Mahathir’s Mageran Dream: Why 2021 is not 1969

One argument between the late Tun Dr Ismail and his wife, Neno, remained unresolved until his dying day: Is there a dead body underneath their garden?

Ismail told her there was none, but Neno refused to believe. So Ismail dug up the spot in the garden to prove it to her. Later, Ismail filled up the hole with water and made it a swimming pool. In the next forty years, the pool was used by prime ministers from the United Kingdom and Canada whenever they visited Malaysia.

But Neno only used it once.

That meant that the pool was a place where Ismail could divulge secrets away from his wife. Three weeks before Ismail died, he told Robert Kuok: “I had three heart attacks in the last two weeks… quite serious ones. I have young children, and Neno is expecting. If anything happens to me…”

“No, no, no… Don’t talk like that,” said Kuok. “Let’s tackle the problem at hand first. Can you hand in your resignation [as deputy prime minister] tomorrow?”

“No, I can’t. I do want to resign, but [prime minister] Razak is leaving for the Commonwealth meeting in Ottawa soon, and I have promised him that I would act in his absence. I will resign when he comes back,” said Ismail. He then let out an ominous “Aaaaaaaahh.”

This was not the first time Ismail had to carry on his national duty while carrying fatal illnesses. A decade before, he had a bacterial infection in his heart; then, he had nose cancer which necessitated urgent treatment, and his heart condition ever since almost crippled him.

Before the 1969 election, he said: “Even if I stand for election and win, I shall not accept appointment as a Minister… I made a pledge to myself and to God that after I recovered from my illness I would not again become a Minister.”

Tun Dr Ismail: The Rock of Gibraltar

But his steady hands were called to return in Malaysia’s worst ever racial riot. At a time of intense interracial distrust, irreversible bloodshed, and grave uncertainty, the Malaysian people needed to hear from someone firm, rational, and deeply respected.

Tengku Razaleigh remembers Ismail as a “pillar of strength”, the Rock of Gibraltar, during the crisis. “Ismail was a principled man – and was seen that way by different races… Once he decided on something, you could be sure that he had gone through the relevant details and studied them.”

When the government declared the formation of the National Operations Council, or Mageran in Malay, in 1969, you know the motivations of people like Ismail was right. When you hear that he said “democracy is dead” and he saw it as his duty to bring it back – you could trust him.

Ismail took decisive actions against people who caused instability and violence irrespective of race, and he sent out stern warnings to people within his party trying to topple the leadership. He was the only person in UMNO where everyone feared, including Harun Idris and Mahathir Mohamad.

True enough, Ismail spent the Mageran days returning Malaysia to a sustainable democracy. When Tun Razak toyed with the idea of a “benevolent dictatorship”, he was quickly discouraged by Ismail who was incessant in pushing Malaysia to restore parliament as soon as possible.

Although Razak was the director of operations and Ismail the minister of home affairs, Razak constantly deferred to Ismail in making the right decisions. In meetings, Razak would chair but wait for Ismail’s cue when decisions were hard.

Why do the details of Ismail matter?

Any discussion of a Mageran – primarily involving the suspension of all democratic functions and shrinking the decision-making team to only a handful – requires a strict examination of the people who will lead it. And the most important considerations in our assessment are the motivations and personality of these people.

A Mageran established in the name of saving the country would easily transform into a dictatorship if it was led by people who simply want to seize power for themselves without any intention of restoring democracy.

What’s in the Mageran 2021 proposal?

Mahathir took it upon himself to suggest to the King that Malaysia requires something as drastic as a Mageran to combat the virus. When probed further, he said that he offered himself to lead the Mageran. Always planning ahead, he has even prepared a list of nominees for the Mageran team.

We could assess his motivations by looking at his proposal.

First, there is a trust deficit in the proposer, sinceMahathir’s desire for great power is well-documented. No one has surpassed his record of being premier twice and going for a third. But that may be too easy and overly presumptuous.

Maybe we could look at the second. Mahathir’s Mageran manifesto is designed to be as broad as possible, to “work towards herd immunity against Covid-19, solve problems regarding education and fix the economy.” This sounds similar to his excuses “putting the economy back in order”, “reduce national debt”, and “fix the country’s problems” to delay the handover when he was PH’s prime minister. A broad manifesto is motivated by limitless authority.

Third, the magnitude of power is equally broad. He stated that although Parliament can ask questions about the Mageran, it does not have the powers to dismantle it. In other words, the Mageran is immune to any challenge and would persist as long as it insists.

Fourth, the timeline for Mahathir’s Mageran is equally broad and unspecific. When asked about when this Mageran would end for democracy to resume, Mahathir said that it would end only after herd immunity is achieved or after the next general election is held. What that implies is that nothing could compel a return of democracy until Mahathir feels that he is safe politically.

Therein lies the greatest risk of any drastic proposal in a time of crisis. Politicians would not hesitate to use our agony and insecurity to their political benefit. A national Emergency that suspended Parliament was already considered an overkill, what more a total suspension of democracy via a Mageran. Once given, democracy cannot be returned.

Mageran of 2021 is not like 1969.

The irony is that Ismail was instrumental in getting Mahathir expelled from UMNO when they were young. Ismail guarded the doors twice to make sure Mahathir was not re-admitted. He once said to the Singaporean diplomat, Maurice Baker, that it was “impossible to forgive Mahathir” for what he has done in his early UMNO years.

Did Ismail see it coming all along?


Image: Malaysiakini

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