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What Mahathir and we can learn from Star Wars

Awkward is how I would describe it. A few weeks ago, Mahathir took a widely publicized trip to the cinemas, perhaps eager to prove that he’s a man of the people – see, even dictators can enjoy movies like the rest of us. But as a Star Wars fan, I was surprised that he elected to watch The Last Jedi. That’s kind of like Sauron watching the Lord of the Rings films – it strikes a little too close to home, if you know what I mean.

 

Despite naming Luke Skywalker as his favorite Star Wars character, Mahathir always had far more in common with Emperor Palpatine. I’m talking, of course, about the central villain and chief Sith Lord of the original trilogy, who also happens to be an aging dictator with a stubborn taste for ill-fated megaprojects. And since the first Star War films emerged around the time Mahathir took office as prime minister, who knows? It could’ve been a case of life imitating art.

 

If you remember, Palpatine’s iconic megaproject was the Death Star – an enormous, moon-sized battle station capable of destroying entire planets. After it was blown up in embarrassing fashion in the first film (A New Hope), the ever-cunning emperor hatched an ingenious, foolproof plan: Build another one! Predictably, that got blown up too in Return of Jedi. The Empire’s moronic obsession with flawed superweapons is sort of a running joke among Star Wars fans. Which brings us to Mahathir.

 

Proton is Mahathir’s big fat Death Star: a hugely expensive, chronically failing project that he just can’t let go of. Even after multiple government bailouts and billions of ringgit in aid (totaling at least RM13.9 billion), Malaysia’s most infamous car company kept losing market share and bleeding cash for many years. It’s less a national icon than a national embarrassment – in FY2016 alone, Proton incurred net losses of RM1.4 billion.

 

Yet to this day, Mahathir still defends his indefensible baby. Furious that the government hadn’t done more to help Proton, he blasted Putrajaya for allowing China’s Geely to acquire a large chunk of the company. More recently, he expressed interest in starting another ‘Proton’ – a new national car company – if Pakatan wins GE14. Whee, here we go again!

 

Our Malaysian Palpatine wants a brand-new Death Star to play with. Proton may not be able to obliterate planets, but its destructive power shouldn’t be underestimated. In the past, it has drained public finances, hiked up car prices, and stifled public transportation (read more here). So to Mahathir’s credit, Proton is a superweapon in its own class. The catch is, like the first and second Death Stars, it tends to get blown up – worse, it explodes all on its own. Yet like some comical Hollywood supervillain, Mahathir keeps trying to build another one. What could go wrong?

 

While delusional dictators have much to learn from Star Wars, the saga also has a simple, but important lesson for the rest of us: Naivete leads to stupidity and stupidity leads to dictatorship. It’s worth remembering how Palpatine rose to power in the first place. In Attack of the Clones, senators of the galactic government granted Palpatine emergency powers to deal with a common threat (the Separatists). They did this at the urging of Jar Jar Binks – a good-natured, but dim-witted character who was easily manipulated by others – the Star Wars equivalent of Pakatan Harapan.

 

Of course, Palpatine did his best to pretend that his new powers were only temporary. In a speech before the Galactic Senate, he declared, “It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy. I love the Republic. Once this crisis has abated, I will lay down the powers you have given me!” Spoiler alert: He never did, ultimately eliminating his opponents and enshrining himself as emperor-for-life.

 

This utterly predictable turn of events isn’t too far off from what’s happening in present-day Malaysia. Mahathir is already ‘reluctantly’ suggesting himself as Pakatan’s ‘temporary’ PM, telling reporters last month, “If people are really desperate and they cannot find anybody else, maybe this 93-year-old can become interim prime minister.” Ignoring basic common sense (not to mention their conscience), the great majority of Pakatan officials seem to have gotten behind this arrangement.

 

They trust Mahathir just like Jar Jar Binks trusted Palpatine. They believe they can keep Mahathir in check just like the Galactic Senate probably assumed of Palpatine. But they’re beyond foolish. Mahathir may vow to govern by consensus if made PM again – as opposed to returning to his old dictatorial ways – and to never return to Umno even if Najib goes. But why should we believe him? Since Mahathir is fully capable of pulling off an absurd number of U-turns (including once branding DAP as a racist party and now working with them), what’s one more U-turn for him?

 

At age 93, Mahathir has nothing to lose. Not even honor. If he can change his mind about the opposition after being their chief tormentor for decades, he can easily change his mind about anything, whether promised reforms or political alliances. Indeed, Palpatine’s seemingly noble words amounted to nothing in the end. Nothing is sacred to Mahathir – except perhaps ego-driven pet megaprojects that keep failing and failing.

 

So please, jangan bodoh. We need to prove that we’re smarter than Jar Jar Binks – a funny-looking amphibian with a weird Jamaican accent. Sure, that’s an insultingly low bar, but one that Pakatan leaders have been unable to pass. Let’s hope that the Force will be with us. If we put Malaysia’s most notorious Sith Lord back on the throne again, we can’t say that Star Wars didn’t warn us.

 

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