Can Leaders Change for the Better?

Mahathir Mohamad, George Wallace, and the 2018 Malaysian election.


Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (center), the once-and-future Malaysian Prime Minister greets protestors at an anti-corruption rally in 2016. Photo credit: Reuters.

Grayson Lewis                                                           August, 2018

Almost no one predicted the 2018 Malaysian election to turn out the way it did. Before the polls closed on the evening of May 9th, the nation’s quasi-authoritarian hybrid regime was ready to almost reflexively claim another victory for its conservative, pro-Malay mandate. This dominant alliance of ethnically-based political parties that had governed the Southeast Asian nation for three generations kept its vice grip on power through some of the most effective methods available: patronage, bribery, media control, and even occasional violence. Much like Mexico in 2000, many knew that the incumbent regime was in for the toughest election it had yet faced, yet practically every clear-eyed observer was sure that the government would weather the storm as it always had done.

When it became evident in the early hours of May 10th that the old order had crumbled at the ballot-box overnight, hardly anyone in Malaysia, not the government, the newly elected opposition, or any citizen who had cast a vote truly fathomed the extent of the democratic revolution they had suddenly witnessed in a mere 24 hours.

The long, multi-year journey that the opposition bloc took to win its recent majority in the legislature is full of unbelievable twists and turns, and more than one Asia expert has described the drama as downright Shakespearean. Much of the spectacle revolves around the meteoric rise of Mahathir Mohamad the 92-year-old former Prime Minister who came out of retirement to win the premiership of his country once again after switching parties. He successfully unseated his former protégé, Prime Minister Najib Razak whom Mahathir has accused of corruption and poor governance.

This blog post asks: “Can a political leader have a change of heart for the better?” This question is particularly important to understand Malaysia’s once-and-current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. By “for the better” I mean changing in favor of free and fair competition without dirty tricks and corruption, and a willingness to be held accountable.

“I was a dictator,” Mahathir recounted recently, when he swept to power for a second time this year. Indeed, his 22-year previous tenure in power supports this; the elder statesmen presided over a fairly repressive state apparatus that restricted citizen freedoms. Organizations reporting on Malaysian human rights both within and outside of the country in the 1980’s and 90’s routinely portrayed a grim situation for dissidents. Under the orders of “Dr. M.” as the former prime minister was known, dozens of Malaysian citizens were arrested and detained without trial when they criticized the government. Reports of torture and forced confessions were rampant. Newspapers, television, and later the internet were all subjected to strict censorship, and even when these telecommunications outlets weren’t under fear of government reprisal, they were often owned by loyal allies of the regime. Meanwhile, government corruption ran rampant from the highest levels downward, with bribery and political patronage being the only guarantees of economic success in the Malaysian economy.

In September of 1998, Mahathir Mohamad committed what many view to be the most egregious abuse of his power in all 22 years as head of government by ordering the arrest of his deputy Prime Minister, and rival for power Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar had been making vocal calls for greater democratization, clean governance, and respect for human rights in Malaysia. This activism, met with popular approval from much the national population, was undoubtedly seen as a threat by Mahathir and his allies to their grip on power. By arresting the liberal Anwar on trumped up charges of sodomy that were clearly politically motivated, the Malaysian prime minister was effectively purging his deputy of a chance to usurp power, a move that was as calculated as it was cold-hearted.

But two decades after the nefarious arrest, Dr. M. seems to have softened in his twilight years. Even before his dramatic re-emergence on the Malaysian political stage, he had frequently spoken of the necessity of human rights and liberty for progress of all mankind. He routinely decries what he sees as deep graft and patronage in Malaysia’s bureaucracy, legislature, and executive administration. Though it was his administration that was once culpable for many of these same crimes, Mahathir has indeed apologized for his autocratic rule in past decades, stating that “I, just like other humans, am not alone in making mistakes, not just today but during the time I had dabbled in politics… I apologize for [any] wrongdoing throughout that time.” Mahathir also insists that he himself never took part in any dubious economic activities during his premiership, and this would seem to check out, as the former physician is known for his austere lifestyle. (The cheap $4 shoes he wears have gained memetic status among his countrymen.)

For many, the notion that a leader who has done so much evil with his power of office can have a change of heart and become good might seem unthinkable. But from time to time it does happen, and here in America, we actually have a recent example of such an occurrence.

Many Americans could hardly believe their television screens when they saw George Wallace apologizing to a large crowd of African-American veterans of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. On that March day in 1995 Wallace even sang with the Selma Marchers to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that fateful day on which he had been on the wrong side of history. The scene was incredible; Wallace was after all, the governor of Alabama who made it his mandate to keep his state’s African-American population as second-class citizens through segregation, disenfranchisement, and inferior education. Throughout Wallace’s first tenure as governor, he enforced some of the most inhumane police crackdowns and arrests of black civil rights protestors – men, women, and children – the nation had thus far seen. At his gubernatorial inauguration, he once infamously declared that he sought “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, [and] segregation forever!”


Left: George Wallace, former Alabama governor meets James Hood in 1995. Hood was one of the African-American students whom Wallace denied school entry to back in 1963. Photo credit: The BBC.



But now here he was thirty years later, stooped in a wheelchair, and asking his former victims for their forgiveness. For a man who once literally stood in the way of racial-integration in Alabama’s public schools, nothing seemed more divergent from Wallace’s racist character. But seeing the elderly politician up on that stage in 1995 Selma, bearing a true look of sorrow on his face that went along with the marks of time and age, gave many in the United States pause.

Can political leaders who have done wrong, even performed downright evil acts through their power of office, have a bona fide change of heart?  In 1990’s Alabama, George Wallace certainly seems to have done so. And nearly twenty years after Wallace’s death, the words of Mahathir Mohamad seem to indicate that the latter has followed suit. Unlike Wallace, Mahathir has been given the chance to act upon his newly found liberal-democratic principles in addition to simply speaking about them. Within days of his prime-ministerial swearing in ceremony this year, the nonagenarian and reborn champion of clean governance has aggressively gone after those who had a hand in the 1MDB scandal. The residences of Najib Razak were raided in May, his ill-gotten assets seized, and the former prime minister himself was finally arrested on corruption charges in early July. Moreover, Mahathir has made good on his word to free his old rival Anwar Ibrahim from prison. Anwar has returned to his informal position as the leader of the Pact of Hope the opposition-turned-governing coalition, and is now readying himself to run for a seat in the legislature which would make him eligible to take over as Prime Minister in the near future. (Mahathir has stated that he will only serve for a couple years in a caretaker role, and will hand the premiership to Anwar once the latter is ready. Should Dr. M.’s health fail him before that point, his current deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah, who is also the wife of Anwar, will take over the role.) At the time of this blog’s posting, Mahathir is even moving to repeal free-speech restrictions, most notably attempting to overturn an incredibly controversial “anti-fake news” law that was widely understood to be a media censorship effort by the Najib regime.

Perhaps a new era has dawned in Malaysia, one that will see a flourishing of human rights and democratization. But only time will tell for sure whether “Dr. M” is earnest in his turning of a new leaf. More than a few leaders have begun an administration with actions that strengthened freedom and the rule of law, only to fall into corruption and autocracy later on. (One need look no further than Viktor Orban and Daniel Ortega for examples.) But in an age when many democracies are seemingly under threat from new autocrats, it might be comforting to think that old leaders – those like George Wallace and Mahathir Mohamad – can one day change their ways and embrace freedom. Maybe, hopefully, their example will be followed by future tyrants who wish to reform.

An earlier version of this blog was published on the website of Democracy and Society with slight differences. Grayson is a second year MA student in the Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown University. He can be contacted at


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