JOHAN JAAFFAR’S tribute To Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad in conjunction with the launch of A Doctor in the House.
MPH Dinner – “A Night of Celebration”
Grand Nirwana Ballroom, Crowne Plaza Mutiara Hotel, KL
3rd April 2011
WHEN Datuk Ng Tien Chuan of MPH called to inform me that I’m to give a speech tonight, I was mulling over it, whether to do it off the cuff or read from a prepared text. I have been preparing for this occasion a long time, seriously, for certainly I have an axe to grind and at the same time, I have great narratives to tell about this incredible man that we are honouring tonight, TunDr Mahathir Mohamad.
The last time I did not follow the script, I lost my job. That was in 1998. So, tonight I’ll go for the second option – I’ll read from a prepared text. No, Tun would not be able to fire or tell me to leave, he’s Citizen Mahathir now, still very influential, but as powerless as you and I.
We are all here for a purpose, to honour this man, and to celebrate his achievements, in conjunction with the publication of his incredibly interesting memoir, A Doctor in the House. Thanks to the man who had transformed this beloved nation of ours, Malaysia will never be the same again. If we talk about “change” (with a capital C), which, as a mantra, is catching fire the world over, take a good look at the real changes that he has brought to this country in his 22 years as Prime Minister.
Let me give you a perspective of what 22 years means, at least to me. I was 28 when he became Prime Minister; I was 50 when he left office. Our eldest child was born a year after Tun became PM; he was admitted to the Bar of England and Wales when Tun resigned. Perhaps Suharto had stayed longer, so too Fidel Castro, Muammar Ghaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. But Tun can’t be compared to any one of them. When he left, there was a collective groan and sadness among Malaysians. What would this country be without The Man? We need a man of steel and a man of vision to lead us to greater heights.
He will be remembered fondly as a great prime minister, an architect of change, a man whose ideas helped transform the destiny of this nation, whose passion had turned this Third World entity into a nation state with achievements that went beyond the imagination of our founding fathers. We are the poster boy of success. We are a class of our own among developing nations.
There Are Detractors Too…
He was called names too, condemned and criticised unfairly for saying the truth about the West, the United Nations and the OIC.
You can be his most vociferous critic or his perennial hater, but you can’t deny the fact that Tun is a Godsend to Malaysia, and that he has done so much for us and the nation as a whole. One can label him anti-West, anti-Semite, whatever. The fact remains; he speaks out without fear or favour.
He spoke on behalf of The Other – the marginalised, the Third Worlders, the Asians, The Rest – against the hegemony of the convoluted West.
There is only one Tun. Depending on how people look at him, he is the Good, the Bad, even the Ugly.
But for most of us, he is a Great Man, a Great Leader. He’s more than the Muhammad Ali of Politics; he is the embodiment of what ought to be the best values and virtues in statesmanship, almost. “In heaven, an angel is nobody in particular,” says George Bernard Shaw. “In real life, a great man shines above the rest.” He’s the guiding light, a beacon, our Great Big Hope. Yes, he’s human, he made mistakes and made wrong decisions but he made many correct ones.
He’s not perfect, but he was audacious and he took risks. He dared to be different. He is all that and more.
That is why we are all here tonight. To honour him.
I am here to represent his friends and colleagues, former staff and family members, if I may, to remind ourselves of what he has done for us, this nation, for mankind.
We are not celebrating his achievements as such, for he has many more fruitful years to contribute. We are not here just to applaud the publication of his long-awaited memoir, published by MPH. Yes, it is one of the most anticipated memoirs in the history of the nation, perhaps the world. People have been waiting to read what Tun has to say. And true enough, the book is, not surprisingly, full of surprises. It is provocative as it is informative, and Tun being Tun, there is never a dull page in the book. I suspect he has made more people angrier and grumpier reading the book than while he was in power.
“This is the story of Malaysia as I see it. This is also my story,” Tun wrote in his Preface. It reminds us of someone down south, whose love-hate relationship, hate mostly, between Tun and him is the stuff of legend. That person wrote The Singapore Story, whichshould be renamed A Lawyer in the Dock,in view of Tun’sA Doctor in the House.
I’m sure there are many out there who would not like what Tun has written. Tun says it as he wants it. In typical Tun-style, his no-holds-barred, cavalier approach, leaves little to the imagination. He spared no one, he leaves no stone unturned. But I’m sure he has many more stories to tell. This 843-page book is only an introduction to the incredible story of The Man – no ordinary man but one who would never shy away from a good fight, who made political wars hip, and who left a trail of destruction when need be, with style and finesse.
Fighting Tun? Think Twice…
Do not fight Tun if you are not prepared to lose. He has never lost a war, only injured in battles.
Give way, Sun Tzu. Many years from now, students of military strategy and management schools will learn The Art of War – Tun M’s Way.
But Tun is not a born warrior. He is first and foremost a builder. He knows what he wants. He was specific about what he wanted his people to be, his country to achieve.
I used to work for him (with Tun, you don’t work with him, sorry), and I was fired (although technically I wasn’t). If you can survive working for Tun, you can survive anywhere, believe me. Other places would be like Heaven, some would argue. Being told to leave or being fired by Tun is a badge of honour that one will carry proudly forever.
I was given the honour to interview him on RTM1, fifteen years into his tenure as PM. As editor of the most influential paper the country in the 90s, I had been through bad times and mostly good with him. I covered him in far-flung places as a journalist. I was even labeled his Propaganda Minister, being his unapologetic cheerleader with loyalty that was largely unquestioned, until things went bad between him and his Deputy at the time, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Nothing strange there, for he seemed to have some kind of allergy towards his deputies anyway. You can’t blame him for bringing in Anwar. At the time Anwar was likeable, believed to be charismatic and looked clever.
Like my fellow editors back then, it wasn't so much about doing our jobs but about believing Tun, trusting him, sharing his ideas, his vision. For me, I was proud of that and I made no apology as far as my loyalty to him is concerned.
The fact that my name didn't appear in his memoir, A Doctor in the House, is proof that people like me, from his perspective, are better off being a tukang masak. We were somewhere back there in the background, just like the halimunans, the invisibles ones. Good editors are made of these – unlike good soldiers, they don’t fade away, th ey got fired, just die or are forgotten.
The truth is, we didn’t have a problem with that, in fact we cherished out role. Most of my colleagues and I are glad that our names have not been immortalised in Tun’s book, particularly as Tun has written mostly unflattering things about those whom he did mention. He takes potshots at people, he’s at his pernicious best criticising almost everyone that moves, even the current PM’s decision in reversing the teaching of Science and Mathematics from English to Bahasa Melayu. No one is spared.
I came in 1992 as Anwar Ibrahim’s choice to lead the Utusan Melayu group. And when I left, no one suffered more than I did. The stigma that became attached to me, to say the least, was horrendous. My name didn’t appear on Tun’s List of Cronies in 1998 but everyone thought Anwar’s friends were rich and slept on gunny-sacks of money. The truth is that Anwar was selective in determining who should be rich and who should remain reasonably poor. I didn’t do business deals when I was in Utusan, I wasn’t the Empat Budak Melayu either.
Things became unattainable in 1998. I had no choice. Before I announced my decision to leave Utusan, I went to see Tun and said, “Sir, remember when I told you that the day you have the slightest doubt about my loyalty to you, I’ll leave? This is the day.” That was the morning of the 14th of July. I made life easier for Tun. I left before he fired me. An honourable thing to do, don’t you think?
With Tun, You Do the Listening…
Tun wrote me a nice letter with a line that says, “If you need help, come to me.” I never did. I met him again six years later. By then the problems between him and the new PM (his successor) were mounting. When I met him, he seemed to have more problems than I did, so I didn’t really speak about mine. With Tun, you do the listening.
Before that, there were times when I desperately wanted to see him, but to no avail. I wasn’t asking for mega contracts or projects, I just wanted my intellectual life back. I would have gone cuckoo for no one dared publish my writings. I needed that “kosher” label. I am a writer. The late Pak Samad gave me a chance to write for the New Straits Times, my first published piece after 1998 came out in mid 2001. I started writing as a columnist for the NST in 2002 and I am still writing for the newspaper today.
Well, life is like that.
At the height of Tun’s problem with the then PM, he had a taste of how unpleasant living in Limboland can be, like me. Even his close friends abandoned him. For a while at least, I had something in common with Tun.
Let’s put it on record that I never blamed Tun for my predicament. I was a relatively successful farmer after I left. Allah has been good to me. There were tough times, but I soldiered on. Tun is a nice fellow, a good-hearted man, but he had a 26-million-people-problem back then. I was one of the 26 million. And he was facing the aftermath of a financial crisis that could have destroyed the nation. He was fighting for his political survival too.
Let me refresh your memory. I was close to Anwar but at that time, who wasn’t? I was his friend, yes, but Tun was my Boss. I know Anwar better than most of you. When the time came, I stayed loyal to Tun, though from afar, while suffering tremendously. Even back then, I knew one had to differentiate between a kaca and a permata. There was never a dilemma for me to choose after Anwar was sacked. I left Anwar long before many of his loyalists abandoned him.
Tun was facing an uphill battle to manage the effect of the Asian economic contagion. He came out with an unconventional approach that was never taught in any economic class. He saved us from the indignity of succumbing to IMF’s bitter pills. While Indonesia was reeling from the angst of its people, the social fabric of our rakyat remained largely intact and we weathered the crisis confidently and successfully.
Tun had shown the world that conventional wisdom could be atrociously wrong and that there was no such thing as one-size-fits-all in economic management. Tun had been critical of the financial regime orchestrated by the West and the need for Bretton Woods to be reviewed. His prescription to contain the crisis here had been proven right and he was vindicated. That is “Tun M’s Way,” which could fit nicely into Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, with some changes to the lyrics. We not only had a doctor but a contrarian economist in the house.
That’s Tun – a contrarian. Had he followed the script or been faithful to the mould, we would not be where we are today. Had Tun not rocked the boat, we would not have seen the changing skylines in our cities. He dared to be different. He is a change-master extraordinaire.
When the Internet was still in its infancy, Tun saw what was coming. No one really understood the extent of the Internet revolution, but the contrarian in him awakened us to be prepared. The Internet was a tsunami that came without warning. Back in the early 1990s, Tun had this vision to prepare Malaysia for any eventuality on the cyber front. He came out with the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and Multimedia Development Council (known as MDC at the time). So, I’m not that he is now Grandpa Blogger.
He Has His Frustrations Too…
I am sure he has his frustrations and sadness. He openly lamented that he had failed to change his bangsa. Worry not, Tun, the Malays today are not the Malays you portrayed in your classic, The Malay Dilemma. They have unshackled themselves from the yoke of poverty and despair. They are more confident now, so much so they are not grateful for the policies that have helped them, policies engineered by your government and the governments before you. Yes, Melayu memang mudah lupa, but the Malays have improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to you and the PMs before you.
Once you told us how proud you were to know that the pilot of a 747 airliner we had flown in was a young man from Kokdiang, Kedah. There are many more like him, sons and daughters of illiterate Malay rubber tappers, rice farmers and fishermen, who became successful professionals, even leaders of industries.
Malaysia has changed beyond recognition. The people are grateful to you for the peace and prosperity you brought to them. Don’t worry too much about the ungrateful ones. “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” said Shakespeare famously. You can’t please everyone. Some are born to dislike you, others choose to hate you.
You have done so much for us. And we’re grateful. To quote Shakespeare again, “He is not of an age, but for all time.”
We all choose to like you and to adore you.
And to be here to show our gratitude to you.
We can’t say it in many words; in fact words are inadequate to say how we feel about you. We have this to say to you:
Pulau Pandan jauh ke tengah
Gunung Daik bercabang tiga
Hancur badan dikandung tanah
Budi yang baik dikenang juga.
Before the curtain comes down, let me read bits and pieces of a poem written by Tun, aptly titled “Perjuangan Yang BelumSelesai”:
Tugas kita belum selesai rupanya
Bagi memartabat dan
Kerana hanya bangsa yang berjaya
Akan sentiasa dihormati
Rupanya masih jauh dan berliku jalan kita
Bukan sekadar memerdeka dan mengisinya
Tetapi mengangkat darjat dan kemuliaan
Hari ini, jalan ini pasti semakin berliku
Kerana masa depan belum tentu
Bagi mereka yang lemah dan mudah kecewa
Perjuangan kita belum selesai
Kerana hanya yang cekal dan tabah
Dapat membina mercu tanda
Bangsa yang berjaya.
Tun, the poem was written by you in 1996. It was relevant back then, it is still now and perhaps forever.