To track a maverick

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

Crates of a new book by veteran regional journalist Barry Wain have sat for weeks on a wharf at Port Klang in Malaysia, awaiting clearance from the Home Ministry.

Not strictly illegal, the book Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times is already circulating widely inside the country. Copies are flooding in from neighbouring Singapore, where it is already on best-seller lists.

Yet the bureaucrats are unsure, and last week delayed their decision for another 60 days.

But a read of Maverick - the most expansive biography of the former Malaysian prime minister yet published - shows they have reason for caution. In charting the triumphs and excesses of Dr M's 22-year rule, Wain has told a story that is as much about Malaysia's future as its past.

Many of the Muslim-majority nation's current problems - worsening communal rancour, a lack of rising political talent, institutional malaise - can be laid at Mahathir's door, he argues.

'You could say Mahathir built all the hardware - from the outside, Malaysia has all the glittering towers and trappings of a modern, technologically advanced state - but the software is not there,' he says. 'And that will continue to be a problem for Malaysia and Malaysians in the long term.'

The book charts how Mahathir's visions for a developed, unified and proud nation led to financial scandals on a 'world-class' scale, the rise of corrupt political and business elites and the ossifying dominant party Umno, or the United Malays National Organisation.

His book hits the shelves as some of those problems are playing out in a nervous region. Churches and mosques have been attacked after acts of political opportunism by the government fuelled a creeping Islamisation that threatens Malaysia's secular traditions. And in Kuala Lumpur, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir's former deputy, is on trial again for sodomy.

Wain's account of Anwar's orchestrated fall from grace in 1998 as Mahathir's hand-picked successor is one of his book's most powerful chapters. His description of the beating Anwar suffered at the fists of the inspector general of police and, significantly, the torture of one of his accusers, Munawar Anee, lays bare the troubled reality of Malaysia's rule of law.

Speaking of Munawar's claims to have been sodomised by Anwar, Wain notes Mahathir's statement that he could not understand how a man could 'invent a story like that'.

'Munawar, of course, had not invented the story. It was invented for him by Special Branch officers, who had degraded him to the point of being a 'shivering shell of a man' willing to agree to sign anything 'to stop the destruction of my being'.

Reading such passages, it is hard to see the current charges levelled against Anwar - by far the most charismatic political figure on the Malaysian stage - as anything but political. In classic fashion, of course, Mahathir remains convinced of Anwar's guilt, just as he proved unbending in the self-belief and utter certainty behind his policies over the years.

Wain interviewed the 84-year-old three times as part of his research. Each time, Wain says he found Mahathir entirely accepting of his efforts and willing to talk.

'There was no subject that he was not willing to address. He doesn't mess around; he gives very straight, direct answers,' Wain says.

'But I soon realised that he was completely unreflective ... it was clear he was unwilling to seriously revisit controversial issues. I would find him using the same words to describe an issue that he used 20 years ago.

'There is a contradiction - he was, of course, willing to talk and willing to talk so much, yet there was no reflection or any attempt to look at things from a new angle or with the benefit of new evidence,' Wain says. It would not be the only contradiction Wain would face. In fact, his book can be seen as a fascinating study in contradictions, large and small.

It is the story of a grandson of an Indian immigrant from humble roots who would rise to champion the cause of ethnic Malay nationalism. The leader who as a young politician railed against establishment cliques would eventually entrench an elite and a vast income gap.

Then there is Mahathir the ostracised political activist who would eventually create a rule so authoritarian that his ruling Umno became known as 'Under Mahathir, No Opposition'; or the leader who would raise the global profile of his proudly independent nation through strident attacks on Britain and the United States, yet who secretly sealed a vital defence pact with Washington.

One of the starkest contradictions is his trumpeting of the Asian values of communal responsibility and order - something that still defines Mahathir on the international stage. Yet, at times, Mahathir appeared the ultimate individualist, a political figure as shrill as he was determined, unafraid of stirring domestic or regional trouble. His pragmatic brand of politics had little time for rules, customs or traditions.

And finally, for all his ambitions, passion and drive, there is Mahathir the quiet, loving family man, who would never take his political troubles home, where he would return most days for lunch and dinner whenever he was in Kuala Lumpur. Wain describes his widely respected wife, Dr Siti Hasmah, as a 'great asset'.

By the end of the book, the contrary qualities that Mahathir had tapped so successfully earlier in his career have led to some rich ironies.

The closing chapters detail his vituperative, at times bizarre, attacks on his hand-picked successor, former prime minister Abdullah Badawi - attacks that have defined Malaysian politics in recent years. He has certainly not gone quietly into retirement, to say the least.

Enraged at some of Abdullah's early actions to scupper some of Mahathir's last big projects, he publicly hectored and attempted to belittle his replacement. With a complete lack of irony, he would rail against the lack of press freedom or the vote-buying to which he once turned a blind eye.

As Wain writes in part three: 'A climate of fear has enveloped this country, he [Mahathir] said. In truth, Malaysia was never more than a quasi-democracy, and Mahathir had done almost nothing to encourage it to mature into the real thing.'

While Wain says he's surprised at the bitterness displayed so publicly by Mahathir, it provides a compelling, if unexpected, finish to the tale. Starting work on the book as a writer-in-residence at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies, he expected it to end with Mahathir's retirement in 2003.

'Thanks to Mahathir, it didn't turn out that way,' says Wain, smiling as he reflects on his efforts over tea in a Singapore coffee shop.

For all the sharp and creative political instincts Mahathir displayed earlier on his career, his Lion in Winter phase was marked by striking misjudgment. 'He failed to understand that the end of power means that when you are out, you are out ... power flows to someone else with the position. In Malay culture, there is a tradition of lining up behind the leader,' Wain says.

Yet he remains active, blogging with the energy of a much younger politician.

Overall, Wain still manages to take a balanced approach, repeatedly outlining Mahathir's achievements in forging a wealthier, better-educated and more tolerant society, despite the challenges his rule and breakneck economic growth has left.

A former editor and correspondent with the Asian Wall Street Journal who has worked across the region since the early 1970s, Wain has tried to straddle the line between journalistic and academic approaches. Part of the book's strength is its rigorous sourcing, noted at the end of every chapter. He hopes readers will find new material in the sections on foreign policy, particularly the military relationship with the US, as well as important detail in the sections on Anwar and the financial scandals. Hong Kong readers will find interest in the descriptions of Bank Bumiputra's involvement in the Carrian fraud of the early 1980s, one of the city's most notorious financial crimes.

'For me, writing this was a bit of an experiment ... I wanted it to be read and enjoyed, yet having the credibility of a more academic approach ... I believe that if you have good writing, you can have it both ways,' he says.

'If it is of use in universities, great ... heaven forbid students might actually enjoy reading something as part of their studies.'

Whether the censors at the Malaysian Home Ministry are also enjoying it, of course, is another matter.