February 22, 2011
Kees Review of Tom Plates Dr M: Operation Malaysia
BOOK REVIEW: Gush and glibness spread through Tom Plates Doctor M: Operation Malaysia Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad like irksome background noise. And rather than show us the former prime minister of Malaysia for what he is, Plate tells us how to picture him.
One of the most fawning comments Plate (above) makes about Mahathir, whom he generously plugs as a soft authoritarian, is that the best doctors are almost always soft authoritarians. They make you take the medicine thats good for you, whether you like it or not.
Thats hard to swallow, and not just because its a gross generalisation. The American career journalists book of his interviews with Mahathir is essentially gung-ho journalism as entertainment with the non-self-effacing interviewer appearing as a commentator as well (sometimes as a stand-up comic, too), and the subject airbrushed to look like a hero.
To be sure, we get glimpses into the subjects dark side, but only enough to give the required colouring. Plate hails Mahathir during his 22 years in office as arguably the worlds single most important practising Muslim national political leader. In typical hyperbolic fashion, he dubs Mahathir the ultimate anti-al-Qaeda (my italics).
Jews may think ! he is th eir enemy, and maybe they are right. But in my view they have got it wrong tragically wrong.
Thats the main thesis of his book, and he goes all out to affirm it. He is amazed and impressed that during Mahathirs rule, Islamic terrorism erupted in many parts of the world whereas Malaysia was totally free of violence. That, for him, accounts for Mahathirs prowess as an Islamic leader to be lauded by the world.
Any sensible Malaysian could have told him that this was simply because Mahathir created a culture of fear. He had the ISA and an excellent Special Branch that could nip any trouble in the bud. He did not tolerate public dissent and he muzzled the media.
Plate takes the line that maybe this place doesnt have as many crazies as Indonesia, but it must have some and asks Mahathir: What was it about Dr Ms management of Malaysia, his governments management of the Muslims? They were responsible citizens.
Again, any sensible Malaysian could have told him it was because Mahathir gave paramountcy to Islam and Muslims. So why should Malaysian Muslims be disgruntled? And as for Islamic terrorists from outside, why would they target Malaysia, a brother Muslim country?
Protective of thesis
Plate is barking up the wrong tree. His thesis is flawed. But he appears ever protective of it. There is even one occasion, as recounted in the book, when Plate seems more protective of his thesis than having the opportunity of portraying what Mahathir really is. This is over Mahathirs assertion that there were hardly any Jews in the World Trade Centre when 9/11 happened.
To himself, Plate admits that this seemed a borderline scary assertion, fa! ctually inaccurate (in fact, there were hundreds of Jews among the fatalities). But he doesnt correct Mahathir.Instead, he feels worried that Mahathir might say more, that he might endorse the ludicrous hypothesis that the government of Israel had secretly orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. And when Mahathir doesnt say more, Plate actually sighs with enormous relief.
It became one of those rare times in our conversations that I was truly glad to see him pull up, for to doubt his maturity (not to mention his mental health) would not be healthy for the book. Or for my thesis that Mahathirs life and views are of profound relevance today.
Plate notes that a few months later, after we finished our series of conversations, Mahathir came out with a lulu when he said if the US was capable of making the movie Avatar, it was capable of staging 9/11. That, as Malaysians know, was one of the most laughable statements ever made by anyone, but Plate merely leaves it as a by-the-by. Obviously, pursuing it would have compromised his thesis.
Plate is generally gentle with Mahathir. He is seldom confrontational; he asks politely framed questions, and when an issue looks in danger of getting heated, he eases off. Thus, when it comes to the issue of some of Dr Ms relatives (being) worth plenty, and that the good doctor himself has funds and shares stashed here and there (and especially in Japan) and everywhere, he doesnt push it. He chooses instead to project Mahathir as the humble wage-earner who as PM made less than US$3,000 a month, like a meagre US journalists pension.
Mahathir comes out looking like a saint who says hes not greedy and that his real reward is achievement. When it ! comes to Malaysian issues, Plate often does not ask the right questions or press on with relevant follow-up ones.
Heres one question he could have asked Mahathir but did not when the latter said he was against detaining the 106 people during Operasi Lalang: Why then did you, as Home Minister, sign the order to detain 40 of them for two years?
When Plate asks, Does the government of Malaysia have good control over ISA? and Mahathir answers, Yes, he could have followed that up with: Then why did the government detain an innocent journalist under the ISA in 2008 and even say, stupidly, that it was for her own protection?
Alarmingly, Plate goes to the extent of justifying Mahathirs management style as politically efficient corruption. One would have thought corruption was corruption, but Plate prettifies it here: Dr M kind of bribed the whole country to behave! (it) produces something of value that cannot always be quantifiable: getting key elements of a society to buy into the system so as to attain political stability it may be the most politically efficient.
This would normally belong in the realm of spin-doctoring, but in journalism these days, you never know! In any case, Plates book is not hard-talk, hard-core journalism stuff. Its written for a popular audience, and comes complete with hyperboles, corny bits (If nothing else, the Proton was further evidence of Dr Ms protean will) and nave remarks by the author.
His chapter titles, modelled after the James Bond movies for the l! aughable reason that Mahathir is a man of action, are not only corny but also strained. A bad-taste example is Die Another Way?, the chapter on the 9/11 deaths.
On the whole, Dr M: Operation Malaysia seems closer to cosmetic surgery than dissection. For a more substantial interview, without the pop and the corn and the showman-like sheen, youd be better off reading Hard Truths.
KEE THUAN CHYE is the author of March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up, which won 3rd prize in the Popular Readers Choice Awards. It has also been translated into Chinese.