SINGAPORE (Jan 28): It seems that most people simply saw what they wanted to see when Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad addressed the Oxford Union just over a week ago.

Many Malaysians saw a national leader who had saved their country being justly feted on the world stage. On the other hand, some newspaper editors in Israel saw a rabid anti-Semite being accorded a high-profile platform to spout hate speech. Meanwhile, lots of Singaporeans saw a long-time tormentor getting a comeuppance of sorts at the hands of an outspoken individual named Darrion Mohan.

Personally, I saw a tired old man having trouble hearing and comprehending the convoluted questions being lobbed at him, and failing to grasp abstractions and correctly cite facts, all while displaying no particular eloquence in expressing his views. Yet, I also saw an audience that seemed to have little appreciation for the political feat Mahathir had pulled off in Malaysia, and how his success might be a source of inspiration for deeply divided societies in the West struggling to forge a new democratic consensus.

The very same week that Mahathir made his appearance at the Oxford Union, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May had suffered a humiliating setback as Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the withdrawal deal she had negotiated with the European Union. Indeed, it seemed like the entire country was invested in her failure — everyone from hardline Brexiters, to supporters of a second referendum, to those hoping for a general election. May survived a no-confidence vote shortly after that, which was not so much a reflection of confidence in her as perhaps a lack of confidence by her Conservative Party colleagues of their ability to win a general election if one were called.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the US was caught up in a similarly bewildering political standoff that has resulted in the longest ever so-called government shutdown. President Donald Trump is demanding US$5.7 billion ($7.75 billion) for a wall on the border with Mexico. Congress has refused. Trump, in turn, has refused to sign any funding bill that does not include the allocation he wants for the border wall. As a result, one quarter of the US government has been closed, and some 800,000 government employees are not getting paid.

There is disaffection on the other side of the English Channel too. In France, the “yellow vest” protestors took to the streets last year over a planned hike in fuel taxes imposed in the name of protecting the environment. The government, led by President Emmanuel Macron, suspended the tax hike and then permanently scrapped it. But the yellow vests have continued protesting about the general cost of living as well as inequality.

Realigning Malaysian politics

On its website, the Oxford Union describes Mahathir simply as having “a wealth of experience in the political world”. It blandly notes that he was Malaysia’s prime minister longer than anyone else, having held the post from 1981 to 2003 before being re-elected in 2018. “Under him, Malaysia saw rapid modernisation and economic growth, but strained relations with the West,” the website adds.

That does not even begin to scratch the surface of why Mahathir ought to be interesting to the world today. Mahathir did not just win an election in 2018; he effectively realigned Malaysia’s political landscape. First of all, he made peace with his sworn enemies. In particular, he has pledged to eventually hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim, whom he once sacked as his deputy.

Yet, he chose not to join any of the established and ostensibly multiracial opposition parties when he re-entered the political fray, realising that many Malay voters would not support them. Instead, he formed his own Malay-based political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which now appears to be gutting United Malays National Organisation, once the linchpin of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Mahathir understood that winning is not just about changing the minds of voters but reaching a new common ground with everybody.

Mahathir also has not allowed himself to be constrained by conventional thinking on economics. In particular, he promised on the election campaign trail that he would abolish the Goods and Services Tax, and halt mega projects such as the high speed rail connecting Kuala Lumpur with Singapore. This stoked concerns in financial markets that Malaysia was risking slower growth and a bigger budget deficit, and perhaps a credit rating downgrade.

Things have not gone all that badly, though. For one thing, Malaysia’s budget for 2019 was less austere than many observers expected. In November, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng unveiled a budget allocation of RM314.55 billion ($103.2 billion), which was 8.3% larger than the revised estimate of RM290.35 billion for 2018. The government is projecting revenue of RM261.81 billion for 2019, up 10.7% from a revised estimate of RM236.46 billion for 2018. That translates into an expected budget deficit of 3.4% of GDP for 2019, lower than the 3.7% chalked up for 2018.

While the projected government revenue for 2019 includes a special dividend of RM30 billion from Petroliam Nasional, the budget allocation for the year includes a return of RM37 billion in outstanding tax refunds — RM19 billion of which relates to GST.

New economic thinking needed

One could argue that a realignment of politics is now necessary in many other countries besides Malaysia. And, with that realignment, we should expect some fundamental shift in economic thinking.

Since the 1980s, the world has embraced liberal market-oriented economic policies. Industries were deregulated, free trade was promoted and taxes were cut. This spurred economic activity and created wealth, but the gains were not distributed evenly. However, inequality in the context of this “neo-liberal” thinking is cast as evidence that the market was working, rather than a problem that ought to be corrected. People who got rich were led to believe they acquired their wealth through merit, while people who were left behind had nobody to blame but themselves.

A few decades on, societies are deeply divided, and faith in institutions has been eroded. The middle class no longer believes that the system works for them. Some observers have identified this dissonance as one reason for Trump’s surprise election victory, and the shock Brexit vote in 2016.

What’s the way forward? Taking a leaf from Mahathir’s book, perhaps it is time for opponents of Trump to stop accusing his supporters of having been duped by Vladimir Putin, and for hardline Brexiters to stop being labelled xenophobic and out of touch. It might help if everyone also tempered their faith in markets as efficient allocation mechanisms, and looked towards higher taxes on the wealthy with less suspicion.

Back at the Oxford Union event, while Mahathir spoke at length about the progress of democracy in Malaysia, he failed to seize on a number of opportunities to really extol his success in unifying the opposition, shifting the loyalty of Malay voters and overseeing a peaceful transition in power. Instead, it was his pointlessly incendiary comments about Israel and his muddled tangle with Mohan over the Malaysia-Singapore maritime dispute that are likely to be remembered by everyone who watched him that evening.

While Mahathir thrives in the world of Malaysian politics, he was not in his element at the Oxford Union. As one participant said, perhaps figuratively as well as literally: “Thank you, prime minister, for coming to Oxford. It’s a long way from Malaysia, I can tell.”

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 866, week of Jan 28) which is on sale now. Subscribe here