Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Passing of An Era

It would not be an exaggeration if I say that we will mark an end of an era in Malaysia’s history tomorrow. After 22 years of having the responsibility of the stewardship of our country, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir bin Muhammad will officially step down as Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister and hand over the responsibility to his chosen successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah bin Badawi. For many of the people of my age, Dr. M has been the only Prime Minister that we know and remember as we were too young to remember or understand how the country worked under the guidance of the late Tun Hussein Onn. Like people of my generation, we learn about the country and system of government in Civics class at school and it was during those classes that I became aware about the greater scope of our nation and what government was. It wasn’t really that much of a political revelation for me since I was only 8 years old at the time but when I first watch Dr. M took the oath to be come the next Prime Minister back in 1981, I remember understanding that we were then under the guidance of a new leader for our country.

Growing up with Malaysia under Dr. M’s leadership, I remember a few of the early policies that he implemented. One of the earliest that I remember was the implementation of the punch clock at all government offices and agencies to ensure that civil servants came to work on time. I remember this distinctly because they had a special assembly at my primary school when they first started the punch clock for our teachers. We also started a class room “punch clock” where each student had an attendance “punch card” that we would get the teacher who monitored the school gate to sign when we come to school. I remember feeling so proud and adult-like for having my own punch card although I did lose it a few times during the school year.

Another of Dr. M’s early policies that I remember vividly was the “Look East” Policy that encouraged us to emulate the successes of the people of Japan in terms of making their country an economic powerhouse in the 80’s. I remembered being drilled with the Japanese work ethics and how we were not suppose to only be dependent on the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Looking back, I have to say that this policy helped Malaysians to change our post-colonial mindset that everything Western was a commandment. By showing us what Asian are capable of in the case of Japan’s success, Dr. M paved the way for Malaysians to realize that we were as good as they were and that we, as a nation, could easily have the same successes if put our minds to it. I personally feel that the “Look East” policy was the my earliest inspirations to try to work harder to get better after realizing that if the Japanese can do it, we can do it too.

In the 22 years that he was in office, we have seen Malaysia transformed from a sleepy agricultural backwater to become one of Asia’s economic tigers. We were posting impressive economic growths year after year until the last Asian Monetary Crisis which was relatively painless compared to other countries in the region thanks to the Dr. M’s unorthodox financial remedies. It was during this time that we see the country producing the first national car that actually can run on the road much to the dismay of the opposition party members at the time who told us that it was just Dr. M’s pipe dream and that Malaysians could not even make a simple needle much less a whole car. It is ironic that some of the same people who try to belittle Dr. M’s vision of having our own car industry back then now drive the cars produced by the company that they said would never be.

One thing that observers would almost immediately notice in Dr. M’s administration is the drive to be record breakers. In the 22 years that he was in office, he implemented plans to build structures that held the world record for a time. Under Dr. M, Malaysia once held the world record for longest bridge, the highest free standing flag pole and the tallest twin towers at one time or another. I remembered hearing people gossip back then that these record breaking attempts were Dr. M’s way of dealing with his so-called inferiority complex of not being related to royalty as he previous predecessors were. In hindsight, if there was an inferiority complex in play back then, it was our own collective feelings of inferiority that Dr. M was trying to overcome. By showing solid and undeniable proof that we as a people can break records, Dr. M was trying to tell us that we only fail when we refused to even try.

It has not always been smooth sailing during the 22 years Dr. M was in office. I remembered several incidents that left a blemish on the image of his administration. Among those that I remember most are the “Memali” incident, the resignation of his first Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Musa Hitam, the deregistration of UMNO and of course the most infamous incident of the sacking of his third Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Sri Anwar Ibrahim. Whatever the obstacles that he had to face, he always came out wiser and stronger from these challenges. Of course that there are people who until today still harp on these issue but I for one realize that he did what he had to do for the best of the majority of people in Malaysia. His decisions may not be popular to some but all that he did, in hindsight, clearly has our best interest in mind.

I am proud to have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to say his mind about subjects that are taboo for most people. We have seen him talk and take action against the royal families of Malaysia at a time it was felt that the royals were above the law and brought them down to face the same level of justice that we common folk have to face. He has spoken against the Jews of Israel time and time again in our support of the Palestinian people irregardless of the condemnation and threats that he received from the West. He has tirelessly championed for the cause of the developing countries and against the evils of unchecked process of globalizations. He has spoken against other powerful leaders again and again that other people would not dream of because he believes that he had a right to say his piece that was backed by facts and evidence. Thanks to him a whole new generation of people not only in Malaysia but also in other developing countries now feel that they have a voice that can be heard if they are not afraid to just speak up.

I have only met Dr. M in person once in my life but he left such a lasting impression on me that I could never forget the experience. It happened when I and a few other student leaders were invited to attend a dinner function hosted by the government for student leaders studying in the US. I remembered that we had to line up outside the ballroom and shake his hand when he came by. I remembered being so nervous about this that I was sweating so profusely that by the time that he was standing in front of he, I thought that I would faint straight away. Thankfully I didn’t but I came really close especially when he asked if the name on the name tag that I had on was really my real name. I could hardly believe that he was actually talking to me that I could barely croak out an answer. Just when I thought that things could not be any better, Dr. M actually referred to me by my name in one of his answers during the Q&A session after the dinner. I forgot what the answer was for but somehow my name got dragged into it which of course caused people to turn around trying to find out who this person was. The people who were sitting at my table of course knew my name by then and got a chance to see me do my best impression of a tomato. I didn’t know whether I should be embarrassed or proud that he mentioned my name.

If there is one thing that I would say is Dr. M’s greatest legacy from the 22 years that he was in power, it has been his success in making the whole population in Malaysia realize that we can accomplish anything if we just put our minds to it. His are the ideas and vision that gives new meaning to the often shouted slogan of “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia Can). Malaysia can because we have the strong foundation that has been laid down by the forward thinking of this great leader. His successor beginning tomorrow will have an easier time to further bring us forward to our goal of being a developed country by the year 2020 as he will be leading a nation who has been molded to realize that we can make a difference. Dr. M may have his faults but no one can deny the greatness that he as inspired us to strive to achieve. The torch that he passes to the hands of his successor tomorrow is brighter than the one that he accepted 22 years ago by virtue of his wisdom and his strength in leading our proud nation. It is now on our shoulders as a people to ensure that the torch continues to burn bright by working towards the goal of fulfilling Dr. M’s vision of developed Malaysia that can stand proud beside other great nations of the world.

To Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Muhammad, thank you for everything that you have done and given to us the people of Malaysia. We would only be able to repay your kindness and sacrifice by continuing your work in our own way in achieving your vision. May you continue to have a long a prosperous life and be able to enjoy your retirement.

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