In millennials’ hero worship of Dr M, analysts see longing for political, economic security

Mega projects including the Petronas Twin Towers initiated by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir, by which Malaysia is known for, continue to inspire its citizens. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Mega projects including the Petronas Twin Towers initiated by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir, by which Malaysia is known for, continue to inspire its citizens. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was not the most popular figure when he left office in 2003 but the veteran Umno politician appears to be enjoying a resurgence in public support currently, especially with his daring criticism of the Najib administration.

Political observers attribute this “hero” worship to the rose-tinted view today’s young generation have of the country’s longest-serving prime minister whom they see as being the main driver of Malaysia’s shift from an agrarian to an industrial and then knowledge-based economy, based on the mega glass-and-concrete structures he left behind.

“The public, particularly the youth never had a balanced appreciation of him,” said Ibrahim Suffian, executive director of independent research firm Merdeka Center.

“There hasn’t been any formal reckoning of his policies and its impact. Most of the criticism has come from the opposition and this is not reflected in official portrayal of Dr M.

“As a result, historical depiction of Dr M has always highlighted the positives and omitted the negatives,” he added.

Political analyst Dr Shamsul Adabi Mamat shared the same view. He said most of today’s youths were born and raised during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year administration and had witnessed the swift speed at which the landscape changed.

“Among the people, they see Dr M as their idol… because of old memories. During his time, there was political stability, a lot of development,” the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia professor told Malay Mail Online.

He pointed to the creation of Putrajaya as the federal administrative capital, the Kuala Lumpur Tower, the Sepang International Airport and the Petronas Twin Towers as some of the mega projects initiated by Dr Mahathir by which Malaysia is now known and which continue to inspire its citizens.

“When we talk about these things, they were all products of his times. These are all close to the people’s hearts,” said Shamsul Adabi.

Dr Mahathir’s popularity skyrocketed this year due to his attacks against Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on the latter’s handling of the debt-laden strategic fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

Shamsul Adabi also credited Dr Mahathir’s rebound to the failure of Najib’s Cabinet to rally around the besieged prime minister and their poor handling of hot button issues.

“The Cabinet around Najib failed to give answers, and when they did, they gave answers which sparked the public’s ire… The advantage is there with Dr M’s nostalgia,” said the political science lecturer.

Dr Faisal Hazis, a professor from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said the enlarged tide of public opinion in Dr Mahathir’s favour was from two separate streams, with opposition supporters taking his side believing he can further weaken Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition.

“The vast support that Dr M is getting now comes from BN supporters who have had enough of Najib and his government,” said Faizal.

He added that the 89-year-old has enough presence in Umno and in the public sphere to influence BN supporters.

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