BOOK REVIEW: Paradise Lost: Mahathir & the End of Hope


BOOK REVIEW: Paradise Lost: Mahathir & the End of Hope

By Dennis Ignatius, self-published, softcover, 320 pp, available through Gerakbudaya, RM60.

Cyril Pereira, Asia Sentinel

Dennis Ignatius loves his country. This is his final citizen testament. ‘Paradise Lost’ is a lament of love by a patriot in despair. No local publisher was willing, so he had to self-publish with cash upfront. For a diplomat who represented his country with distinction for 36 years, the corrosion of governance rankles along with the racial divide at schools, religious extremism, anti-Christian scaremongering, and wholesale corruption. He felt the need to document the disturbing trajectory. This is Ignatius’ contribution to the ongoing conversations online, in print, and webinars among concerned citizens. Where is the country heading?

How did a nation born in joyful pride in 1957 collapse into political dysfunction by 2020? How was the “Truly Asia” (tagline of tourism ads) country hijacked by racist and religious bigotry? When did apartheid entrench as administrative practice? Why did the professional civil service, the outstanding education system, law enforcement, and judiciary, decay so quickly? How did corruption become SOP? These are the existential questions Ignatius dissects with forensic discipline, in 320 pages.

Much of what Ignatius chronicles is already in the public domain. He fits the jigsaw fragments scattered across thousands of news reports, commentaries, government papers and blogs into a coherent post-independence socio-political history. That is the value of the book for Malaysians – and others concerned about a blessed nation in free fall to a failing state. Malaya was once envied for its exemplary civil service, superior command of English and diversity of peoples living in relaxed harmony, as a beacon for a conflicted world.

Mahathir Mohamad, of Indian-Malay descent, rebooted as a strident Malay supremacist. He served as the country’s strongman prime minister for 22 years. Ignatius holds Mahathir responsible for the national rot. Mohamad Tawfik, son of the respected late deputy PM, Tun Dr Ismail, wonders in his preface if Dennis Ignatius envisioned Mahathir as a Machiavellian “Bomoh” (shaman). He was recalling a London event where Tengku Razaleigh the ex-finance minister, kept calling Mahathir that, and Abdullah Ali (then UK High Commissioner) presented him Machiavelli’s “Il Principe.”

On the 2018 (GE14) shock victory of the opposition against the ruling United Malays National Organization government after 60 unbroken years, Ignatius observes that “Mahathir saved our democracy only to do it irreparable harm.” The Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope) opposition had agreed to Mahathir leading them, as Anwar Ibrahim was in jail again, this time under Prime Minister Najib Razak. Mahathir campaigned energetically in the Malay heartland against the kleptocrat of the 1MDB heist. His mission was to evict Najib from office. 

On his second coming as PM, Ignatius writes, “Mahathir went back to being the Mahathir of old. He played his racist games; he gave new life to his racist ideology. He reneged on his promises and undermined his own coalition in pursuit of Malay supremacy.” Ignatius had participated in the Bersih marches, shared the euphoria of the PH victory, and watched the dawn of Malaysia Baru (New Malaysia) from the gallery, as the PH parliamentarians took the government side of the aisle. 

Alas, that didn’t last. The PH government was knifed by its own leader barely 21 months into its term. Ignatius is unforgiving of the treachery. He holds Mahathir culpable for crushing the hopes of ‘New Malaysia’ with his timed resignation without consultation. That was classic Mahathir duplicity, behind the back of his cabinet, for an All-Malay government with a faction of UMNO and Islamic party PAS. His trusted aides Muhyiddin Yassin and Azmin Ali led the PH turncoats into the night of betrayal of the multiracial government the people elected. 

JAKIM juggernaut

The book credits Mahathir with setting up the Islamic Development Agency known as JAKIM in 1997 to outflank PAS. It was housed in the PM’s Office with its own minister and a mega budget of RM1.4 billion in 2021. Professor Maznah Mohamad of the University of Singapore termed JAKIM the “Divine Bureaucracy” designed to keep the religious cadre aligned with UMNO to deprive PAS of a vote bank. 

This political, administrative, and financial empowerment by Mahathir accelerated JAKIM into dictating conformity of dress codes and religious observances at all government offices, the police, and the armed forces. Compliance was so rapid, and so thorough, that in 2002 Mahathir declared that Malaysia is already a ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic state. He stole the thunder from PAS, but it has already boomeranged into an ugly, self-fulfilling prophecy he did not intend.

Mahathir has grumbled fitfully about national schools being turned into religious schools, student time being consumed by religious content instead of science, maths and English, and the irrational call for Islamic dress codes on non-Muslim citizens. The Star reported in 2015 of a two-year-old denied treatment at a government hospital because of his mother’s shorts. Ignatius observes that the PM had so many instances when he could have reined JAKIM in from excess but opted not to, as it furthered his lifelong Ketuanan Melayu obsession. 

Denial of Malay culture

The Salafist influence, Ignatius notes, is denying traditional Malay culture, dress, dance, music and the arts for an alien Saudi prohibition on all that defines being Malay. He calls out the hypocrisy of the supremacists claiming to “defend Malay culture and civilization.” The Johor Sultan has asked Malays to stop aping Arabs. But the JAKIM remaking of Malay culture and character continues relentlessly with no institutional check and balance or oversight. It is a law unto itself.

Proponent and teacher of Indian classical dance Datuk Ramli Ibrahim had a scheduled university talk canceled at the 11th hour. He was told that the Islamic Centre at the university did not approve, so the authorities could not proceed. Ramli countered that it was vital for university students to be aware of the cultural diversity of the real world against the monocultural bubble of the university. He termed the Islamic orthodoxy vetting arts and culture at universities as “religious thuggery.” Ramli and several activists have held webinars to expose this subterranean threat to cultural diversity, for all citizens.

Ignatius lists other interventions which canceled the international craft beer festival, a swimsuit pageant, and the Education Ministry admonition to staff not to partake at an Indian harvest festival, as incompatible with the country’s Islamic image. “Merry Xmas” icing on a cake could not be displayed. The seasonal blare of Xmas songs at shopping malls is curtailed. The list goes on with even more bizarre sanctions. Muslims wishing “Merry Christmas” to their Christian friends is prohibited.

One of the unintended consequences of grafting Islamic credentials onto UMNO was JAKIM morphing into a vast, opaque machinery of thousands of imams, gurus, ustaz and miscellaneous officials embedded in federal and state offices to guide staff on its Wahhabi Islam. Ignatius calls them religious commissars. Their salaries consume 60 percent of the JAKIM budget. No lawmaker has asked why the country needs all these functionaries or how they benefit society or the economy. Lim the Lesser of the DAP, as finance minister, during the brief PH spell, acceded to increasing the JAKIM budget while he cut subsidies to farmers and fishermen for austerity.

Such is the collective dread of JAKIM “guidelines” that even without formal hierarchy authority, executive regulations or parliamentary laws, they are obeyed by Muslim staff. Ignatius calls this the stealth creation of a de facto Islamic state. It sweeps through all arms of government with no public discussion or parliamentary bills tabled and debated. Syariah-compliance is total. That is enforced on even non-Muslim citizens who enter government offices, the courts, or public hospitals. 

Malaysian Christians are distressed by unsubstantiated alarmist reports from Islamic clerics, of mass conversions of Muslims by evangelists. These deliberate falsehoods stoke fear and hatred among the less well-informed masses, who are also warned not to befriend Christians. This paranoia seems a core Wahhabi orthodoxy worldwide. Ignatius finds this of major concern. Neither JAKIM nor the country’s prime minister shuts down the clerics who transmit this virus of fear and hate. 

What future?

Ignatius notes the increasing voices of Malay youth, beneficiaries of the system, who question the justice and equity in discrimination against non-Malay citizens in scholarships, university education, employment, and careers in the civil service and government-linked companies. He says it needs to reach critical mass for effect. Time will tell. He believes the younger cohort of GE14 has ample talent. They should take responsibility going forward.

Cyril Pereira. Resident 35 years in Hong Kong. Operations Director with SCMP, Publisher of Asia Magazine, and currently adviser to China Daily (HK) on data journalism. Wrote the Wine Column for Asia Magazine from 1995.