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Reading Dr Mahathir has always been a full time occupation. Despite his many years in office and the millions of words that have been written or spoken about him, he’s still an enigma. Perhaps that’s the thing about him that makes him so endearing to the man on the street. The thousands of ordinary Malaysians who turned up for his Hari Raya open house recently is proof enough of that.

Not everyone though is pleased that he’s back in office. Even those who like what they see happening in the country can’t bring themselves to give him credit for it. They see but cannot believe. They see but worry about cronies. They see but wonder what he is really up to. They seem uncomfortable that history has conspired to make him both the man whom many blame for the ills of our nation and the man to save the nation.

I suppose the persona of the man is such that you either adore him or despise him; indifference is not an option. 

Has Mahathir changed?

No surprise then that despite all the amazing changes we are seeing in the country today, doubts about whether Mahathir has really changed persist, as if Mahathir is somehow unconnected with all these amazing changes.

Most Malaysians, on the other hand, have no trouble accepting that Dr Mahathir is simply not the same man he was when he first took office more than thirty years ago.

For them, the proof of this is not so much in what he is saying but in what he is doing. Already he has introduced changes that have shaken up the nation and demonstrated his commitment to changing the way we do politics in this country. At this rate, Malaysia will be a different country in a few years time.

I suspect that Dr Mahathir now sees how important it is to have strong and independent institutions if we are to avoid a recurrence of the mess we are now in. That we came so perilously close to dictatorship and national collapse had a salutary effect on him as with all of us.

And this is as much about the past as it is about the future. Mahathir understands he must curtail his own executive  power if he is to ensure that those who come after him will never again have the opportunity to subvert our constitutional system of governance the way Najib did. If Mahathir succeeds, the executive will henceforth be constrained by a system of  constitutional and political checks and balances. It will be our safeguard against future executive overreach. It may well be one of his greatest legacies.

Punching from the shadows

In the meantime, those who believe that Mahathir still needs to prove himself ought to  live by the same rule. After all, Mahathir is not the only one with a history and he didn’t rule the country the first time around all by himself. Many others were willing and enthusiastic collaborators at one time or another. Under the principle of collective responsibility, they too must share the burden of history and prove that they’ve changed.

For the sake of the nation, Mahathir has reached out to his old foes. They say they accept his apologies, and are pleased that he has changed, but strangely keep reminding everyone how wrong he alone was without mentioning their own culpability. Perhaps they are impatient and want him to go sooner rather than later.

Like it or not, in the new Malaysia, it is the people who are masters of the nation’s destiny. They, and they alone, decide who will lead the nation.  The notion that anyone has an inherent right to rule is undemocratic to say the least. The public, in any case, is not bound by any private backroom deals that may have been made.

The right man for the job

Mahathir, after all, is prime minister today because he was able to galvanize the nation in an almost Churchillian manner and convince the people that he was the right man for the job; others who aspire for the position will have to do likewise.

Mahathir is now using the precious time he has left to him to do his bit for the country; it would be nice if others would come alongside him wholeheartedly and unreservedly as well. Punching Mahathir from the shadows – offering support while constantly reminding people that Mahathir isn’t really a good guy to begin with – only makes people wonder what the shadow boxers are up to.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 21st June 2018]