Learning from the past… and Donald Trump

by Nicholas Wong

There are two broad narratives about Donald Trump’s election last November. The first is the nuts-and-bolts story of how he exploited a narrow path to victory in the United States’ Electoral College. The second is the story about the man: how a loud, anti-PC, strong-headed outsider beat the odds to win an election.

Unsurprisingly, the second story’s more exciting. And it naturally has people looking for parallels ― who’s the Donald Trump of Malaysia, for example? Who’s the unlikely newcomer who will break through entrenched political roadblocks and bring in a new government through sheer force of personality?

It’s an especially tempting thought experiment for Malaysians looking for an end to the gridlock keeping the current administration in power, and for those looking to make lemonade out of Trump’s election.

But Malaysia already had a Donald Trump and his name is Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia’s fourth prime minister ruled from 1981 to 2003 ― 22 long years ― during which he remade Malaysia. And his tenure should serve as a warning for those hoping a similar strongman will emerge to smash through our gridlock by force.

Superficially, the two have a lot in common. Like Trump, part of Mahathir’s charisma comes from his plain-speaking, straight-talking style. The man took a laissez-faire approach to political correctness (and facts) ― like suggesting the 9/11 attacks were staged (“If they can make Avatar, they can make anything”) or that “the Jews rule this world by proxy.”

And where Trump’s campaign had some nationalist overtones, a huge plank of Mahathir’s legacy was his strident anti-West nationalism. He played on a post-colonial underdog mentality through a more abrasive, adversarial foreign policy ― resulting in risky moves like the Buy British Last campaign.

Beyond that, the comparisons get murkier. It’s still early days for Trump, so a meaningful comparison of policy is difficult. Mahathir, for example, was sometimes capable of balancing his international saber-rattling with pragmatism ― most famously, he inked a secret security agreement with the US in 1984 that allowed for significant military co-operation between the two countries, even as he claimed to be non-aligned and continued to criticise American military presence in the region publicly. It remains to be seen if Trump can do the same.

The truly meaningful comparison, however, is that both represented leadership centred around producing results and chasing a vision single-mindedly. It’s the Apple of politics: “[Steve Jobs] made things get made the way he wanted them made, and his users appreciated his definitiveness and lack of compromise. They mistook those conceits for virtues in the objects themselves.”

Similarly, in the strongman leadership styles of Trump and Mahathir, we take for granted that the decisiveness and boldness mean substance and competence. And it’s a dangerous cult to buy into.

We might be looking for someone, anyone who could just make headway with this current situation. But at what cost? Trump was elected to make the government work for people who felt left behind. But critics of the current government are looking to boot out an authoritarian leader ― so it makes little sense to do that by electing another authoritarian.

Now that Mahathir has taken up arms against the government and quit Umno (again), I wonder if some think he’s the man to unite a splintered Opposition and oust the government, as Anwar Ibrahim tried to with Pakatan Rakyat.

Anyone who thinks so should be careful. Anwar led the charge from a multiracial party, on a relatively progressive platform of fighting corruption and abuse of power. Mahathir’s new party, on the other hand, is a racist one that looks to defeat Umno by beating it at its own game.

He was also the man who constructed Malaysia’s predicament today. He destroyed the judiciary’s independence, hobbling its ability to hold the government to account. He built and entrenched a capitalist class that allowed for rampant graft and cronyism, giving way to scandal after scandal. He wielded power oppressively, notoriously detaining dozens without trial during the Ops Lalang crackdown.

And of course, he planned poorly for succession. He went through three credible deputies ― Musa Hitam left, Ghafar Baba was defeated, and Anwar Ibrahim was fired ― before finally handing power off to the weakest (and hence not a threat to him) ― Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Then he turned on Abdullah, paving the way for Najib Razak to take the reins and the rest is history.

So trusting Mahathir ― or anyone similar ― is a mistake. Dismantling the system that produced him is more important. Will a new government influenced by Mahathir give the judiciary back its independence and draw fair electoral boundaries? Or, be afraid that an opposition Barisan Nasional will “threaten” reforms, will it simply stack the courts with its own judges, and gerrymander seats to its favour?

Whether it’s the Mahathir of 2017, who’s now in the Opposition, or some other Trump-like figure, it’s a bad idea. The Mahathir of 1981-2003 has already shown us why.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (27 February 2017)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *