Mahathir Equals Mandela?

Published: 01 January 2014

12 December 2013 at 13:06



Colin Nicholas | 12 December 2013 

Nelson Mandela was not a name that many in Malaysia were familiar with as he languished in prison for more than two decades. I was introduced to his name, and not so much his struggle, at a street concert while on a trip to London at the end of the 1980s. It was one of the many ‘Free Mandela’ events that were very happening in Europe then. I must admit however that I was more attracted to the African drum music then than in his plight or his struggle.

A year later in Australia, after finishing a short course at the University of New South Wales – on, of all things, diplomacy training run by the later-to-be Prime Minister of East Timor, Ramos-Horta – I was in the home of my friend Henry watching Mandela, on live TV, taking his first steps to freedom. By then I was already in awe of him, and waiting for the early morning live feed was willingly done.

So when I heard that he was going to be at a rally in Stadium Negara during his first visit to Malaysia in October 1990, just 8 months after his release from prison, I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed for anything.


Contrary to what one newspaper reported recently, there was no 20,000 crowd there to greet Mandela. It couldn’t have been so anyway, as the stadium’s capacity was just 10,000. In fact, despite some last minute attempts by the organisers to compel civil servants to attend, the crowd was rather disappointingly sparse.


But Mandela did not disappoint me.

What disappointed me, even disgusted me, was the way our world-statesman-wannabe Prime Minister tried to compare himself to this lion of a man.

High on the scoreboard, directly in front of Mandela and his adoring hosts, was a huge sign with the words ‘MAHATHIR & MANDELA: CHAMPIONS OF RACIAL EQUALITY.’

The attempt by Dr. Mahathir to wring some scraps of reputation and standing from a person of the stature like Mandela sickened me. Here was a man who, under Operation Lallang, had recently detained more than a hundred political prisoners under the ISA, and who was now championing someone who had been detained for 27 years as a political prisoner.

But it was Mandela who had the last laugh. He did not come across as someone who was disappointed with the poor response from the Malaysian public to his persona. After all, the visit to Malaysia was not to boost his image.

The party he headed, the African National Congress (ANC), was financially broke and it needed a lot of campaign funds for the first-ever democratic elections in South Africa due in a few year’s time (1994 as it turned out). Mandela was actually on a trip to the region to raise funds for his party.

And he got USD10 million from Mahathir. No doubt our money. Perhaps he wanted to let Mandela know that he was a nicer person than the Tunku.

After all, word was going around then that when Mandela landed in Subang Airport, the first thing Mandela asked Mahathir was, “How’s the Tunku?”.

At that time, this would be equivalent to asking Mahathir (or Najib) today, “How’s Anwar?”.  

The animosity between Mahathir and Tunku was so high then that the issue of the Tunku not being given a chance to meet Mandela was later brought up in parliament. In reply to a question by Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang, the Dewan Rakyat was informed that “the question of anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela calling on former Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman did not arise at all during discussions on the itinerary of his recent visit to Malaysia” (NST 6.12.1990). It is the kind of answer that we have gotten used to getting from spiteful leaders from that august house.

For Mandela, meeting Tunku was important because it was our first Prime Minister who was instrumental in getting the Commonwealth countries to impose sanctions on South Africa in protest of its apartheid policy. This was the kickstart of a global campaign to condemn apartheid and to seek Mandela’s freedom.

As such, Tunku was always on Mandela’s mind. Not Mahathir – who came closer to mirroring the likes of Mandela's oppressors both in terms of his advocacy of racial discrimination and his cruelty to his political dissenters.

Malaysia has since been a strong supporter of the new democratic regime in South Africa, taking pride in giving advice, expertise and mentorship to the new leadership after Mandela. This is the leadership that was booed publicly in front of many world leaders during the memorial for Mandela in Johannesburg last Sunday.