- Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times
It must be a sign of the utter official confusion over the facts of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's life and the fictions dogging his reputation that the sale of Barry Wain's book has been held over in Malaysia by the censors of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Considering that Mahathir's administration was (some would be surprised to know) the least intolerant of all Malaysian administrations towards books — but not the mass media — such petty and ultimately futile harassment would have been unlikely were he still Prime Minister.
That should not disconcert Wain, a former editor of the Asian Wall St Journal who wrote this book while he was Writer-in-Residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. The book covers a lot of ground, necessarily so given Mahathir's sixty odd years in public life and twenty-two-year premiership. During his political career there was "brutal politics", though not of the blood-spilling sorts, ranging from his expulsion from UMNO in 1969, to Anwar Ibrahim's imprisonment in 1998 and Abdullah Badawi's prodded retirement in 2009. During the "Mahathir era" (July 1981 to October 2003) financial scandals, "mega projects", failed privatization, and costly re-nationalization took place, symptoms of the "turbulent times" that marked Mahathir's ambitious economic management. A broad readership interested in Malaysian affairs will find Malaysian Maverick a handy and up-to-date store of information gleaned from three main sources: contemporaneous news reports, academic writings, and interviews with Mahathir and several people who knew him as an intimate, friend or foe. Judging by early online responses to a few of its revelations, the book might even serve [End Page 98] to agitate some, in particular younger, Malaysians whose political memory may go back no further than 1998–2000 when Reformasi denounced Mahathir as Mahafiraun, a tyrannical "Great Pharoah".
For all that, and its useful updates, Wain's book confirms but does not significantly change what is known about Mahathir's politics, including some of its most unsavoury portions. The book adds little in critical or politically "offensive" analysis that had not been written about Mahathir by Malaysia's dissenting academics, online journalists and NGO activists in his time as Prime Minister. Perhaps this aspect of the book is intended. On the first page of his Foreword, Wain states that, "I do not analyse Dr Mahathir's performance within a theoretical framework", but to "tell [Mahathir's] story from the ground level" and give a "fresh look" at "the interesting and significant events of his life and the impact they had on him and his country". This reviewer, though, would dispute his claim to a fresh look from ground level if that implies something akin to the grassroots lenses of the present Malaysian Internet hoi polloi.
Wain's perspective is rather that of the (surviving) English language regional and international media whose long relationship with Mahathir was never more intense than when he was Prime Minister. Mahathir and the media (the Asian Wall St Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek, in particular) shamelessly used and baited each other, the one to get an international hearing, the other highly quotable copy. To be sure, the "Malaysia hands" among them — many of the finest ones being Wain's colleagues — provided first-rate investigative reporting. However, the leader writers and publishers themselves were smug and condescending as Dow Jones-dominated titles invariably were when laying down the law for a Southeast Asian politician of uncertain attachment to a neoliberal regime of liberalization, deregulation and competitive privatization. Unable to hate Mahathir (who was no pariah opposed to Western investment or security interests), but unwilling to love him (since his petulant criticisms of their hypocrisies rarely "earned praise" from Western leaders), the media settled on dubbing him a maverick.
Really, was Mahathir a maverick? The term seemingly befits a man who indulged an image of himself as going My Way and known to sing that old Sinatra song in private settings...