The Jakarta Post carried this article under the headline “The dramatic irony of Mahathir and the media” on May 31.
What goes around, comes around.
If former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was anyone else but himself, he would be contemplating this saying and savoring its irony this very moment.But Mahathir is Mahathir and incapable of irony. Because of this he will, like the old Greek tragedies, be destined to debase himself further.
What is ironic is how Mahathir, who lobotomized the Malaysian press during his 23 years in power from 1981 till 2003 is now going around whining about the lack of press freedom in Malaysia.
How this came about began some months ago when the government led by his handpicked successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi began to dismantle what many in Malaysia considered to be Mahathir’s mistakes and grandiose plans.
The quarrel began to surface Badawi government got rid of the CEO of Malaysia’s national car company, Proton. Following this Mahathir has since found other reasons to criticize the government: its decision to sell off a Proton subsidiary to foreigners for a token sum of money, its decision to sell sand to Singapore; its decision to let the island state use the airspace of a southern Malaysian state; and its decision to shelf a half-bridge project to Singapore.
Never one to be considered a wall flower, Mahathir lashed out by the government but the mainstream Malaysia Press is not giving him any play. Conditioned by 23 years of Mahathirism to be subservient to the powers-that-be and to muzzle dissent they did what they were trained to do to perfection.
Incensed by this alienating experience, Mahathir became shriller as each day went by and he was ignored by the mainstream media. He has become so desperate recently that he agreed to be interviewed by a news outlated he used to hate: independent Malaysian news portal Malaysiakini.com.
Malaysiakini.com is a website that was a thorn in Mahathir’s side when he was in power. In Mahathir’s day Malaysiakini.com was frowned upon and not so subtle pressures exerted to get it to tone down. But, bless them, Malaysiakin.com refused to back down and stuck to its believe in the freedom of the press to report and be critical of government.
Malaysiakini began posting its three part story of the Mahathir interview on Tuesday. In the first part of the interview Mahathir remained true to his aggressive style, only now that he is out of power he has lost the menace and sounds like a grumpy old man forced to attend the birthday of a relative he dislikes. Here’s an extract of his interview:
Mahathir: I never liked Malaysiakini.com. It was very critical of me before.
Malaysiakini: We’re just doing our job. We’ve also been very critical of the present government as well …
Mahathir: Yes. You are critical of everybody. Wait until you become the government. Then others will have a chance to take potshots at you. Let’s go on.
What is fascinating from this interview, and Mahathir’s words and deeds of late, is that it provides us with a disturbing insight into the mind of someone incapable of perceiving irony.
Irony is a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.
It is clear from his actions and words that he just does not believe that he destroyed whatever press freedom there was in Malaysia during his tenure. Anyone else familiar with Malaysian Press history will tell you that that is simply not true and that Operasi Lallang in 1987, when he closed down several newspapers and locked up many dissenters, was one of the most decisive move to emasculate the Press.
After that operation all mainstream media towed the line, anyone that was perceived as critical or did not tow the line was either forced out or they willingly left as that was the day press freedom in Malaysia took a mortal blow. I know because I was one of those journalists who voted with my feet after my paper’s license was revoked.
We and other have moved on since then to other lives and even the most critical of us would not hesitate to give Mahathir his due for bringing the country forward economically.
In this aspect he has done a great job for the country. He should now gracefully take to the quiet life, plant some orchids and go write his memoirs or visit old friends like Suharto. Persisting in taking on the government in a high profile manner, without a keen appreciation of irony, is only going through the motions of a tragicomedy in the making.