By Kee Thuan Chye
When Nelson Mandela died last Thursday, some Malaysian political leaders paid him tribute and expressed their admiration for what he stood for.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who recently bought back preventive detention, tweeted, “Mandela lives on in the spirit of every human that believes in democracy and freedom.”
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, the champion of Perkasa, Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) and the New Economic Policy (NEP), called Mandela a great leader dedicated to the cause of social justice.
Kedah Mentri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir, who in September said he would not entertain any requests for allocations from Chinese schools in Kedah, called Mandela “a true international patriot” for having suffered for the freedom movement against Apartheid.
Wanita Umno chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who last year raised the threat of another May 13, extolled his message of unity and called him a “role model for all of the world”.
Weighed against what these people have said, done and been perceived to believe, the tributes sounded hollow. Even hypocritical. It makes one wonder if they truly understand the meaning of Mandela’s legacy.
For them to do so, they need to be more aware of what he stood and fought for throughout his life. And when they have become aware, it will not be enough until they apply what they have learned to governing Malaysia.
First, they need to learn that Mandela served – in the best sense of the word – his country. To do good for it. Without seeking as reward financial gains or power for its own sake.
He fought for his people’s freedom, fought against Apartheid, paid the price of being imprisoned for 27 long years, and became South Africa’s first black president in democratic elections. Did he amass great wealth along the way? Did he use the system to enrich himself and his family? Did he think of winning for himself and his party so that they could remain in power?
What he said at a lecture in Singapore in 1997 is instructive: “When we came out and set up negotiations, we discussed our approach very, very carefully, as the leadership of the African National Congress. And we adopted certain principles. Firstly, that in these negotiations, neither the congress, which is now in power, nor the enemy – the policy of Apartheid – none should win. But South Africa as a whole should win.”
He thought of his country first. He thought of his country winning. Our leaders, however, seem to think of themselves winning, and their party winning. When our government does something, it seems to consider first whether this will benefit the ruling party rather than if it will benefit the rakyat. Consider, for example, the doling-out of BR1M. Even now, the ruling party’s leaders are looking ahead to winning the next general election.
It was also quite revealing that at the Umno general assembly last week, a delegate said that if every 8th century Hindu temple ruin in Kedah were to be gazetted, his party would lose constituencies because the ruins were located all over. Rather than be concerned with preserving ancient treasures, he showed that his priority was winning electoral seats.
Second, Mandela kept to his principles of fighting against racial discrimination. And he promoted reconciliation – to bring the races in South Africa together, instead of sowing hatred and bitterness between them. He let the whites continue to control the economy and big business. In so doing, he has been criticised for not having done enough to improve the economic lot of his fellow black South Africans. But if he had instituted laws to favour the blacks, he would have practised Apartheid, and that would have been morally wrong. It takes someone who has felt the evil of racial discrimination to avoid resorting to it.
He let the whites run businesses because they were adept and experienced at doing it. If he had decreed that this be taken over by the blacks, who were inexperienced, South Africa’s economy would have suffered. Instead, with things continuing as they were, the country has annually achieved robust growth rates of 6, 7 or 8 per cent.
In the same lecture he gave in Singapore, Mandela said, “It is because of the talented people, both within the ranks of the liberation movement as well as in the ranks of the oppressor, that we have been able to bring about this transformation. We sincerely but fully believe that there are good men and women in all communities in our country – amongst Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites – and that the duty of the leadership is to create an environment in which those good men and women can exercise their talents. It is the combination of these factors that has made us progress in South Africa.”
Compare this with Malaysia, which has driven away at least 2 million of its talents and is now experiencing financial difficulties – because of the NEP, Ketuanan Melayu and Bumiputra economic empowerment. In short, Apartheid, Malaysian-style.
Sadly, however, Mandela’s experience is lost on Umno, the biggest ruling party in the country. At its general assembly, its high priest, Najib, actually told the congregation that Umno fought the “same cause” as Mandela did. Oh, how could he have said that and not looked like a fool? And how could he have discredited Mandela by comparing the great man’s cause to Umno’s?
Umno has been practising divide-and-rule for the longest time. The very opposite of reconciliation. Mahathir is still saying things to divide the races. He calls Mandela “my dear friend”, the leader he most admires, but he has not learned the crucial things from him: racial equality and reconciliation.
Neither has he learned from Mandela not to crave power. The latter served as president for only one term, from 1994 to 1999, and then gracefully stepped down
Perhaps we the rakyat should learn from this and agitate our leaders to conceive of a new system that allows our prime minister to serve a limited number of terms.
Too long at the top can corrupt a person and teach them ways to amass absolute power. And since, as people say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, we should prevent it from happening. We have already seen the damaging consequences of having a prime minister rule for 22 years; this should be reason and motivation enough to nip another Mahathir in the bud.
Finally, a sobering thought for all of us to ponder. Mandela was in prison for 27 years, but despite the length of his incarceration, he came out of it not as a bitter man seeking revenge and spewing hatred against his oppressors. He instead sought peace and reconciliation. And unification. It may well be that he found his epiphany while in prison. If that’s the case, perhaps our leaders need to serve time in prison too. So that they may realise a thing or two to help them govern later – with fairness, justice and wisdom.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.