I wrote this essay on 31 October 2003 to commemorate the long-overdue retirement of Dr Mahathir as prime minister. On November 1st, 2003, the whole country breathed a huge sigh of relief to see the smiling, avuncular face of the new PM "Pak Lah" on the front pages of all the dailies. Interesting to revisit my thoughts and feelings on that occasion. Especially now that many are heaving another huge sigh, this time of utter weariness, at seeing the ghost of Mahathir attempt to kill the ghost of Altantuya...
TRICK OR TREAT? Saying "Hallo" To Changes On Halloween
ON OCTOBER 31ST, 2003, I awoke with a big bellyache – something I rarely experience as my guts are pretty resilient. I had to skip breakfast, my favorite meal of the day, and meditate on where the problem might have originated. Was it something I ate? I recall feeling a slight unease in the stomach area as early as yesterday morning but it subsided enough for me to ignore it.
Then I thought about the incurable Dr M. He’s scheduled to “retire” today... isn’t he? Hard to believe he won’t still be calling the shots from behind the curtains, he’s such a power junkie, we’ll have to watch this space.
And I remembered that not so long ago, a large number of us were real mad at him for sending his goon squads out to intimidate, beat up and incarcerate all those clamoring for political change by going out on the streets. Things got so heavy national laureate Shahnon Ahmad felt compelled to publish a novel called SHIT – a sort of post-colonic polemic against stubborn old turds that won’t make way for younger hotshits. I didn’t make it past the first chapter but the book was indeed a provocative artifact documenting the acute constipation of our political process. [Umno backbenchers raised a big stink and Parliament quickly passed a motion to revoke Shahnon Ahmad's national laureateship, which led to his joining PAS.]
Uneasy stomachs are an indication that something’s not quite right. Could it be simple greed? Did we eat too much junk food too fast? Perhaps the buffet wasn’t all that fresh? Did we eat the mussels – they looked so tasty – maybe they were a bit off? Did flies lay eggs on the sambal belacan? Did someone slip some arsenic into the nasi lemak?
The stomach is the seat of the solar plexus, home of the ego. When someone complains of sakit perut, the cause is often ego insecurity. Why should we be egoically insecure, just because our Great Leader has announced his departure from the prime ministership? Isn’t the ship of state in capable hands? Surely, the tragic tale of the Titanic isn’t about US?
Is it possible that a sizeable number of Malaysians support the status quo because we see in Dr M the sort of chest-thumping alpha-male gorilla we secretly want to be? He has been performing all his daredevil feats on the nation’s (or at least his sons’) behalf – frogmarching the economy out of the IMF’s way through the fiscal crises of 1997-98 while singlehandedly beating back the angry mobs marching out of mosque gates and into the streets, scaring shopkeepers, tourists, and Umnopotentiaries.
This sort of acrobatics certainly takes a whole lot of gall and sheer guts to pull off. Indeed, one is reminded of the Baobab in St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince which sucks up all the nutrients from the soil, so nothing can grow in its monstrous shadow except the most unscrupulous weeds.
Perhaps there have been moments when the indomitable Dr M was forced to wear rubber liners so no one would notice his nervous diarrhea: bringing Anwar Ibrahim to trial was indeed a hairy and scary affair. True, Mahathir had 17 years of political incumbency in his favor – plenty of time to create a whole generation of bureaucratic drones. Still, you had to have skin as tough and thick as a rhinoceros to call yourself a judge or attorney-general or the chief of police in Dr M’s regime. Even playing head of medical services required a stiff shot of Chivas three times a day after meals, what more being assigned the unenviable task of editor-in-chief of a national daily?
Never in the nation’s memory since 1969 has the horizon of decency been so totally obscure – and this isn’t something like the annual smog we can pin on the Indons. The moral murk simply won’t blow or wash away, despite disastrous flood-bringing monsoons. It’s something every proud Malaysian has had to accept and live with – if he or she isn’t particularly keen to have PAS rise to power and separate the sexes by hudud and turn the country into another Iran – thereby replacing a secular tyranny with a religious one, O the Irany of it all!
Then along came Dubya and the Neocon White House in 2000 - even as the world sighed in short-lived relief that we had rolled over into Y2K without apparent mishap or a cybernetic apocalypse. In very short order, the astonishing behavior of the world’s remaining superpower, New Rome aka the USA, began to eclipse financial and political improprieties closer to home.
But soon it began to dawn on a sleepy-eyed humanity that carpetbagging and skulduggery are as pivotal to power plays as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe to musical plays. With the benefit of hindsight and increased historical insight, we recognized that the inheritance and maintenance of earthly power has been an outrageous scam from the Year Dot, regardless of what costumes the players wear. Politically, the rakyat are still wearing balls and chains in Plato’s Cave, mesmerized by the wayang kulit extravaganza put on by a wily priesthood of black magicians, today known as doctors of spin (because they love making the masses dance to their tune).
Dr M’s pointed tirades against the Bush push for Global Empire were excellent PR. They served to distract local yokels from the stench of unwashed urinals at home and unify them against what was clearly seen as a larger threat – the Return of the Ugly American.
“We must outlaw war on earth,” the Brilliant Statesman declared to the international press on the eve of the barbaric bombing of Baghdad. And a week later he would mollify his discomfited generals with a fresh order of jetfighters or submarines.
“The Jews rule the world by proxy,” he would remark at the OIC conference with stunning political incorrectness, while throwing another rubber bone to the baying Ketuanan Melayu faction, to keep them from burning down the Chinese Assembly Hall (where industrious little yellow Jews are manufactured under licence from the Awakening Dragon).
And once again we have to admire, even if reluctantly, his absolute foxiness and firm grasp of statecraft. What better way to win hearts and consolidate the Islamic world at a time when most of us are speechless with horror at Ariel Sharon’s unimpeded Palestinian holocaust. For the first time in 22 years, I find myself feeling almost proud that our beloved country has spawned such a feisty uncrowned monarch.
Now if his final act as prime minister is to unconditionally release Anwar Ibrahim from wrongful confinement in a gesture of clemency and reconciliation, even his worst detractors will soon stop calling him Mahafiraun Zalim (the Cruel Pharaoh) and regale his reign as one of monumental achievements amidst tumultuous uncertainties.
The good news is that I sometimes see myself in all these strutting and fretting manifestations of Macbeth – and therefore cannot persevere in my righteous indignation at their perceived misdemeanors. At the end of the day, they are no more inhuman than any of us who has ever been irritated to the point of destroying a particularly troublesome ant colony. For these are colossal, demiurgic egos who view the great unwashed as only good for casting ballots or shooting bullets at official enemies.
Well, here’s more good news: modern incarnations of ancient gods are a dying breed and will soon become extinct – unless they evolve into ethical aesthetes and use their innate charisma for artistic purposes, to produce beauty and truth – instead of more fear and greed and ecocide.
This Halloween, I make my peace with Dr Mahathir [again!]. For all the unsympathetic judgments I have passed on his actions as a prime minister - and for all the unkind thoughts I have held in my heart as regards his well-being - I privately and publicly apologize.* He has only tried, like his precedessors, to be a Father to the Nation; and, as is inevitably the case within every family, there will always be a rebellious son or daughter to contend with, who won’t buy Bapak’s little lies and who can see only his feet of clay.
My own dad used to think fluorescent tubes are a wonderful idea – I vigorously disagree. Some of my best friends are convinced that the 3D Matrix is all there is to existence – I absolutely disagree. Most of the world still believes that Time is Money and that Money is the Bottom Line. As for me, I stubbornly believe (like José Argüelles) that Time is Art and the Bottom Line is Truth – Truth tempered with Love.
There comes a time when every prodigal son or daughter becomes a parent in their own right – and we are suddenly confronted by a thousand grey areas, a million-and-one anxieties, an infinitude of conflicting agendas to balance and juggle against a tidal wave of unforeseen changes. Suddenly, we see the futility of blaming our parents for the way we turned out. We stop hating them for having been overly harsh, heavy-handed, too busy, too ignorant of or totally indifferent to our emotional needs.
Who we are and what we shall become are entirely in our own hands.
But it certainly helps to first reconcile, redeem and heal our past with compassion, understanding and non-judgmental love. Then it would no longer seriously concern us who’s steering the ship, driving the bus or piloting the plane – unless they happen to be power-drunk on duty and their bad performance puts us at risk, in which event it should be a simple matter to get them sacked at the earliest opportunity. Just as you don’t normally want to know the cabbie’s name unless he cheats you or is unacceptably rude, why should we worry whether the prime minister’s name is Anwar, Archibald, Balbir, Chee Cheong Fun, Dorairajah, Delilah, Elijah, or Nurul Izzah?**
Happy Halloween, folks! Don’t be so easily spooked. Remember, politics is just a bunch of rowdy kids in scary costumes out for some tricks or treats.
31 October 2003
* Hard to keep my promise. That Metallic-voiced Megalomaniac is so goddamn irritating, I'll have to deliver one more tight slap before I apologize all over again.
** Notice I deliberately omitted the name Mukhriz. No way this land can survive being ravaged by TWO Mahathirs. And that smug-faced Son of the Monster Magnet doesn't have a single original idea in his head anyway.
[First published 31 October 2008]