When I first had greater awareness of the world around me when I was about 5 years old, the Prime Minister of Malaysia had always been Datuk Hussein Onn. One of his most endearing feature was his recognizable parrot-nosed side profile, made famous by Lat in one of his “Scenes From the Malaysian Life??? collection that included an instructional chapter on how to draw all 3 Malaysian Prime Minister (up until then).
When Mahathir became the Prime Minister and Hussein Onn retired (later made a Tun), my world-view was severely shaken. To me, Hussein Onn was a quiet and unassuming character. He looked like someone who will remain calm even under the most stressful situations. And to me, his laid back and peaceful aura represented Malaysia.
But my perception of Mahathir then was secondary hand-me-down opinions that I had heard from the grown ups. My liberal but Chinese household was suspicious of the fact that a Malay ultra was taking over the reigns of the Government. Some relatives were commenting that Chinese businesses, education and way of life are going to be severely affected in Malaysia.
Naturally I was concerned.
One day, a Chinese classmate told me that Mahathir is good for the nation. I disagreed and an animated discussion attracted a Malaysian crowd (read Malay, Chinese, Indian students) that participated in the debate. Primary school political discussions are probably the most politically incorrect forum because children often parrot whatever their parents said in the privacy of their homes. But they are often a true indicator of what most households think.
From that debate, it was evident that no one knew what to expect. And that was pretty much how people who had grew up since then felt when Mahathir ran the country- they didn’t know what to expect but they knew what whatever it is, it’s something big.
The first opinion of my own that I had of Mahathir was that he is fascinated with time. Why did I think that? First, he took an hour away from Malaysia- we had to move our clocks to be ahead of Thailand and Singapore so that East and West Malaysia can have the same time. Next, he introduced punch cards in government offices (that then trickled down to private organizations).
I remembered the effects of those changes. As I was growing up, RTM used to publish their TV schedules with up-to-the-second time. So, the Six Million Dollar Man would play at 8.07pm on a Wednesday night- which is 43 minutes after a cartoon. But the problem was RTM couldn’t keep up with the schedule themselves so scheduled shows always came on early or late. After the change in attitudes towards time, RTM published their schedules on a half-hourly basis (but the part about getting their act together is still going on and is taking much, much longer than anticipated).
Next, Mahathir asked the nation to looked East. This was a pretty bold thing to do as most people were looking West to either the United States or the USSR for aid. This was the first time that Malaysians had to look towards an Asian country to emulate- which was difficult considering all the colonial worshipping we did back then to the Mat Sallehs. To compound matters, Mahathir spearheaded a “Buy British Last??? campaign.
Then came the period of privatization and all of the associated Filem Negara shorts on “Malaysia, Inc.??? that came along with it. I remember watching these (I do a lot of TV back then) on a lazy Friday afternoon and not understanding the message of the short film, wondered just what in the world are they talking about then. I was thinking then are they going to make Malaysia into a company and all of us could a salary from the Government?
As a result, either out of frustration or out of ignorance, people complained. Being Malaysians our capacity to talk, debate and complain far outweighs our sense of initiative to do actually something about it. So naturally, Mahathir’s policies persisted and sometimes caused me sleepless nights because they tend to appear as Bahasa Malaysia essay questions.
Under Mahathir, more and more big things suddenly crept up.
Malaysia started producing local cars. The first car, however, was the aesthetically challenged Proton Saga of which I still remember to this very day the awful TV commercial jingle:- “Pro-Ton SAAAA-GAAAA, ke-ja-ya-an Ma-lay-SIAAAA!??? One is grateful that Proton got lesser and lesser laughs from the public with each subsequent release of new models. The first 3 cars that I had owned were proudly Malaysian made cars.
Transport and communications infrastructure improved tremendously. In fact, I don’t ever recall a day that goes by without me ever noticing a construction of a new overpass, bypass or underpass. The country has been tarmacked and wired up like never before. This not only has truly brought the nation together but to bring the world to Malaysia and vice-versa. I still get chills, and not from the air conditioning of KLIA, every time I depart or arrive at this spectacular airport.
On the social front, Mahathir “softened??? the NEP- which is one of the biggest policy contention that non-indigenous population have with the Government- without really stating it in public. In its place, free wheeling capitalism took root and it created a super class of tychoons. The Vision 2020 speech, an important milestone for the Malaysian society because it outlines the utopia that we should all work towards. This is an important vision because, truly, this outlines what a Malaysian society to be like.
This is not to say that I agree a 100% with our PM.
My biggest criticism of Mahathis is on the Anwar issue- which I believe is one of the biggest black spot of his career. He probably miscalculated the ground swelling support for the Deputy Prime Minister. Who can forget the imagery of thousands of casual Malaysians taking to the streets and highways to protest against the heavy-handed approach that the Government took to silence Anwar? The real reason behind the sacking will probably never be known during Mahathir’s lifetime but I don’t buy the corrupt homosexual angle.
Secondly, Mahathir was in a position to accelerate the liberalization of society, economy and politics but he didn’t go far enough. Mahathir could implement transparency policies in all levels of government bureaucracy like he did with punch clocks and nametags. This would trickle down to society and reduce the rampant graft that now occurs in all levels- from the paying off of law enforcers to the cover-ups of corporate scandals. Small things create big differences and Mahathir was in the right place and the right time to plant this small seed but he didn’t.
While these legacies (good or bad) will always remind Malaysians of Mahathir, he had also done for us something good that time will never erase. He had instilled a new sense of confidence and pride in ourselves so that our children, their children will always believe that if we work hard enough, we can truly make anything happen.
And with that, I would like to thank our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mohammad Mahathir, for his great contribution to the nation. The Malaysia and Malaysians of today wouldn’t be where we are without you.