Yesterday evening was billed as a special session with the Malaysians living in Indonesia with the new old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It was part of his first official visit to neighbouring Indonesia where he would meet Jokowi.
I went with mixed feelings. I was curious to see the old warhorse, still flushed from his electoral victory in May, how he might have changed and how he was holding up. I was also curious to observe the reaction of the Malaysians living here toward him. At the same time there was a feeling of unease. After all, this is the man that set in motion most of the things that are wrong in Malaysia today, including Najib, his cronyism and the corrupt system and is now returning as a saviour of the people.
But go I did and these are some of the observations from last night.
Mahathir himself. He is still sharp and spry at 92. He was lucid but he seemed less intimidating than before, when I was a reporter in Malaysia in the mid 80s. Back then he seemed someone that you did not want to piss off at all. Perhaps he was tired from the trip. Perhaps times have changed. Or perhaps I myself have changed.
In his speech he hit on the theme again about how his government was gathering the evidence to prosecute Najib for his corruption. This to me seemed unnecessary for a Prime Minister (and for his Ministers in the Cabinet). Prosecution of Najib should be carried out by the Attorney-General and investigations should be carried out by the Police or the anti corruption commission. The Prime Minister should stay above the fray to let the law take its course and to avoid any hint that the prosecution of Najib might be politically-motivated.
The audience. Was remarkable. Clutching their handphones they all wanted a piece of Mahathir. The adulation and hero-worshipping was almost embarrassing. Sure , Mahathir had achived something great by toppling the Barisan Nasional government in the polls, but surely the appreciation must be tempered by some wariness, considering the track record of the man when it comes to curbing press freedoms, using the draconian Internal Security Act to lock up political rivals, instituting a system of cronyism and other foibles? What I saw was the forgetfulness of crowds and their willingness to embrace heroes.
Then there was question time after Mahathir’s speech and it was absolutely cringeworthy. A Malaysian student used the time to ask Mahathir to attend a Malaysian-Indoensian student event they were organising in November, as if a Prime Minster did not have more important matters to attend to. Mahathir politely told him no.
A Malaysian woman married to an Indonesian asked if her husband and kids, all residing here, could have Malaysian citizenship. Mahathir explained that she and her husband had a choice to become Malaysians or Indonesian citizens. So do their children when they came of age.
A woman from ASEC, like everyone knew what ASEC meant, asked how and when Malaysia would lead the ASEAN Countries to better economic integration. Even Mahathir was not clued in on what ASEC was and had to ask. Asean Secretariat it turns our ASEC was. His answer was diplomatic and cheeky: that is a question we will ask the ASEAN countries when we meet, but anyone with half a brain would have realised that Malaysia’s priorities were to overcome the massive national debt of $1Trillion that Mahathir talked about his speech and to get its house in order after a decade of Najib’s rule (also takes about in Mahathir’s speech) than to lead ASEAN.The conceit and self-enteredness of the ASEC woman was astounding.
Then there was grandstander, some Malaysian who imputed that he had been tod to get out of Malaysia from before who insisted on sharing his views to all and sundry when question time was for asking questions. He blustered on about values and things that mattered to him and no one else. Mahathir cherry picked and said something about values.
The only question that made some sense was a Sarawakian who asked when the Government was going to get the anti-corruption body the MACC to investigate the chief minister of that state. Mahathir said that for the government to investigate a report would have to be lodged. The questioner said that some Malaysian from Miri had actually filed a report. Mahathir averred.
The food. The only other interesting thing about last night was the food. For a country and people who are so proud of their cuisine it was a bit of a surprise that the Embassy was serving in their buffet Nasi Padang instead of some Malaysian fare. Chalk one up for bilateral relationships, one down for the yearning Malaysian palette.
All of these elements combined left a funny taste in the mouth but that is Malaysia today, I suppose.