It’s a clear-skied Friday morning in September, and the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, walks into an eco-café on the tip of Jabal Amman. Surrounded by security, he’s escorted on to the outdoor terrace overlooking the temple of Hercules, the Citadel and an Umayyad Palace – overlooking a city’s ancient past, centuries in the making. Mahathir, however, is a modernizer – the leader that helped move his country from an agricultural-based economy to what it is today – the third-largest economy in South East Asia. The contrast is unavoidable.
At the terrace entrance, he’s greeted by an eclectic mix of Jordanians that include an engineer, an activist, a writer, a lawyer, an economist, and an entrepreneur or two. He looks tired – possibly from the talk he gave the previous night on lessons from Malaysia’s experience; possibly from the expeditious tour of Amman at the hands of his gracious hosts, the Abdel Hameed Shoman Foundation. In this moment, it is easy to forget the veteran politician just turned 90 this past July.
We shake hands. We tell him our names and our occupations, and watch as his eyes shift mid-sentence to indicate he’s likely already forgotten who we are and what we do. But over a Levantine breakfast that no one sitting around the table really touches, questions are thrown his way. Questions about how modern Malaysia was engineered, and questions about the challenges a nation emerging on the world stage faced. The soft-spoken Mahathir answers each question thoughtfully and diplomatically, often times taking us on the kind of detours you’d expect a learned politician to take you on when you put him behind the wheel. But what he’s really trying to do is tell us a story – the story of Malaysia, as he knows it.
He talks about the ethnic diversity of Malay society, the struggle to create enough jobs to put millions of people to work, the shift towards a genuine constitutional monarchy, the pressures of the IMF, and how overhauling an education system helped usher in a new era. Listening to this story, the comparisons and contrasts to Jordan begin to bubble up to the surface.
What Do We Do?
Whenever someone like Mahathir Mohamad comes to town, what I enjoy most aren’t so much the talks themselves – for in this day and age, they rarely provide us with new information we couldn’t have found via Google, should we be so inclined. Instead, I tend to enjoy the questions people ask, because regardless of what story he has to tell, and the inevitably subjective nature of it, the audience has certain preconceived notions, and it’s always an insight into what people are thinking.
People are made of stories, not atoms.
When a question is posed, it tells you a lot about what answers people are searching for. And when a man that helped modernize a nation that wasn’t on the radar some 20 odd years ago is sharing lessons with people that live in a country struggling to keep its boots firmly grounded in the shifting sands of this unforgiving region – the questions tend to take on a certain theme.
“You’ve visited Jordan three times now,” said a member of the audience during his talk the previous night, “what would you advise we do?”
“Unlike Malaysia, we have an enemy next door called Israel,” said another man, (who I guess wasn’t really asking a question so much as he was reminding us of Jordan’s apparent helplessness).
Like Turkey, Malaysia’s story is told and perceived mostly through an economic lens, especially to Arab audiences. For a great deal of Jordanians, this is appealing, especially when you add a perceived moderate Muslim leadership to the mix – and I emphasize perceptions here. For those whose politics carry an Islamic tinge, or who have lead countries with Muslim majorities to some economic success, tend to be viewed with a mix of prestige and awe.
It’s partly an identity issue. While Arab nations are treading water in a globalized world, with archaic political systems either crumbling or beginning to show their age – some Muslim-majority countries have somehow battled their way into the global economy, and those countries represent both our aspirations and our nostalgia. They are living reminders of a dead past. The collective memory of a golden-aged empire; glorified, romanticized, and most importantly, still dead.
What we think people like Mahathir Mohamad or even Turkey’s Recep Erdogan symbolize, is the chance for a revival. And since economic prosperity tends to be our sole concern these days (because who wants to talk about the right to free assembly when you can barely put bread on the table), we tend to forget (or forgive) their transgressions. It doesn’t matter if they trampled over civil liberties, clamped down on opposition voices, or said one thing and did another. If they’re Muslim and they’ve somehow managed to create some national wealth – then they’re a-ok.
We tend not to vocalize this context, but it’s always there. It’s always present at these talks – like the backdrop on a stage. It’s what defines the relationship between the speaker and the audience.
People are made of stories, not atoms.
And so – every question asked has a “tell us what we should do” side to it.
“This is your country – only you can know the answer to that,”Mahathir tells us. He’s right, of course. But not always.
He gives us lessons on why free speech has its limitations, as do democratic systems. “You can’t keep removing a leader because you don’t like them,” he says, tagging the legacy of Egyptian protests into the conversation.
Ironically, days earlier,Mahathir had taken to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, joining an anti-government rally and called on a cheering crowd to topple the regime. Current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has been entangled in a financial scandal, and Mahatir is noted for being his “fiercest critic”. At the rally, the man who wasn’t so keen on street protests during his 22-year reign, seemed to pull no punches.
“The only way for the people to get back to the old system is for them to remove this prime minister,”Mahathir told a crowd of 25,000 people. “And to remove him, the people must show people’s power. The people as a whole do not want this kind of corrupt leader.”
Asking The Right Questions
There are lessons to be learned from the Malaysian experience – and it is indeed an ongoing democratic endeavor. How diverse ethnic communities, under a monarchy, came together to shape an emerging democracy with a modernized economy – well, that’s a story worth listening to as a Jordanian. But we’re so accustomed to be being dictated the answers that we come away disappointed when a political leader can’t provide them. The story doesn’t have the ending we were looking for – that direct relevance to, us.
What do we do? How do we change things? How do we avoid backtracking?
As a Jordanian, the biggest lesson Mahathir probably imparted during his talks is that we should be asking better questions, and that while clinging to a romanticized past may be a source of hope in these seemingly dark times, that’s unlikely the mindset we need to build a contemporary nation.
Perhaps a good place to start is at ground zero: what do we – as a nation – aspire to become? What legacy do we want to shape? What will the story of Jordan be in history books a century from now?
And these are just some of the questions that ran through my head on a Friday morning in Jabal Amman, while Mahathir Mohamad quietly sipped his coffee, and told a tale.