahathir’s sins, return? Can one answer such questions by reference to Mahathir’s character alone?
Mahathir has been a mystery to citizens and analysts alike. He expresses contradictory ideas and projects paradoxical images. He embodies F Scott Fitzgerald’s “test of a first-rate intelligence [which] is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.
Most people, especially his adversaries, only saw one side of Mahathir. Lee Kuan Yew, who clashed with him in the era of the second Parliament, labelled Mahathir a “Malay ultra”.
Australia’s Paul Keating dismissed him as “recalcitrant” for boycotting the 1993 Apec summit meeting in Seattle. When Mahathir blamed the 1997 currency crash on George Soros, the hedge fund manager called him a “menace to his own country”. And, yes, he was dubbed “Mahafiraun” and “Mahazalim”.
Branding Mahathir in these ways made him seem like a one-dimensional man. It was as if he wrote only one book (The Malay Dilemma), followed only one policy (New Economic Policy), and ruled in only one way (with a fist). But an image of an unchanging Mahathir grates against his record of promoting learning, adaptation, improvement, and...