Published in Malay Mail Online
Around a week ago, a clickbait website published an article with a headline that puts the name “Mahathir” in the same sentence as the word “badass.”
Additionally, there is a similar trend among some young Malay Twitter users who describe themselves as “Mahathirists” in their profile.
What could possibly drive young Malaysians into yearning for Dr Mahathir Mohamad 12 years after he stepped down as prime minister? The situation was probably unthinkable as late as five years ago.
To a lot of Malaysians, “Mahathirism” is not a badge you wear with pride. The 22 years of his administration — the longest time ever a prime minister has served the country — was riddled with abuse to human rights, civil liberties and the fundamentals of the nation.
But to the younger set, the Mahathir era is now seen through rosy glasses as a time when Malaysia stood for something.
Most would have remembered Mahathir’s retirement during their teens, and to them Mahathir might be the prime minister they remembered most “fondly.”
The tail end of the era was remembered for Dr Mahathir’s resilience in weathering the Asian economic crisis, and turning Malaysia into a respected name worldwide.
To that generation, they remember Mahathir for his mega projects: for national carmaker Proton, the world record-breaking Petronas Twin Towers, the glitzy Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the larger-than-life Putrajaya.
As they grew older and more in tune with the current issues, they experienced the administrations of his successors which many consider ineffective.
But above all, the thing most people missed was the charisma, the gravitas that earned respect, obedience, loyalty, and pride. Which was something Mahathir had in spades, and perhaps still does.
So when the so-called Mahathirists label themselves as such, what they are actually expressing is the yearning for a national leader, a captain they can follow.
The respect they have for Dr Mahathir, who was trained as a medical doctor, is perhaps a reflection of their disrespect for current politicians who do not have the same intellectual prowess and worldview.
What these people miss about the Mahathir era is how he could put his foot down on certain issues and dissenters: the Opposition, the non-Malays, the liberals, and foreign pressure.
Many young Malays are experiencing a globalisation paradox. As human rights advocates push for greater civil liberties and a more open society, the Malays feel the need to assert their ethnic and Muslim identity.
The liberalism that recognises minorities — religious, racial, etc. — is instead being seen as a threat towards the supremacy of the status quo. Their backlash towards liberalism is knee-jerk and reactive towards the rise of the ideology, and not necessarily because they believe in conservatism.
These so-called “neo-Mahathirists” also ironically do not share Dr Mahathir’s disdain for organised religion and superstition.
It is undeniable that Dr Mahathir contributed towards kickstarting the Islamisation of Malaysia, by institutionalising religion and politicising Islam, in order to compete with both the rise of PAS and Anwar, who was backed by his Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) credentials.
As if realising his costly blunder, which has now seen religious authorities growing into monsters who wield considerable powers over the country and the rise of hardline Islamists, Mahathir now takes a hostile stance towards the clergy class and Islamic laws in his keynote speeches.
The pining for the Mahathir era as some sort of a revisionist “good ol’ days” poses an even greater danger now that the country is more unsure than ever about its future.
All is not well within Umno, that much is obvious. Under fire, the prime minister was forced to abandon his moderate and pluralist approach and is now scrambling to gather lost support both inside and outside his party.
Today, his lobbyists and supporters in Umno hold a solidarity meeting for his sake, perhaps as a last ditch push to ensure that he keeps his position at least a little while longer. But who next?
The yearning for “Mahathirism” points towards more conservative pro-Malay leaders such as Muhyiddin Yassin and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, which will spell darker days for civil liberties and human rights in the country if one goes by their past records.
In addition, there is just no viable alternative against the more conservative voices in Umno. Hishamuddin Hussein might have won the nation’s hearts while handling the MH370 disaster, but without the Malay grassroots support he would not go very far.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, while capable of not only galvanising the divisive Umno but also the fractured country as a whole, is simply past his prime. The only time we will see Ku Li, as he is known, as a national leader is in the pages of an alternative historical fiction where things never got this bad for Malaysia.
What of Pakatan Rakyat? Well, what are the chances that the federal Opposition pact will even last until the next general elections, much less winning it?
With Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim silenced in prison, PR’s next challenge would be to find itself a new de facto chief before they can start winning the hearts and minds of the Malaysians who dream to see some change.
With charismatic leaders in its component parties either on their way out or not yet there, it is possible that PR might have to “sit out” the next polls until it can find its renaissance and second wind with a refreshed line-up of leaders.
People are frustrated that the captain who is supposed to helm the boat is away while the boat is rapidly sinking, and there is no other crew they trust enough to take over.
With this prospect hanging over our heads, is it any wonder so many are thinking of preparing their lifeboats?