In 2020, “New Malaysia” will celebrate its second anniversary, and the victory of the movement of Reform over 61 years of one-party rule. Once seen as an authoritarian who helmed the country for 22 years, Mahathir has reinvented himself as a democratic icon; He led the Pakatan Harapan coalition to victory in 2018 with the blessing of former enemy Anwar Ibrahim. For most observers, and in his own circle, Mahathir persona remains a mystery: the opacity of his State appointments, the severity of his tone towards the “lazy” Malay majority, his relationship to Anwar, to the Islamist movement and to his former party, and his propensity to stir controversies bring even more complexity to the image of the 94 years old leader.
This roundtable, chaired by Joseph Liow, invites Malaysia specialists with deep field expertise and members of the audience to discuss the re-invention of Mahathir. This interactive and multidisciplinary session explores the uniqueness of the leader through and beyond his politics. How has Mahathir shaped the Malaysian political imaginary for decades? How has Mahathir’s image been designed to fit the narrative of a “New Malaysia” adopting the semantic of democratization -a concept he had widely criticized in the past-? Where lies the resistance(s) to the “New Mahathir” and what does this reveal of the wider perception of his legacy? In 2019, Lemière spent 6 months in the first circles of Mahathir until his election. She uses her experience to explore the making of a new image and the contradictions of a charismatic leader. Yong raises the complexities of the Malay allegiance to Mahathir in the climate of communal insecurity brought about by renewed scrutiny over affirmative action. Maznah questions the level of influence and control the PM ever had over an Islam which became increasingly bureaucratised, ubiquitous, and larger than its Mahathirian conception, and how his second coming could have impacted this trajectory. Somiah discusses how Mahathir and his presence remain a political spectre in Sabah amidst a backdrop of the pursuit of more state autonomy, and the resistance to the implementation of his party in the region.