Dr M: A racist, mediocre leader

Dr M: A racist, mediocre leader

I attended Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s address to the Cambridge Union recently. It was a disappointing and unpleasant experience. Before entering, I had thought of him as an enigma, a giant of history with the tremendous recent achievement of having pulled Malaysia from the throes of deep-set corruption. The man I saw at the Union came across as a wily politician but distinctly mediocre candidate for governance.

He had around him a large gaggle of sycophantic invitees, some of whom I recognised as senior political figures. This, more than anything else, liberated me from the idea that Mahathir is a methodical man who calibrates his statements to his audience. They clapped and cheered when he made shocking wisecracks about Jewish people. They would probably have believed that pigs could fly if he claimed it.

These are my impressions of Mahathir post-talk:

1. Mahathir chooses what he wants to believe and looks for reasons to justify them after. And many of the things he believes are rightly considered incendiary.

When asked by an audience member about whether affirmative action in favour of Malays was not racial discrimination, he said that it was necessary to prevent racial confrontation based on perceived inequalities between the races. This is not a bad reason, until one remembers that it will be a cold day in hell before Malaysia sees affirmative action policies in favour of its Chinese and Indian citizens. Recall what bumiputera means: “sons of the earth”. These are policies to favour Malays, and always will be.

Mahathir called gay marriage a ‘regressive’ way of thinking, saying that the objective of marriage was procreation. When asked by the moderator about whether infertile people should also be excluded from marriage, he backpedalled and said that marriage must be between a man and a woman – a position unsupported by his justifications but explained by the first words out of his mouth: ‘I don’t understand this gay marriage.’

2. He holds himself to average standards of reasoning and low standards of evidence

His arguments were full of inconsistencies, sometimes in a single sentence. He criticised the West for its generalisations of Malays as backward and lazy (something they haven’t done in about half a century). He then proceeded to agree with that characterisation and said that Jewish people worldwide were complicit in the ‘killings’ of the Israeli state. When a member of the audience queried him on why he felt it acceptable to generalise when he criticised the West for doing so, he retreated to another generalisation: ‘sometimes we have to generalise’. There was no explanation as to why this was one of those times.

He said that the Jewish people should have learned from their experiences in WWII not to treat others that way (referring to the Palestinians). He did not acknowledge Malaysia’s treatment of its minorities, or his experiences of racism as a medical student in Singapore.

He said that the nuances of the English language meant that the West was not serious in its criticisms of Malaysia. This might have been a joke, I’m not sure. In any event, he did not correct himself. He also said that Malaysia needed to learn from the East. The moderator asked him whether Malaysia would learn from Taiwan, which had just legalised gay marriage. Without irony, he replied at once that the idea was regressive.

He was poorly prepared for obvious counter-arguments to his points. He did not have a response to the common counter-argument that if marriage is only for procreation then it must exclude infertile people as well.

As regards poor standards of evidence, he repeated the heavily debunked claim that Malaysia is being short changed by Singapore in the sale of raw and purified water. There cannot be a more obvious example of fake news; Singapore has repeatedly pointed out that Malaysia saves far more from the current economic arrangement than Singapore does, and the numbers support it. Mahathir also made the claim that Singapore sells water to Malaysia for RM50 per thousand gallons and I am certain that he believed it. He emphasised this number repeatedly and with great consternation. The actual value is 50 cent per thousand gallons.

3. The audience was stacked. There were at least 30 (if not more) people who appeared to be special invitees of Malaysia. They collectively made up about half the audience. They nodded agreeably when Mahathir criticised the West, and laughed and cheered at his jokes. They fell silent when the moderator called Mahathir out on logical inconsistencies.

At one point, Mahathir tastelessly remarked that nearly all Jewish people were bad, but the few good ones were the ones he knew. This was a ridiculous and racist thing to say. I looked around the audience. His invitees chuckled loudly and appreciatively, clapped and cheered. Almost all of the Cambridge attendees were in silent disbelief.

4. It felt uncomfortably immoral.

Mahathir spent considerable time painting Jewish people in general as bad. His interviewer, Adam Davies, is an American of Jewish descent, and said so during one of his questions. It was an uncomfortable experience seeing Mahathir justify his racist comments to Davies without shame. To Davies’s credit, he conducted himself extremely professionally.

For me, the mystique has been shorn off Mahathir. He is a powerful man, yes, and one who needs to be taken seriously, not despite being illogical, uncritical, and racist but perhaps precisely for that reason.

By Arjun Dhar

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Leaders Online.

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