How Mahathir Became ‘Mahazalim’

April 10, 2007 at 1:01 am (Politik)

How Mahathir Became ‘Mahazalim’ PDF Print E-mail
Written by Farish A. Noor   
Sunday, 24 September 2006

Once again, I have to start another column with a health warning: Those who are not too keen on discourse analysis should stay away from the following article. (Amir Muhammad take note).

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (1) coming to power. After twenty years as head of state, he happens to be one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. His ascendancy to the top of the political pyramid is of course something that most of us are familiar with by now. Most of us are also aware of the subtle and not-too-subtle plots and subplots that have been at work in this convoluted and at times confusing story of politics. Those who are more interested in the life and work of the man should turn to Khoo Boo Teik’s excellent study of the man and his ideas, entitled ‘Paradoxes of Mahathirism’, which, in this author’s view, happens to be the best book on the subject available. (2)

The great merit of Teik’s excellent study is the fact that he differentiates between Mahathir the Man and Mahathirism as an ideology and belief-system. This is something that most of us have simply ignored or failed to remind ourselves with the passing of time. No doubt this tendency has been made worse thanks to the overpowering cult of personality surrounding the man, courtesy of the Ministry of Information and the numerous propaganda arms of the state.

Mahathir the Man and Mahathirism the ideology.

Now discourse analysis is a multi-disciplinary tool which draws heavily upon other academic disciplines like philosophy, epistemology, linguistics, semantics, semiotics and literature. It does not (and should not) be seen as a distinct discipline of its own which somehow renders the claims and findings of other approaches null and void. Our aim here is not to deny or question the approaches that have been taken by other writers like Chandra Muzaffar, Khoo Boo Teik, Syed Hussein Alattas, and co. We do not claim that discourse analysis provides the only answers not found by historical or material-economist analyses.

But what we would like to do is to supplement these findings with some of our own, as seen through the lens of a discursive approach to the question at hand. The problem is this: If Mahathirism is distinct from Mahathir the man, then what are its primary features and how does it work? More importantly, how and why did it fail? (If it did at all, which is open for debate of course.)

Teik’s study of Mahathirism identifies it as an ideology which attempted to graft together a number of elements, ideas and values within a totalised and self-enclosed discursive economy that was self-referential in many ways. Mahathirism, as an ideology, held certain key values and ideas like Progress, Development and material advancement as its ‘transcendental signifiers’ (that is, key concepts that were epistemically arrested and not part of the free play of meaning and signification.)

The development of Mahathirism was predicated on the belief that these key ideas and values were above and beyond questioning- making them frozen in time and speech in a sense. ‘Development’ became a good thing in itself, for its own sake. So was economic progress, rationalism and certain ‘asian values’ which invariably included feudalism.(3)

The success of Mahathirism in its early stages was that it managed to cobble together a number of important ideas that were part of the common aspirations of the Malaysian (and particularly Malay-Muslim) public at the time. Mahathirism worked by stringing together a common ‘chain of equivalences’ between progress, development, modernisation, economic advancement, self-determination, national sovereignty and modernist Islam. It worked by bringing together all these ideas within the rubric of a coherent thought and value system that imbued them with positivity.

Conversely, Mahathirism also had its constitutive other, the unwanted element that needed to be eliminated or confronted: Against a string of positive ideas and values stood a string of negative counter-values that had to be rejected. These included the West, Communism, traditionalism, obscurantism, religious fundamentalism, ‘Western’ liberalism and militancy. Thus as an ideology Mahathirism knew what it was and what it was not. The binary opposition between itself and the other was clear.

Because the ideology of Mahathirism was intimately linked to the man himself, Mahathir became the embodiment of his own ideology. As mentioned earlier, this tendency towards personalised politics and the cult of leadership was aided and abetted by those working in the numerous media and propaganda agencies closely linked to the government and the state. In time, Mahathir became the living embodiment of his own set of beliefs that had taken on a life of its own.

The symbiotic relationship between Mahathir the man and Mahathirism the ideology was allowed to develop right up to the mid-1990s. The 1995 elections were, in this respect, a resounding victory for both: it read as an endorsement not only of Dr. Mahathir himself, but also of the philosophy and worldview of the man.

The slippage occurs:

Now one thing that discourse analysis teaches us is that signifiers have a tendency to ‘slip’ from their signifieds. This, in effect, means that words and symbols tend to have shifting meanings which are characteristic of the free play of language. Indeed, it is because of this inherent tendency for signification to ‘miss’ or ‘slip’ that language gets off the ground in the first place and metaphors come into existence.

Were it not for this inherent tendency for meanings to slip, the whole edifice of Mahathirism itself could never have been constructed. The vast and impressive columbarium of ideas and values that was Mahathirism was put together partly because of the way that the meanings of terms could be multiplied, shifted and grafted onto one another. This way, the signifier ‘Mahathir’ could be linked to other concepts like Modernity and Progress, thereby erecting the chain of equivalences that was Mahathirism.

But the other feature of language is that it is never fixed in any way. Meaning and signification is always in a state of play and flux, and words develop numerous meanings as time goes by. (Just look at how general terms like ‘Islam’, ‘Jihad’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Justice’, etc. have evolved over time- these words retain some semblance of meaning despite the fact that they have been used and deployed in a number of ways. But it is this plastic nature of meaning that allows the words to have some sense in the first place.)

Now in the case of political discourse, words and symbols may change their meaning due to a radical crisis of dislocation which brings about a rupture in the old order of meaning. So when the French Revolution occurred, for instance, concepts like ‘Justice’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality’ could be radically reinterpreted and invested with new meanings. In the Malaysian context, a similar radical break took place with the economic crisis of 1997.

The economic crisis of 1997 effectively put into question the fundamental premises of Mahathirism itself. As the economies of East and Southeast Asia came crashing down in flames, the peoples of the region began to chant the litany of reform and revolution instead. Indeed, in the Indonesian, Thai and Korean cases the calls for reform were understandable to say the least.

But what really sparked off the radical break from the past in Malaysia was not the economic crisis (for nobody could seriously think that Malaysia was in the same dire straits as Thailand or Indonesia), but rather the political in-fighting that took place within the ranks of UMNO. After a failed putsch within his own party, Dr. Mahathir removed his Deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who had, until then, provided Mahathirism with one of the key elements that gave it is internal unity and coherence- namely, its Islamist credentials. What made matters worse was the fact that in the weeks that followed the arrest and detention of Anwar Ibrahim, the state security forces also took action against those who were seen as his principal supporters. The fact that most of those arrested were themselves members of Islamist organisations like ABIM and JIM (and the fact that the police were also allowed to arrest protesters in places like mosques- widely regarded as a ‘sacred precinct’ by Malays) only served to erode the government’s Islamist image further.

The sudden loss of Anwar created not just a physical void in the sense of an empty seat at the cabinet table, but also an ideological one. In the same way that Mahathir the man had been conflated with progress, development and economic well-being, Anwar was identified with Islam and Islamic credentials. The chain of equivalences that kept together the grand narrative of Mahathirism was torn asunder as it lost one of its most vital components.

Now this sudden break or rupture in the discourse of Mahathirism robbed it of its internal cohesion and unity. Suddenly the master narrative no longer told a coherent story that made sense to the Malay-Muslim public. Mahathirism, which had grown much bigger than Mahathir himself, was now about to experience a radical challenge from outside.

Enter the Mahazalim:

With the arrest and detention of Anwar and a number of Islamist intellectuals and activists, a major break had been made in the discourse of Mahathirism. Dr. Mahathir was always known as a modernist who was against the forces of traditional obscurantism in Islam, and his government’s repression of the Sufi-inspired Darul Arqam (4) movement was a case in point. (Interestingly, it should be noted that UMNO’s ‘hammer’ against Arqam was none other than the Islamist-activist turned UMNO politician, Anwar Ibrahim himself.) But at no point was Dr. Mahathir seen as an un-Islamic leader, despite his own controversial ideas about the path that Muslim society should take into the future. This only came about in the wake of the 1997-98 crisis, dubbed the ‘Anwar Ibrahim’ affair.

With the removal of Anwar and the arrest of a number of prominent Islamist leaders and activists, the discourse of Mahathirism was left open and vulnerable to attack from outside. In time, a new chain of equivalences was formed through the writings and polemics that came from a whole army of Islamist or Islamist-inclined politicians, activists, intellectuals and writers.

Elsewhere (5) I have looked at how the image of Dr. Mahathir has been re-invented at the hands of a number of local Malay writers like Mohd Sayuti Omar, Ahmad Lutfi Osman, Dinsman (Shamsuddin Osman) and C. N. al-Afghani.(6) But what is important to note is that from 1997 ‘Mahathir’ the man was no longer linked to modernisation, development and economic progress. Finally Mahathir the man was being identified with a host of unsavoury evils that were considered repugnant by the Malay-Muslim community in particular. Nowhere was this process of discursive contestation more evident than in the field of vernacular Malay tabloid writing.

In Mohd Sayuti Omar’s ‘Sumpah dan Airmata Reformis Bangsa’ (1997), for instance, the author radically re-casts Dr. Mahathir as some anti-Muslim villain while Anwar is reinvented as the great ‘reformis-Mujaheed’ who is fighting a jihad (holy war) for reform: 

‘Harapan musuh-musuh Anwar apabila mereka menahan para mujahid itu, semangat reformasi tidak lagi berkembang dan mengarus di negara ini. Itulah yang mereka fikir. Tetapi perhitungan mereka itu silap. Mereka boleh menahan jasad para reformis itu. Namun semangat dan api jihadnya tidak bisa disekat. Semangat itu akan tetap mengalir dan bergelombang ke dalam diri sesiapa sahaja yang insaf dan sedar akan tanggungjawab kepada agama, bangsa dan negaranya. Reformasi akan terus bergerak… Harapan Anwar, seorang ‘Anwar’ jatuh akan bangkit seribu Anwar lain tidak sia-sia. Hari ini kita sudah dapat melihat dengan jelas, ‘Anwar’ bangkit dan berada dimana-mana sahaja. Orang yang menyebut tentang kezaliman dan ketidak-adilan wujud dimana-mana. Semuanya menuntut agar segala unsur-unsur Syaitanisme itu dibersihkan. (‘Sumpah dan Airmata’, pg. 186.) 

In Omar’s Talqin untuk Mahathir (‘Funeral prayers for Mahathir’) (1998), the author courageously straddles the boundary between prose and hysteria when he blames the Prime Minister for everything that has gone wrong within the country, including the water shortage, the environmental crisis and the unnaturally long draught season. Here we see Omar’s eschatological logic reaching its logical apotheosis, where the figure of Dr. Mahathir is compared somewhat unfavourably to a host of popular un-Islamic villains such as the Pharaoh of Egypt and the Shah of Iran:

‘Jikalau kamu (Mahathir) seorang ahli sejarah dan pengkaji Quran; dikau akan bertemu dengan nama-nama seperti Firaun, Qarun dan Haman! Apakah dikau tahu apa yang telah jadi kepada mereka itu? Ketahuikah dikau kenapa Tuhan melaksana dan menghina mereka? …Mereka itu makhluk yang kufur kepada Allah. Firaun mengaku dialah Tuhan. Qarun pula tamak haloba dengan harta dunia, yang mana akhirnya ia ditenggelamkan dengan hartanya sekali. Wahai Mahathir anak Wan Tempawan, kami bimbang nasib yang menimpa mereka, akan turut sama menimpa dirimu. Kami bimbang kehinaan yang berlaku keatas Shah Iran, Suharto dan Marcos akan berjangkit kepadamu… Ketahuilah oleh kamu bahawa peralihan sanjungan rakyat kepada mu adalah kerana kegagalan kamu dalam beberapa tahun terakhir ini. Bala yang menimpa negara ini adalah dalam tanggungjawab mu sebagai pemimpin.’ (Talqin Untuk Mahathir, pp. 77-78.) 

Dr. Mahathir the man has, in the end, become overwhelmed by Mahathirism itself. In the same way that Mahathirism was blown out of proportion and turned into an epic discourse of disproportionate achievements in the past, so has Mahathirism been overblown into a meta-discourse for all that is bad, wrong, un-Islamic and even ‘Satanic’ (to quote Sayuti Omar) in Malaysia today. Mahathirism is now equated with all that is wrong in the country, and Mahathir the man is now contemptuously labelled Mahazalim, Mahakejam and Mahafiraun instead.

The Supreme Irony:

The supreme irony of it all is that Mahathir the man has now become overpowered by Mahathirism the ideology. What is worse, as the ideology of Mahathirism comes into question, so does everything the man says as well. This makes it not only difficult to explain or justify what Mahathir the man says and does, but it even makes it near-impossible to defend the man when he actually says something right these days. And contrary to what the ‘mujaheed’ reformists may have to say about him, the man is still capable of saying the right thing occasionally.

When Dr. Mahathir says that Islam as a faith and a way of life cannot be reduced to empty rituals and cosmetic appearance alone, he happens to be right. When he says that Islam should not be an excuse for Muslims to flee from the painful realities of life, he also happens to be right. And when he says that the economic and political decline of the Muslim world and the underdeveloped South is due to the gross inequalities and deficiencies within the global financial architecture, he is also right.

But whatever the man says- even if he claims that two plus two equals four- is now dismissed as the words of the great ‘Mahazalim’ who is cruel, tyrannical and unjust. More so than any political campaign, act of violence or public demonstration, it is this concept of ‘Mahazalim’ that has done more damage to the image and standing of Mahathir the man in the eyes of the Malay-Muslim community who should otherwise be his natural constituency. (Hardly a surprise then if he now turns to the Malaysian public as a whole, to broaden his appeal and reach out to new audiences.)

But even as the state-controlled media tries to manage the image of Dr. Mahathir- to the point of force-feeding the captive public with his kata-kata emas (golden nuggets of wisdom) on an hourly basis- the charm of the old spell is broken. Mahathir the man allowed himself to be identified with Mahathirism the ideology, and the fate of the man is now inextricably linked to the fate of that ideology as well, which today is besieged by an army of angry and frustrated radicals who can only see traces of kezaliman and Syaitanisme in whatever is handed to them.

And that, in the final analysis, is the real tragedy of Mahathirism.


(1) Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was born in Seberang Perak, Kedah in 1925. In his youth he was drawn to the Malay nationalist struggle and he wrote extensively on Malay-related issues and concerns in the local press using the pseudonym ‘Che Det’. By then he was deeply worried about the state of the Malays in the British colony and their economic and political future should the country be granted their independence from Britain. He later studied medicine at the King Edward VII College of Medicine at University Malaya which was then based in Singapore. After graduating he practised medicine at his MAHA clinic in Kedah before he became an active participant in Malay politics. In the 60s he was widely regarded as an outspoken radical who condemned both the ineffectiveness of the Malay elite as well as Chinese domination of the Malaysian economy.

(2) See: Khoo Boo Teik, ‘Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.

(3) The feudalist outlook of Dr. Mahathir was clear from the very beginning. In his controversial book The Malay Dilemma he wrote that: ‘In itself the feudalist inclination of the Malays is not damaging. It makes for an orderly and law-abiding society. People who could follow and observe an unwritten code of behaviour are easily made to observe the written laws of a country. People who accept that a society must have people of varying degrees of authority and rights easily make a stable society and nation. A revolution in such a society is unusual unless led from above. A feudal society is therefore not necessarily a dormant or retrogressive society. It can be a dynamic society if there is dynamism at the top. But when the top fails, or is preoccupied with its own well-being, the masses become devoid of incentive for progress.’ (pp. 170-171), and: ‘Even feudalism can be beneficial if it facilitates changes. …The political Rajas of today can therefore institute change if they themselves are willing to change. (pg. 173).

(4) The Darul Arqam Movement was formed by Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad in 1968. It began as a study group among Muslim scholars and reformers, many of whom were university lecturers, academics and students. In time it evolved into a Sufi-inspired alternative lifestyle movement that was very much centred around the personality of its founder. Its activities were based at the Madinah Al Arqam Saiyyidina Abu Bakar As-Siddiq, Sungai Pencala near the capital Kuala Lumpur. The movement’s aim was to create an alternative model of an ideal Islamic society that was organised and managed according to the standards and norms set by the Prophet Muhammad himself and his sahabat (companions). The movement grew in size until its membership expanded to tens of thousands. Its followers dressed and lived according to Ustaz Ashaari’s interpretation of the sunnah. The men wore green robes and turbans while the women wore black hijab all the time. [For a detailed analysis of the Darul Arqam movement, see: Chandra (1987), Jomo and Shabery Cheek (1992) and Husin Mutalib (1993).]

(5) See: Farish A Noor, ‘Constructing Kafirs: The Formation of Political Frontiers between the Islamic Opposition and the Malaysian government during the 1998-1999 political crisis in Malaysia’, in Angelika Neuwirth and Andreas Pflitsch (eds.), Crisis and Memory in Islamic Societies. Orient Institute of Beirut, Beirut. 2000.

(6) See for example: Mohd Sayuti Omar, ‘Sumpah dan Airmata Reformis Bangsa’ (Promises and Tears of the Nation’s Reformer) and ‘Talqin Untuk Mahathir: Nepotisme dan Qarunisme Alaf Baru‘, (Funeral Prayers for Mahathir: Nepotism and Cronyism in a new era); Ahmad Lutfi Othman, ‘Layakkah Anwar Ketuai Reformasi?’ (Is Anwar fit to lead the Reform?) and ‘Anwar: Skadal Seks atau Konspirasi Politik’ (Anwar: Sex Scandal or Political Conspiracy); Dinsman (Shamsuddin Osman), ‘Gawat: Gagalnya Formula Mahathir’ (Economic Meltdown: The Failure of Mahathir’s Policies) and C. N. al-Afghani, ‘Rakyat Semaking Matang’ (The People Have Awoken).

Last Updated ( Sunday, 24 September 2006 )

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