There’s an age-old saying: you can judge a man by the company he keeps. How then are we to judge Mahathir’s long-time friendship with Robert Mugabe, the freshly ousted president of Zimbabwe? If theft of government funds always bothered Mahathir, why did he maintain such close ties – spanning decades – with one of the world’s most notorious kleptocrats?
Our 92-year-old former dictator’s fondness for the 93-year-old former Zimbabwean dictator was never a secret. Perhaps it was love at first oppression. When he was still PM, Mahathir had the government donate a shipment of rare Malaysian rainforest timbers to aid in the construction of an obscenely grand 25-bedroom mansion for Mugabe – reportedly three times larger than the official presidential residence in Zimbabwe’s capital.
When he was quizzed about this curious donation, Mahathir defiantly remarked, “Yes, we did give Zimbabwe timber, but what’s wrong with that?” So, I think I’ve figured out what I’m going to call the Mahathir rule: If a donation involves a friend of Mahathir, it’s perfectly fine. If it involves his opponent, it’s kleptocracy! Naturally, the moral universe revolves around how Mahathir feels about you.
In 2008, when it appeared that Mugabe might lose his re-election bid that year, Mahathir’s soft spot for the African strongman again showed. He told reporters that Malaysia should welcome Mugabe should he choose exile after the elections. “If he wants to come here, the (Malaysian) government should welcome him,” Mahathir said.
How generous of Mahathir to offer our beloved country as a retirement home for aging kleptocrats. It certainly gives us powerful insight into Mahathir’s credibility as a present-day reformer. My question to Pakatan admirers of their new ‘top dog’ chairman is a simple one: Do you honestly believe Mahathir would be waging an anti-kleptocracy crusade against Najib if Najib had agreed to be his obedient lackey?
I’m still waiting for a good answer to this. Indulge me, will you?
If Mahathir seems to have Mugabe’s back, it’s perhaps because they have so much in common with one another. And it’s not just the age, stubbornness, narcissism, and substantial detachment from reality.
Have both their lengthy reigns been marked by allegations of widespread cronyism and mismanagement? Absolutely. Mugabe infamously seized massive tracts of land from white farmers and gifted the spoils to his cronies – including family members, cabinet ministers, and government officials.
Closer to home, the Mahathir government regularly enriched cronies and their companies. Take transportation, for instance. The LRT and monorail projects – which Mahathir puzzlingly awarded to private firms – all went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by taxpayers. His cabinet inked lopsided agreements with toll companies, allowing them to charge exorbitant fares or seek government compensation – a disgusting legacy that still stings ordinary Malaysians to this day.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even delved into the sorry details of Mahathir’s many syok sendiri megaprojects: Putrajaya, Bakun Dam, and more. Who do you think benefited from those wasteful displays of national vanity?
Of course, this culture of rewarding allies and associates only persisted because Mahathir and Mugabe did their darnest to eliminate any opposition to their rule. Journalists were prosecuted and newspapers closed (in 2001, the international NGO Committee to Protect Journalists listed both leaders among the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press”), opposition politicians harassed and jailed. With total domination of their respective political spheres, Mahathir’s and Mugabe’s seemingly unending grip on power became a running joke among international observers.
Mugabe only resigned when it was clear that his impeachment was imminent. His Southeast Asian cousin, on the other hand, continues to meddle in national politics long after his supposed ‘retirement’. Both former dictators, convinced of their eternal indispensability, struggle to comprehend that they’ve long overstayed their welcome.
Mahathir, one of the longest serving heads of government, even had the gall to assert that nepotism tends to emerge when leaders remain in power for too long: “There is a tendency to keep it (the power) in the family, and that leads to absolute power and absolute power leads to absolute corruption.” Without any sense of irony (or shame), he pointed to his pal Mugabe as an example. Maybe he thinks his 22 years in power is not long enough – he certainly acts like it.
Malaysians, however, feel quite differently. That’s precisely why they delivered a massive majority to Barisan Nasional – the largest since 1978 – the year after he left office. Like the Zimbabweans now hugging and dancing in Parliament and on the streets, they were jubilant to see the final end of an ignominious dictatorship. Unlike today’s Pakatan, they knew what national salvation and progress really meant.
Mahathir can no more ‘save’ Malaysia than Mugabe Zimbabwe – they are the root of their countries’ problems. If only they themselves had the capacity to understand this. Alas, absolute power breeds absolute delusion.