Book critical of Mahathir set for sale in Malaysia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 April, 2010, 12:00am

The author of a controversial book about former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he was surprised it has been approved for distribution and sale in Malaysia after it was widely expected to be banned.

Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times by Barry Wain, a former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal, in part alleges that the country's former leader 'lost' M$100 billion (HK$243.4 billion) while in office due to poor financial decisions.

However, Wain said comments by some critics that his book 'does a hatchet job' on Mahathir are simply untrue. 'I went to great lengths to be fair to him,' he said.

The book, which was the subject of a heated debate, was held up by Malaysian customs in November for 'study'. It remains a mystery why the book's release was stalled. No formal reasons were given except that the Home Ministry, which has powers to ban any publication, told Parliament in March that it was 'checking' whether the book had breached any publishing laws.

'I was surprised when the book was withheld and I am equally surprised it is cleared,' Wain said.

The government informed the publisher of its decision to approve release last week.

The book also got a surprising endorsement from Mahathir. 'Malaysians should read this book and other books written about me,' the 85-year-old said on Friday while campaigning for the candidate of the ruling National Front coalition in a crucial by-election 120 kilometres north of the capital.

The 363-page book was the subject of debate in newspapers and on the internet among commentators and politicians who referred to the country's lost funds to criticise Mahathir. The book gained notoriety, and reviews and commentaries were written without it even having been read in some cases.

Opposition politicians demanded a Royal Commission to investigate Mahathir over the M$100 billion in funds that were 'lost', which refers to allegedly poor decisions he made while in office that caused Malaysia financial losses.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak has said an inquiry was unnecessary.

Mahathir, who retired in 2003 and is known for his excellent memory, testified as a witness in a 2007 Royal Commission Inquiry into Judicial Misconduct in which he frequently said 'I can't remember' to questions.

Ironically, the publicity might have taken the wind out of the book's sails now that it is available for unrestricted sale.

'Malaysians might have been influenced by the earlier publicity surrounding the book. Now that it is for sale, they should read the book before forming an opinion,' Ragunath Kesavan, lawyer and president of the Malaysian Bar, said. 'I am going to get a copy.'

Wain, who is currently resident writer at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the government is sensitive about what people write about Malaysia but is delighted his book is allowed for sale.

Asked his thoughts on Mahathir, Wain said the former prime minister is a complex character.

'In my assessment, he has notched up considerable successes and significant failures,' he said.

'He is seemingly a bundle of contradictions. Unpicking the puzzle and working out how he operated and why he did certain things was a challenge, though one I rather enjoyed.'