IN the rhapsody of Barack Obama’s epic election, some of us (Malaysians) may be caught imagining if such a leader could be elected to our highest office. Let’s give idealism its moment. No one is now mocking president-elect Obama for soaring rhetoric. Didn’t he just tap into real yearning for change, willingness to believe in ideals, and readiness to be roused by brilliant oratory? Didn’t he then run a mighty campaign to cast hope into votes?
Against Obama’s talents few present leaders can compare. But more profound is what he has inspired, as the man who broke the ultimate colour bar, unified diverse peoples, galvanized a new political consciousness, and elicited trust that his administration would bring the follies and enmities of the Bush years to a halt.
He will not succeed in all he promised and all we expect, but what he’s done so far has already made history.
Focused on hardware and physical monumentsAgain, could we have a transformational leader? I hear one immediate response: impossible-lah! Not in Malaysia.
I’m not necessarily talking about a non-Malay prime minister. How about a Malay prime minister who will live out genuine non-racial politics and stand up for it? That may be more conceivable, if still far out.
Actually, one man commandeered Malaysia through some transformations not long ago: Mahathir Mohamad. (And he is making a proxy comeback.)
Given that such leaders tend to appear, if at all, once in two or more generations, we’ll have a long wait for the next one.
And if we’re interested in the aspirations that Obama has got the world whooping, our wait will be further protracted by the need for current and future leaders to progressively undo the cultures of corruption, greed and tyranny that took root under Mahathir.
Comparing Mahathir and Obama
Comparing Mahathir and Obama seems absurd. Mahathir is elderly and has finished his long term in office; Obama is young and hasn’t even started governing.
Then again, it’s not so ridiculous. Mahathir became prime minister at a relatively young age of 55; Obama is 47. Mahathir’s agenda shifted the economy onto a different path. At the acme of his administration, he received domestic worship and international adulation; he was a hero of the less developed world. Born outside the establishment, he took on the Tunku and the sultans. Today’s Malaysia bears Mahathir’s imprint more than anyone else’s.
Perhaps most evocatively, while Obama rings out “Yes, we can!”, Mahathir got us chanting “Malaysia Boleh!” Of course, some differences stand out, clustered around these rallying calls.
Obama strove to connect his moment in history to the heroes that came before — Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, Dr Martin Luther King Jr — and acknowledged his and society’s debt to their legacies, whether Democratic or Republican. The strife and triumphs through the ages are embedded in America; Obama weaved in both the high points of the nation’s journey and the sobering reminder that much remains to be done. He summoned citizens to transcend differences of race, class, age and region, and to be empowered again in the democratic process. Exit polls reveal that “Yes, we can!” widely resonated.
In contrast, Mahathir made short shrift of the past. He’d do it his way and just look to the future. History was stained with colonialism, poverty and backwardness. Economic growth, material accumulation and the creation of a wealthy class would make us ditch that baggage. He showed scant respect for the need to build up human capacity and enhance freedoms, and little regard for the historical importance of intellectual development while fixing our sights — and spending our money — on hardware and physical monuments.
Then he called for Malaysia to be a “matured, liberal and tolerant” society and democracy, but wanted us to venture there on his terms. When he did refer us to the historical record, it was hardly for reconciliation; it was mostly to threaten the rakyat to not provoke repeats of our worst episodes and to be grateful for everything the Barisan Nasional had gifted to us. “Malaysia Boleh!” boomed in the material realm, but never made it to loftier ideals.
Mahathir certainly inspired optimism and confidence. Yet the contradictions between what was envisioned and the means to get there proved too great. He was poised in our historical journey as the PM, through expansions in education and urban middle classes, to take us further toward democracy and integrity. But he wanted mature democracy without freeing and empowering his people, he craved innovation without cultivating critical and creative minds. This mentality persists and pervades the government still.
Knowing, respecting, and connecting to history is vital to any vision of unifying change. We choose to forget or neglect to remember all that’s happened before and under Mahathir at our peril, and play our minds straight into his hands.
What about the personal journeys of these larger-than-life figures? I firmly believe that, of all that leaders try to impose on society, only the things that reflect their true character endure.
Obama bridged the black-white divide partly through his blood; his mother is white, and from heartland-ish Kansas. His uneasy habitation of both worlds is self-documented and much commented on. But he did have a choice, and elected not to carry himself as a black politician in the mould of the preceding generation of civil rights champions, but as an American who embraces his black identity but does not define his politics around it. That accounts for his initial tepid reception among black voters, but also for his broad appeal, as he convinced people of all shades and stripes to get on board.
Mahathir is a man of paradox. As an Umno maverick, he railed against Tunku Abdul Rahman, then surged up the ranks as one of the Malay ‘ultras’. His can-do spirit and relentless ambition drove him to the top, while the authoritarian streak on the flipside crushed dissent. He showed a more open, consultative posture when he entered office, and as he steered Malaysia towards the end of the NEP (New Economic Policy) in 1990 and Vision 2020.
He won widespread support in the 1990s and got our economy cruising. But he will be remembered as much for sacking Lord President Tun Salleh Abas, inflicting Operasi Lallang, ousting Anwar Ibrahim, and letting corruption fester and education institutions erode.
He embodied a prevailing model of leadership, which requires one to project the image of an ethnic ultra or defender of one’s kind, before transmuting into some sort of mediator once one has secured a high position. That just doesn’t work. He propagated the view that Asians do democracy in a different way: his way. That worked grandly for him and the ruling regime, but poorly for the people.
America is awash in hope; whither Malaysia?
There are some glimmers of hope. We are living in the post-8 March era, when we dare entertain new possibilities.
Perhaps a people’s movement will grow, of politicians rising above small-mindedness, of judges and administrators showing rectitude and courage, of bloggers and journalists pursuing stories fearlessly, of parents and teachers instilling vigilance for justice and against prejudice, and people staking their claim to a Malaysia that embraces equality and diversity.
Some are looking to Anwar, especially his message of breaking with the past and instituting a new economic and social order. For that notion to gain traction, the Pakatan Rakyat and [its] governed states will have to demonstrate that they can rise above conflicts great and small, and flesh out ketuanan rakyat. Anwar may move us in that direction, but he carries too much undeclared baggage from his past dealings in race-based politics to be a unifying transformational leader.
Yes, it must be said plainly: Malay leaders will have to blaze a trail away from race-based politics, because our history still constrains us. I won’t speculate whether an Indian, Iban, Kadazan or Chinese can be PM, because by then it won’t really matter. I’ll just jubilate.