Yu Ji

TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad is a politician unlike any other. Try to name another person who has been influencing an entire nation’s politics since the 1960s and you probably can’t.

They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, if that is so, then Dr Mahathir has been powerful for a stupendous long time.

The doctor-turned-politician retired as prime minister 12 years ago, yet his power to shape public opinion is stronger than his successors.

The 90-year-old still has a sharper mind than most youths in schools today. In recent months, he has issued more statements and given more interviews than Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Dr Mahathir is showing no signs of slowing down. The old man is still a strongman.

But what the country really needs is a stronger system, not another strongman. The rise of a new strongman, without a stronger system, would only lead us back to where we are now – again and again.

We are in this predicament partly because of him. The very leaders he criticises are his handpicked successors. It would be wishful thinking and a shortsighted fallacy for us to assume we need another strongman to cure our ills.

Issues like entrenched corruption will take generations to address. No single strongman would be able to tackle corruption without a stronger system in place.

The road to good governance will be slow, painful and definitely controversial. The best thing our next leader can do is to put in place a stronger system, and then to trust the system to right the course of the nation over time.

South-East Asia has had its fair share of strongmen but most of them have been confined to the history books. Other than Dr Mahathir, the only other long-serving, still influential politician I can think of is Cambodia’s Hun Sen. Aung San Suu Kyi was still receiving her Oxford education in 1969, the same year Dr Mahathir wrote an open letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman asking him to resign.

Malaysians’ dilemma is that our leaders continue to tell us strongman politics is important. All those “I Love PM” banners empower the person and the office rather than the government.

Dr Mahathir is frustrated that the person he criticises is still in power precisely because of the strongman politics he helped put in place.

Looking forward, we should consider the recent history of our neighbouring countries.

Upheavals against strongman rule in Indonesia in the 1990s have given way to elections and several changes of government. Indonesia – which is the largest nation in South-East Asia, and also the world’s most populous Muslim nation – has not crumbled with fairer elections, a more liberal media and changing governments.

That country’s progress from darker times (far more turbulent and violent than Malaysia’s) is proof that a strong system matters much more than any strongman.

In fact, a good system would discourage the establishment of future strongman. Institutions would tower over any individual’s influence. A strong system would weakened leaders from their positions of power to abuse.

Today, our leaders holding high office suffer low popularity because the public lacks confidence in the system. The system is suffering from legitimacy issues and that is affecting winners and losers.

What’s perhaps also true – ironically – is that Dr Mahathir remains such a strongman because of how weak our system has been in finding a new leader.

Article was first published on The Star