KUALA LUMPUR, June 13 — Mention dangerous ideas and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and you are likely to think of Ops Lalang when the former prime minister’s administration put 100 activists and opposition politicians behind bars in 1987 for their ideas.
Fast forward 28 years, however, and Dr Mahathir is now scheduled to speak at today’s Cooler Lumpur Festival, themed “Dangerous Ideas” this year, a literary event featuring writers, film-makers, journalists, and more importantly, activists whose ideas might not have seen the light of day during his time in power.
It is ironic to think that the former prime minister will be talking freely about his thoughts and ideas at Cooler Lumpur together with “anti-establishment” figures, but not at his own party headquarters at the recent Nothing2Hide forum.
Cooler Lumpur organiser Umapagan Ampikaipakan said the festival is a platform for ideas of all sorts and from all people.
“Right now, he seems to be spouting some of the most dangerous ideas. So, why not?” he told Malay Mail Online.
Dr Mahathir’s constant questions about the debt-laden 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) proved too much when the police stopped the former Umno president, who once brought the judiciary to its knees, from speaking at the ruling Malay party’s headquarters at PWTC here last Friday.
“When I saw that video, I was shocked,” Umapagan said.
“It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Even people who didn’t like him were like… ‘Ooh, that was weird’. I would never have seen it coming,” Umapagan added.
Writer Sharon Bakar pointed out that Dr Mahathir dabbled with “dangerous ideas” himself with The Malay Dilemma, a controversial book that was banned for 11 years after he wrote it in 1970 during his absence from politics after being expelled from Umno for criticising then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership in relation to the May 13, 1969 race riots.
“The Malay Dilemma was a ground-breaking book and, I think, still influences thought,” she said.
In The Malay Dilemma, Dr Mahathir proposed affirmative action for the Malays to counter purported Chinese economic dominance; US newspaper The New York Times reported him as writing that the Malays are “spiritually inclined, tolerant and easy-going”, while the non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are “materialistic, aggressive and have an appetite for work.”
The book later reportedly became the basis of the pro-Bumiputera New Economic Policy (NEP) that has yet to be dismantled entirely.
Today, the country’s longest-serving prime minister has come full circle – first relegated temporarily to political oblivion after criticising Tunku, then complaining of not having the platform to speak during the time of his successor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (whom he also pilloried), and now, physically prevented from talking about Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration.
“When Pak Lah was in power, he (Dr Mahathir) accused the media of not covering him. He says he’s been shut up by the media and stuff, so it makes sense he’d look for alternative places to speak out,” said digital culture commentator Niki Cheong.
Cheong expressed hope that Dr Mahathir will talk about the problems of repressing freedom of speech, which the former prime minister himself did during his time in office.
“He’s facing repercussions now of those. What he’s done in the past, we can’t change it. But hopefully, we can fix the future,” he said.
“When you stifle freedom, it comes at a cost. Now you’re feeling it, maybe you should start telling people, ‘This is not right’. He has the right to say whatever he wants to say, just like everybody else has the right to say whatever they want to say,” the writer adds.
Luckily for Dr Mahathir, there will (hopefully) be no awkward-looking police at the Cooler Lumpur Festival telling him to shut up. Instead, he will be sitting together with activists and journalists who used to be on the other side of the fence.
“Cooler Lumpur should be a safe place,” says Umapagan. “You can say stuff and no one’s going to call you names, no one’s going to take offence; it’s a real healthy place for discourse”.