Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Return of the Beast

"Oh God, the guy is nearly 100 and there he is, still raring for a fight. Why doesn't he just pop off gracefully instead of interfering and causing trouble this way?"

My friend shook his head over a cup of designer coffee. We had agreed to meet at one of these expensive cafes near his office, and as usual (you can't avoid it here) talk had steered round to our erstwhile Prime Minister and his shenanigans.

"Yeah, I guess he's mortified. He's been head honcho so long, I guess he bought into the lie that he would always continue to be in control. Even when he handed over the reins. Something like Lee Kuan Yew," I offered.

My friend was unimpressed. He went on to detail all the ways Mahathir was poking his nose into what was essentially not his business, causing trouble for the sake of it and just behaving like a belligerent old man reverting to second childhood. "If anyone else had done this while he was PM, they would have been slammed in jail before could you could say ISA."

I nodded thoughtfully. They would have. And even though the guy had been out of power now for a couple of years, I still looked around the cafe carefully to see if anyone was eavesdropping on our conversation. It was a legacy from my Mahathir years, where everyone watched everyone because it wasn't safe to express a negative opinion of the man and you never knew who might be listening.

I remember when I first joined the press as a trainee. I didn't know then that the man was God. A senior reporter told me that the Press Club (where my friends and I hung out nearly every Friday) used to be a Special Branch (that's our secret service) interrogation centre. She said the reporters knew where the hidden cameras were and would shake their fists at them saying, "Fuck Mahathir" in loud, ringing tones, over a glass of beer. Or whisky. I was filled with admiration. How could they be so brave?

I had only been in the newspaper for a short time, but I was beginning to be aware that nobody did this and lived to tell the tale. He was referred to as "The PM". Our "Our Beloved PM" (this in speeches during most official functions). Or Datuk Seri. Or "the old man" (affectionately, of course). He laid down the law, forced his opinions on everybody, micromanaged us to death (he once wanted a reporter in my newspaper fired for using two "inappropriate" words in a stock market report - nobody bloody reads these reports anyway), and gradually, people accepted this and saw this as right. And even felt his hugely paternalistic approach was for the good of the country. The newspapers were gelded, the judiciary, a bloody joke...but so what? I mean it was not democracy like they had in the West (but look what their form of democracy got them? Immorality and race riots and people blowing up buildings), it was a "controlled democracy", where everything was done for the "good of the people". Sometimes, people needed to be led. They didn't know what was best for them. He did. He knew everything. Omniscience is an awful burden. No wonder, it took only 21 years for the guy to finally break down and quit his job, sobbing, like a, like a, well, like a child.

They recently staged a Julius Caesar, where the Caesar came across as a loud, pushy, blustering old man. When he was killed, everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief...because it was only right for a man like that to be killed. I think the director misread the situation and the play, both. Ours was not a Julius Caesar-type situation, and he didn't need to sacrifice Caesar's character in that way to make his point. He should have staged King Lear instead for everyone to have gotten the parallel. Lear, handing over the reins, but expecting to remain King. Lear railing against his ungrateful children for not loving him after they pretended to. Sharper than a serpent's tooth...

I recently read an article from the "independent press" which said, because of the changes in the country now, fuel hikes, etc, the Mahathir years are starting to look good. To the writer, all I can say is...you must be suffering from a severe bout of amnesia.

Have you already forgotten what it was like?

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