Los Angeles — Mahathir Mohamad is one of the giants of Asia in large measure because Southeast Asia itself is well on its way to becoming a giant player in the 21st century. And that wouldn’t be happening quite as noticeably had multi-cultural but mainly Muslim Malaysia remained the backwater it was in 1981. This was when this family doctor turned politician landed thejob of prime minister –and was to stick at the top for more than two decades.
It must be remembered that prior to Dr Mahathir becoming PM Mahathir, almost no one had ever heard of Malaysia, outside of adjacent Singapore, which not only shared a common border but also an intense mutual antipathy. But by the late nineties the land of the Malays was pretty well established on the world map. Love him or hate him, the once country-clinic doctor was something else again.
And his autobiography is – yes – just as ‘something else’ again. In his memorable and turbulent years this ultra-ambitious politician managed at times an almost unachievable feat: to alienate seemingly half the country (sometimes even imprisoning political enemies) while at the same time keeping his increasingly modern (and Muslim) Malaysia more or less hanging together while moving closer to real modernization. How did he do it all? His story is now available in the long-delayed autobiography hitting stores with the title Doctor in the House.
It’s a lively and interesting book – certainly interesting enough to make it an instant bestseller not only in Malaysia, which one would expect, but also in Singapore, which you might not expect. To be sure, this is not a history of the times: Readers who want a more rounded description of those decades under discussion should look elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, in fact, some of Asia’s very best journalists, especially those with unapologetically exacting standards, have found the book seriously uneven and the author’s memory suspiciously selective. Not wishing to quarrel with such Asian giants of journalism, I would only say that what Dr Mahathir gives us in his memoirs is nonetheless a valuable replay of the political life and times of Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, precisely as the former PM himself sees it and as this complex man, now well in his eighties, is best able to remember it.
The man and the book are inseparable, of course, so that the standard for the historic figure having his or her say is quite different from what we require of the professional historian. The main value of autobiographies is not their objectivity but on the contrary their subjectivity. That his memory is neither clinically objective nor complete, it seems to me, not only comes with the territory of age but also with that of permissible memoir-ing. Indeed, what Dr M gives you here is no less subjective than Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years or Bill Clinton’s My Life.
It is absolutely his book, and his stamp seems evident on nearly every page. The civic-minded citizen of Malaysia might well find value in all of the chapters, but for this non-Malay operating out of Los Angeles, some chapters were detailed beyond my interest level and others were compelling from beginning to end.
For example, for my money no present or former national leader offers more sensible and pertinent views on the nature of Islam and the extreme need to quarantine the Muslim extremists who take the holy Koran, a book of peace, into their own evil hands and pound it into a missive of conflict. For my money no leader, Asian or otherwise, ever stood up more courageously (and correctly) to the suspiciously wrong-headed Ayatollahs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank than Dr. M.
And who from a distance (besides defensive Australians) could find anything but pleasure in his many public punch-outs of those Aussie Anglos Keating and Howard?
Thanks to Dr M’s flourishes, how many extra newspapers were sold in Australia?
The fact is that Mahathir is as consciously theatrical as he is thoroughly political. When he speaks, Dr M, I have come to accept, is only 90-to-95 percent real. The rest of him is best understood as the political stagecraft of an ambitious leader eager to punch well above the weight of Malaysia by out-shouting and out-outraging the bigger players in the scene. His favorite sparing mates, besides sitting-duckie Aussie potentates, were Western currency traders, especially Jewish ones, the present government of Israel and the Western news media. Whom or what have I left out? No matter. That’s enough for now; indeed, it’s a list long enough for anyone’s career.
Mahathir – the philosophical pacifist, the mainstream Muslim who Gandhi-like rejects the option of war, whether by the Pentagon or Islamic terrorists — is something of a warmonger of rhetoric. He’d rather be misunderstood than un-heard. Whether in his many public quarrels while in office, or at the famous Islamic conference speech in Putrajaya in 2003, or now in his memoirs, Mahathir is not for ignoring. The style was no tea party… more like carpet-bombing.
But the results, on the whole, have to be counted as impressive. As founding Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (not exactly Dr M’s best friend) has graciously put it, “He was an outstanding Prime Minister of Malaysia.” That sums it up nicely. And his memoirs well reflect the man. They’re almost completely unapologetic. He writes near the end. “I only apologize for the inevitable misunderstanding which may have hurt some people.” It’s his memoir, and so it’s his day. Let us leave it at that.
Professor Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is a veteran American journalist and long-time columnist. His recent books on Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad (Conversations with …) have been bestsellers. Book three in the Giants of Asia series is on Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, and is due out in September from Marshall Cavendish Publishers.