On Thursday, Aug. 30, five Singaporeans and one Malaysian met Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for an hour and 20 minutes.
This group included:
- Political exile Tan Wah-Piow
- Historian Pingtjin Thum, also known as PJ Thum
- Civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham
- Civil rights activist and journalist Kirsten Han
- Comic artist and writer of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye Sonny Liew
The issues Wham and Han raised with Mahathir included, "LGBT rights, ethnic relations, freedom of expression, and diplomatic relations with Singapore", according to Wham's Facebook post.
Han also elaborated in her blog post, "80 Minutes with Dr M", about how "the conversation meandered from Malaysia-Singapore relations and immigration processing times at the Causeway to democracy, political reform, human rights and LGBT equality".
Needless to say, both activists found Mahathir opposed to many of their causes.
Wham noted that "[some] of his views... are still very conservative and offensive".
Here's what Mahathir said, according to some of the issues the activists mentioned in detail, in their posts:
If you have been following the chatter around Crazy Rich Asians, you might have come across some of the pieces Han wrote (Medium, Vox, and Foreign Policy) that criticised the film's failure to incorporate Singapore's minorities.
On Mahathir's comments about race, Han admitted that she found herself:
"... taken aback to hear the race essentialism in person: comments about how the Chinese work hard while the Malays have 'the wrong values' and 'are inclined to be laid back so they don’t succeed'. No amount of questioning—pointing to political culture and corruption, or to the legacy of colonialism—would sway him from a long-held thesis."
Wham stated he was also surprised by Mahathir's view that "Malays are unproductive, 'corrupt' and 'dishonest'" and that it was "said it with such conviction".
He reacted by attempting a rebuttal to Mahathir by stating:
"Naturally, I disagreed with him on these points and we had a debate about it. I told him the economic displacement of the Malays needs to take into consideration the legacy of colonialism where those who didn't contribute to the colonial enterprise were branded as lazy. I also said 'laziness' and the perceived lack of productivity is a result of us judging Malays through the unforgiving and de-humanising work ethic of capitalism, and that shouldn't be the only way to view the world and order our relationships."
However, Wham did not find himself surprised by Mahathir's statement that:
"... he [Mahathir] found it hard to get along with Singaporean Chinese during his time as a student here because we [Singaporean Chinese] don't understand Malay culture and norms as much as the Malaysian Chinese."
Wham added: "This doesn't surprise me at all because our majority status and privilege makes us less sensitive to the cultures of minority races."
On LGBT rights
According to Han's blog post, Mahathir said:
"'Muslims would be offended if we accept these [LGBT] values” as the talk of LGBT rights pushes against the beliefs of the majority.
'A man kissing a man looks so odd!', he exclaimed at one point."
And in Wham's Facebook post, he elaborated:
"He [Mahathir] also said LGBT persons should not marry because it is against the order of nature, and sex is for reproduction only. This is a typical argument and not unexpected."
In response, Wham made another attempt at rebutting Mahathir by stating:
"I also raised the point that Muslim women have made progress in ways which were not considered acceptable in the past and this should be applied to LGBT persons too. Nature should not be the arbiter of morality."
But these disagreements did not stop them from being impressed by Mahathir.
Meeting organised by a man that Mahathir once jailed
Ironically, the man who organised this meeting is the group's sole Malaysian -- social activist Hishamuddin Rais.
Previously, Hishamuddin had been jailed by Mahathir in 2001 under the Internal Security Act.
He had been part of a committee that had planned to organise protests in support of Anwar Ibrahim who had been jailed by Mahathir in 1998, also under the Internal Security Act.
This moment was acknowledged by both Mahathir and Hishamuddin during the meeting.
Wham's post mentioned that Hishamuddin:
"... [Hishamuddin] piped up "Ya, he threw me in jail for 2 years!" I later learned he was falsely accused of possessing a bazooka and for terrorism during the reformasi era."
Han's post revealed that Mahathir joked: "He [Hishamuddin] was my former enemy."
This meeting was not entirely comfortable for the Singaporean activists.
For Wham, it was a moment of cognitive dissonance:
"He [Mahathir} had a friendly, grandfatherly demeanour with a soft and delicate handshake. This of course, belied his ruthless authoritarian past. In fact at one point, he said, without irony and without batting an eyelid something to the effect of 'I don't think I was that repressive last time,' and now he could sit down with his past enemies; he said this in response to a question I asked about political freedom in Malaysia."
For Han, it was "another example of the mind-bending twists in Malaysian politics" and emblematic of what she felt were deeper changes in Malaysia:
"'I as PM have become a victim of my own policy,' Mahathir joked, referring to the manifesto promises Pakatan Harapan had made about reform and democratisation before their unexpected victory.
Herein lies the power and potential of this new Malaysia; the shift that gives me, a journalist and activist working in the country next door, some hope and inspiration. Regardless of one man’s opinions, the people of Malaysia have moved the needle."
Top image from Kirsten Han Facebook