Speaking at the ASEAN summit in Singapore this month, Malaysia’s “new” Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gave counterpart Aung San Suu Kyi a taste of his notoriously acerbic mind. As one of three Muslim leaders present at the gathering, Mahathir made clear Suu Kyi was “defending the indefensible” regarding Myanmar’s treatment of its persecuted Rohingya minority. He pushed her country to instead follow Malaysia’s example, saying:
When Malaysia became independent in 1957, we had people of foreign origin ... but we accepted all of them. They are now citizens, they play a full role in the politics of the country, they are free, they are not detained because of race or anything like that.
Mahathir’s portrait of racial harmony in Malaysia is inspiring – except, of course, for being demonstrably false. Far from “accepting all of them”, Malaysia’s post-independence governments have in fact spent a considerable time and energy on stoking racial divisions within their own country. The goal: maintaining the political supremacy of ethnic Malays or “Bumiputera”.
A problematic track record
Mahathir himself was a major architect of this strategy. In the five decades since penning his 1970 The Malay Dilemma, he has built up a track record of racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic statements that extends all the way through his comments about “hook-nosed” Jews and casual Holocaust revisionism in a BBC interview last month. Against that backdrop, Mahathir’s recent criticism of plans to move Australia's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has prompted rebukes both from Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The premier’s previous tenure was characterised by vigorous control of the press, crackdowns on the judiciary, and the exploitation of internal security laws to stifle dissent.
For a global audience, however, Mahathir’s recent comments about Jews and his rejection of LGBT rights has yet to take the shine off the stunning electoral upset that saw him reclaim his old post this past May. Since then, the 93-year-old premier has been recast as “Malaysia’s saviour” for unseating former protégé Najib Razak. On the campaign trail, he railed against corruption and promised to share power with jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. His new narrative centred around a promise to eventually hand Malaysia’s future to a capable, reform-minded leader.
Since then, Mahathir’s government has doggedly pursued Najib, his wife, and his political allies in relation to allegations of corruption at the 1MDB investment fund. The new prime minister insists Najib and the other defendants will get a “fair trial”, but this is the same man who jailed heir apparent Anwar on trumped-up sodomy and corruption charges. That Mahathir ultimately became the agent of Anwar’s release is one of the great ironies of the region’s recent history.
Although Mahathir’s return to power was hailed as a victory for democracy in the region, his track record and recent statements raise legitimate questions about whether he will revert to his old style of strong-armed populism. The premier’s previous tenure was characterised by vigorous control of the press, crackdowns on the judiciary, and the exploitation of internal security laws to stifle dissent.
To this day, Malaysia’s rule of law has still not recovered from the “judicial winter” he brought about in 1988.
ASEAN’s anti-democratic turn
While Mahathir’s authoritarian tendencies are concerning by Western standards, the Malaysian premier was very much among peers at the ASEAN summit. At a gathering that featured not only Mahathir and Suu Kyi but also the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Cambodia’s Hu Sen, it’s quite clear ASEAN is nowhere near the democratic awakening many hoped for.
To understand just how little attention ASEAN as an institution dedicates to human rights, consider that the main controversy to arise for Duterte in Singapore was not the state-sanctioned campaign of mass murder that has killed at least 12,000 men, women, and children in the Philippines, but instead the “power naps” that made him miss important summit meetings.
At home, Duterte has borrowed some tricks out of Mahathir’s playbook to rule with an ever-tightening fist. As part of his brutal assertion of the same “Asian values” Mahathir champions, Duterte’s government has rolled back civil liberties, undermined judicial independence, and cracked down on dissent, arresting politicians who dare defy him while using the threat of prosecution to intimidate investigative journalistic outfits like Rappler. The erratic former-mayor of Davao has stuck by his nationwide “war on drugs,” encouraging vigilante death squads and the routine extrajudicial execution of unarmed suspects.
Outside of Mahathir’s comments and her tense meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence, Suu Kyi and Myanmar also escaped without any real condemnation of the military’s ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. Over a year into the Rohingya refugee crisis, the bloc’s silence highlighted the contrast between the collegial nature of ASEAN diplomacy and the bloody tenacity of Southeast Asia’s authoritarians.
As Mahathir himself explained: “ASEAN leaders are very diplomatic. They don’t give strong statements against each other.”
Hope on the horizon?
Given the benchmarks Mahathir himself helped set, this democratic breakdown in Southeast Asia is disappointing but not altogether surprising. As such, despite being swept back to power under the guise of liberal reform, the region’s sharp-tongued elder statesman and the credibility of his promises should be taken with a healthy dose of salt.
If the former “dictator” steps aside and allows a peaceful transition to his now-ally Anwar, Malaysia would indeed notch a rare success in political renewal for the region. Until then, Mahathir’s actions will help set the political tone in Southeast Asia as a whole – and the jury is still out on what kind of tone that will be.