It’s tempting to see Najib and Mahathir as a tired choice between Coke and Pepsi. Lots of decent, thoughtful folk argue there’s no difference between the two men – they’re both irredeemably repulsive. I respectfully disagree. You’ll forgive me for repeating that annoying cliche: It’s an imperfect world, but there is, as they say, a lesser evil. The key is view Najib’s and Mahathir’s legacies proportionately.
First, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: 1MDB. The sovereign wealth fund is rightly seen as a posterchild for corporate mismanagement. It went on a mad spending spree, notoriously accumulating RM42 billion in debt. Still, it’s worth noting that 1MDB’s debt – however outrageous and irresponsible – was always surpassed by the total value of its assets. For example, in 2014, it had RM51.4 billion in assets compared to its RM41.8 billion debt.
What that means is simple – 1MDB can recuperate losses and pay off debt by monetizing and developing its assets. Among these assets include TRX (70 acres of prime KL land) and Bandar Malaysia (486 acres of prime KL land) – the latter being six times the size of KL Sentral. That’s not shabby, you’ll agree. Who knows? 1MDB may even end up making substantial profits (spoiler: it’s almost certain to).
Compare that to the Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) forex scandal, which took place during Mahathir’s rule. Between 1991 and 1994, RM31.5 billion was lost – that’s about RM100 billion today. Not one sen of that money can ever be recovered. Not one. Period. That’s because the scandal involves currency speculation – in short, gambling with the central bank’s reserves. So, those who argue that Najib-era scandals are worse than (or same with) Mahathir-era ones are simply ignoring scale and financial logic.
Cronies vs competence
As Pakatan would once attest to, Mahathir essentially gifted our economy and our infrastructure to businessmen widely seen as his cronies. The KL monorail is one of the sorry, half-baked children of this period: it’s ponderously slow, comically small, and criminally cramped. It’s a joke by any standards – and if you don’t believe me, go try it one of these days while chanting “Rindu Zaman Tun”.
For all the money spent on it, the private company that owned and operated that embarrassing contraption had to be bailed out. The same went for the two LRT lines that Mahathir built – and oh, all three weren’t integrated. There’s simply no reason why any train that runs through the central arteries of KL couldn’t be as spacious, comfortable, and efficient as the MRT that Najib eventually built.
Speaking of which, MRT1 was completed ahead of time and under budget, and is fully owned by the government. More lines are being constructed, and, most importantly, will not be handed off to incompetent private hands. All the lines (LRT, MRT, monorail) are now integrated with one another. As a user of public transport, I personally experience that world of difference between Najib and Mahathir each and every day.
If you drive a car, consider another example. Sure, Mahathir did build the famed North-South Expressway. But his government also signed a lopsided agreement with the highway’s operator, PLUS (then a private company), allowing it to raise the toll rate by 10% every three years. Insanity, you say? Najib thought so too. He encouraged Khazanah Nasional and EPF to acquire PLUS (51%-49% respectively) in 2010, putting it firmly under government control. The happy ending: There hasn’t been a single toll increase for that highway since the buyout.
You do have to admire Mahathir’s gall though. As recently as last month, he defended toll fees in Malaysia, calling them far cheaper compared to other countries. I’m not sure if most Malaysians would agree – though they should realize which leader is looking out for them, and which is looking out for toll companies.
Democracy and the police state
Najib’s record on civil liberties is spotty for sure. Dissenting activists, politicians, and even artists are still needlessly harassed by authorities. Maria Chin’s brief detention in 2016 can only be charitably described as mean-spirited and petty. The sedition charges against cartoonist Zunar are similarly disgraceful. Still, it’s clear that Najib has presided over the greatest opening of democratic space since, well, the pre-Mahathir years.
You only need to compare a reformasi protest in the 1990s to a Bersih protest in the Najib-era. The former was a warzone and the latter a festive urban picnic. One featured images of Mahathir’s police beating and kicking protesters, and the other jovial citizens singing popular karaoke songs. Under Mahathir, opposition members and activists were regular ‘guests’ at ISA detention centers. Under Najib, the ISA is no more.
Interesting enough, Mahathir in 2014 blamed the ISA’s abolition for a rise in crime. The iron fist is irrevocably in his DNA. There probably wouldn’t be much an opposition if Mahathir had remained in power. Indeed, there wasn’t much of any opposition during his rule – only blind sycophants, well-fed cronies, and forgotten victims.
Pakatan only made gains because Abdullah Badawi and now Najib allowed them breathing space. Today, you can rail to your heart’s content against Najib on the streets, on social media, on online portals, and in public forums. Do you think Mr. My-Way-or-the-Highway would’ve allowed even 10% of those attacks against him? He’d probably ISA you and your cat, and then blame it on the police.
The lesser evil
I’m always baffled by people who argue that Mahathir’s wrongdoings and failures aren’t relevant because they’re in the past. Sorry, they’re more relevant than ever because Najib has been trying his best to rectify the worst aspects of Mahathir’s authoritarian, incompetent, crony-loving regime. And we’re supposed to burn him at the stake for it? For what? For being imperfect?
You wanted reformasi. Don’t spit in its face lah. Crazy double standards are at work here: We’re expected to forgive and trust Mahathir, but not Najib. Even though Najib has a track record of moving the country forward. Even though he’s proved himself to be meaningfully different and meaningfully better. Yes, the change may sometimes seem slow and incremental, involving compromise. Then again, the Pakatan crowd have been scolding people opposed to Mahathir as being selfish and too idealistic. Thank god, I’m a selfless realist – I see Najib as the lesser evil.