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Is Mahathir his own worst enemy?

Mahathir seems to be neither bothered about what others think nor the consequences of his actions and statements on race relations.

Ex prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohammad.
Mahathir is on record as saying that promoting multiracialism goes against the Federal Constitution. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the only man to have been prime minister of Malaysia twice, is ruining his reputation and his legacy by continuing to make controversial and divisive remarks about race.

It is abundantly clear that the man who was prime minister for 22 years from 1981 and then again occupied the seat for 22 months from May 2018, will not stop igniting fires of indignation and protest by his controversial comments.

While speaking one’s mind may be an admirable quality in certain people and in certain situations, a national leader is expected to weigh the consequences of what he or she says or does.

However, Mahathir seems to be neither bothered about what others think nor the consequences of his actions and statements on race relations in a multiracial and multireligious nation.

There was a time when I thought age would mellow him and that he would start acting like a statesman, but the politician, now 98, has proved me wrong.

No wonder then that Mahathir is again being flayed for his recent remarks that could further divide Malaysians.

No less a person than the Minster for National Unity Aaron Ago Dagang joined the chorus of voices that slammed Mahathir for his disparaging remarks about non-Malays.

“Politicians must act as role models and instil unity, goodwill and togetherness,” he said on 13 January in expressing his disappointment with Mahathir’s remarks.

What did the nonagenarian say to raise a storm of protest, especially from the non-Malays?

He questioned the loyalty of the Chinese and Indians who are citizens of the country by saying that they were not “completely loyal” as they still wanted to identify themselves with their respective countries of origin.

Among other things he told his interviewer on Indian satellite TV channel Thanthi TV, that if the Chinese and Indians wanted to claim that the country belonged to them too, they had to identify themselves as Malays and adopt Malay culture and even speak the Malay language at home.

Referring to Indians and Chinese as immigrants, he lamented: "Malaysian Indians do not speak Malay as their home language, they speak Tamil."

Mahathir wants non-Malays to become Malays

Asked by the interviewer if he expected non-Malays to "totally assimilate" and become Malays for them to be recognised as Malaysians, Mahathir said yes.

But Minister Aaron reminded Mahathir in a statement that: “This country gained independence through a social contract and in uniting our races, our forefathers adopted the national integration approach instead of assimilation. Those values have been adopted by us for 60 years and it is our way of life.”

He was not the only minister to aim at Mahathir. Digital Minister Gobind Singh Deo said it was wrong to question the loyalty of the Indian and Chinese communities just because they practised their respective cultures and spoke their mother tongues.

A host of Malaysians ticked off Mahathir on social media, with some saying the he was encouraging hatred and creating disunity.

But this is not the first time he has expressed such a view. If anything, he has been quite consistent about this in recent years, especially after he retired as prime minister after his first stint in 2003.

For instance, speaking on a podcast hosted by former UMNO Youth leaders Khairy Jamaluddin and Shahril Hamdan on 13 November 2023, Mahathir said Chinese and Indian “immigrants” had refused to be assimilated into Malay culture.

When Khairy noted that “we never insisted on assimilation”, Mahathir retorted: "They refused, not that we did not insist, but they looked down on us, we wanted them to become Malays. They didn't want to be known as Malays."

Malaysia belongs to the Malays, says Mahathir

On 27 July 2023, Mahathir tweeted: “Stop talking about Malaysia as a multiracial country. It is not. It is a Malay country which hosts people from other countries.”

Mahathir is on record as saying that promoting multiracialism goes against the Federal Constitution and that the Malays did not benefit from the multiracial nature of the country.

In 2008, he posted on his blog: “The hope at independence was that the non-Malays would accept a single national language and a single national identity. But it became clear very quickly that the Chinese and the Indians wanted to retain their identities, their mother tongue and their culture. They did not want to be solely Malaysians, certainly not Malays.”

Even some Malays find his remarks distasteful, with some taking to social media to condemn his position and defend Indian and Chinese citizens.

One childhood Malay friend messaged me: “What he says is a huge disservice to peace loving Malaysians like you and me.”

Another friend said: “Malaysia’s tourism tagline is ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’. How can it be truly Asia if everyone is Malay? Is he suggesting that the country will become peaceful and prosperous if everyone were to become Malay? What’s wrong with him?”

And in all this, Mahathir has conveniently forgotten the people of Sabah and Sarawak, most of whom are Dayaks and Kadazadusun and Ibans. Does he expect the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak to also become Malay?

In fact, the Dayaks claim they were here even before the Malays.

Mahathir has again conveniently forgotten that Malaya no longer exists. Malaysia is made up of Peninsular Malaysia (the old Malaya), Sabah and Sarawak.

There is no doubt that a large section of the Malaysian population has lost respect for him. And that’s putting it mildly.

As prime minister, he was respected, even admired. Many praised him for his various achievements and referred to him as the “Father of modern Malaysia”.

Personally, I feel sorry for him. As a journalist who covered him in the 1980s and 1990s, I found him to be approachable and friendly. He had no airs about him.

In those days, he spoke frequently about the need for all the races in multiracial Malaysia to work together and build a great nation. Where is that Mahathir?

When he retired as prime minister in 2003, most Malaysians felt Dr Mahathir Mohamad would be leaving behind a respectable legacy. Few think so now.

Mahathir, it appears, has become his own worst enemy.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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