Mahathir’s propensity for controversy has not waned

At the age of 93 Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has proven that he still retains the ability to stir up controversy and make waves.

During his recent visit to the UK to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Malaysian PM addressed the Cambridge University Union at which he made disparaging remarks about Jewish people. Claiming ‘Freedom of Speech’ as a right to make racist remarks (which is what it was), Mahathir cuttingly made a distinction between ‘bad’ Jews and ‘good’ Jews, stating that the latter were all his good friends.

A year ago, Mahathir was the comeback kid of Malaysian politics. He was appointed Prime Minister in 1981, retired in 2003, and returned to office in 2018 in a seismic shake up of Malaysian politics. More impressively, he seized power as an opposition politician from the party which had ruled Malaysia for 61 years and which was, also, his previous party.

Confused? So are many, Malaysians or otherwise. Mahathir is a complex man.

A year ago Malaysia was being hailed for bucking the global slide in democracy despite being a small country. The New York times called the election result ‘Malaysia’s Political Earthquake’. Malaysians were jubilant, as I was. A new dawn had arrived. Inclusive politics was seen as being part of this new agenda.

Fast forward a year on and it is indeed alarming to see shades of the previous Mahathir returning whereby he castigated Western nations for not being inclusive. Mahathir’s ‘Look East’ policy was, partly, a rebuke to the Western world. Criticising foreign nations is indeed part of international politics. World leaders do this on a regular basis. Trump excels in it.

It is not this that I take issue with. What I find rather worrying is the language of division which he uses without recognising that it is indeed a colonial relic to divide and rule people and pick off the ‘acceptable’ ones as being one’s friend. All immigrants in the Western world have at one time or another been fed the line that ‘you are alright’ because ‘you are not like the rest of them’.

It is rather disappointing that the politics of ‘othering’ is still a part of the new Malaysia. In a country (UK) where I am frequently ‘othered’, especially in the Brexit age, I would have hoped that the head of the country where I was born and grew up in would have adopted a stance and used language that was a lot more reflective of post-Colonial relations as opposed to carrying on the divisions of Colonialism.


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