COMMENT: Mahathir the wily player and his Singapore playthings

Mahathir Mohamad smiles during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on 10 May. (PHOTO: Associated Press)
Mahathir Mohamad smiles during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on 10 May. (PHOTO: Associated Press)

At 93, one might think that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would be into his second childhood by now. But his mind remains as sharp as ever, and he seems to be having fun as he takes a jibe here and lands a punch there at his favourite plaything since his first spell as PM: Singapore.

Before, he was a one-man attack force; but now he has four playthings to do the job for him. Four Singaporeans – historian Thum Ping Tjin, freelance writer Kirsten Han, graphic novelist Sonny Liew and champion of foreign workers’ rights Jolovan Wham – are finding themselves in a swirling controversy over their highly-publicised meeting with Mahathir in Putrajaya on Thursday (30 August), where Singapore political exile Tan Wah Piow invited the so-called “beacon of democracy” to open a conference on promoting democracy in Southeast Asia.

What might have been a straightforward meeting became a political whirlpool with Marine Parade Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam jumping in to put the four in the dock.

Liew began to clarify his position with Facebook posts on that 80-minute meeting, saying he and the others were much “too wide-eyed and naive”. Thum stuck to his guns with a post to say that he was no traitor. Even before the controversy blew up, Han had said there was no whole-hearted endorsement of Mahathir, and Wham distanced himself by saying Mahathir still holds “very conservative and offensive” views.

Mahathir achieved all this without uttering a word in public about the meeting. The quartet of Singaporeans gave him that oxygen of publicity.

We all know that Mahathir has a problem treating Singapore as an equal. Since his coalition’s impressive victory in the Malaysian general election three months ago, he has poured cold water on the proposed high-speed railway project between Kuala Lumpur and Jurong East, revisited his water price hobby horse, jibed about the high salaries of Singapore’s ministers and snidely remarked that Singaporeans are tired of their government. The tone is somewhat mellower now compared with the acerbic words he used to attack Singapore when he was Prime Minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. But his mindset remains the same.

Tread lightly

Law Minister K Shanmugam (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)
Law Minister K Shanmugam (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

As Mahathir is smiling away like a Cheshire cat in KL, the whole episode throws up a few pointers for the Singapore government and those who want to cross swords with the government.

First, don’t take your fight to other countries or to people outside Singapore. The public, with a government ever ready to beat the drum, just won’t accept it. That is the reality in a country where many have a stake in supporting the government. People here remain fearful of what will happen to them if they side with politicians that the government detests.

Remember what happened to opposition politician Chee Soon Juan when he went to Washington to raise questions at a presentation by then PM Goh Chok Tong at the Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington in 2004? He was roundly criticised for his confrontation-style politics and has paid a heavy price at the ballot box.

Two, as Mahathir returns to haunt and taunt Singapore, there is no leader here who is prepared to stand up and give it back in equal measure. The closest a minister has come to doing so was when Shanmugam commented on that meeting, “And you know, we are not saying anything about Dr Mahathir but I think one needs to be careful with these things. And now to try and explain away what is so obvious, that doesn’t do them (the Group of Four) much credit either.”

It is a heavily-nuanced quote but in short, it is telling Singaporeans to understand where Mahathir is coming from. Just on Sunday, an announcement came from Malaysian Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin that the two countries have agreed to postpone the rail project with Malaysia not having to pay compensation. Singapore’s Transport Ministry was surprised and forced to say that the talks are on-going.

It looks like there will be no immediate end to these kind of surprises as Mahathir, and his ministers, do things their own way. A strong leadership on the south side of the Causeway needs to tell the Malaysian ministers that neighbours don’t conduct relations this way.

Three, the time has come for Singapore to stand up to Mahathir and tell him: We are not your playthings. We are your neighbour, so treat us like one. But who will bell this playful cat?

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

Related stories:

COMMENT: Is Mahathir a changed man?

COMMENT: The furore over ministerial pay is gaining currency again

COMMENT: SingHealth cyberattack throws up leadership issue