Phantom Politics: Hauntology in Modern Mahathirism

Haunted by its past, can modern Malaysia escape the specter of Mahathirism?

Fayyadh Jaafar
8 min readMay 11, 2023

In the brooding labyrinth of modern politics, where ideologies joust like ethereal specters, we find ourselves in the spectral embrace of Mahathirism. A spectral embrace, indeed, for it is both a paternal hand on the shoulder of Malaysia and a ghostly chain that shackles the nation to its past. Like a spectral siren, it beckons the country into the past’s sepia-toned embrace, whispering nostalgic fantasies into the ears of a nation yearning for simpler times.

To gaze upon Mahathirism is to peer into a phantasmagoria of politics, a swirl of nationalism and authoritarianism, tempered with economic pragmatism. It is the inheritance of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s long-serving Prime Minister, whose reign spanned the close of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st.

A tale of modern Malaysia is incomplete without understanding the spectral presence of Mahathirism, the ideology that, like an old wound, both heals and festers within the Malay body politic. The story of modern Mahathirism is a haunting one, a tale rich in contradictions, a tale that resonates powerfully with Mark Fisher’s hauntological theory.

Hauntology, a term birthed by Jacques Derrida and honed into a sharp cultural critique by Fisher, dwells on the ceaseless return of the past into the present, the specter of old ideologies that refuse to die, their ghostly forms shaping and misshaping our realities. In Fisher’s words, “We live in a time when the past is present, and the present is saturated with the past.” Mahathirism, as we shall see, is a vivid manifestation of this haunting.

Mahathirism presents an image of a nation on the precipice of modernity, yet forever anchored in the past. The narrative is one of a collective identity, Malay-centric, a beacon of ethnic nationalism resonating with echoes of the 1971 New Economic Policy, enshrined in the ethereal mandate of the Bumiputra — “sons of the soil” — policy.

It is a narrative that has shaped and been shaped by the zeitgeist of modern Malay culture. That culture, in turn, is a rich tapestry, woven from threads of tradition and modernity. It is steeped in reverence for hierarchy, for the sanctity of tradition, the primacy of religion, and the importance of community, even as it strains against the bonds of the past, seeking to forge a new identity in the crucible of the present.

In this crucible, the specter of Mahathirism stirs. It is a specter that haunts the country’s politics, its economy, its social fabric. It speaks to the Malay ethos, an ethos rooted in respect for authority, in deference to tradition, in the belief in the sanctity of the Malay identity. At the same time, it is an ethos that is being challenged, as new voices, new ideas, new realities vie for attention.

Consider the urban-rural divide, a chasm that yawns wide in the modern Malaysian landscape. Here, the rhetoric of Mahathirism, with its emphasis on Malay primacy, finds a willing audience among the rural Malay majority, those who view modernity with suspicion, those who feel left behind in the relentless march of progress. Yet, in the bustling urban centers, where the future is being forged, the specter of Mahathirism often appears anachronistic, out of place, a ghost from a past that many wish to leave behind.

Mahathirism’s spectral presence is also felt in the realm of economics. The ethos of developmentalism, the drive for modernization, the quest for economic self-sufficiency — these are the remnants of the Mahathirian economic playbook that continue to haunt the corridors of power in Putrajaya.

Under the spectral tutelage of Mahathirism, Malaysia strove for economic progress, luring foreign investors, championing state-led industrialization, erecting glittering towers that pierced the skies. Yet, this relentless drive for progress came at a cost. The rich tapestry of Malaysian society, marked by socio-economic diversity, was flattened into a monochrome landscape of consumerism and capitalism. The specter of Mahathirism, in its obsession with economic progress, has rendered invisible the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the ones left behind in the gleaming mirage of development.

In the socio-political realm, the spectral hand of Mahathirism has cast long shadows. Its centralizing tendencies, its authoritarian streak, its championing of a monolithic Malay identity, all these have deeply imprinted Malaysia’s political landscape. The legacy of Mahathir’s political maneuvering — his use of repressive laws, his confrontation with the judiciary, his taming of the media — continues to haunt the political apparatus.

The specter of Mahathirism is both a comfort and a curse, a beacon and a blight. It offers a nostalgic comfort, a return to a time of perceived stability and certainty. Yet, it is also a haunting reminder of the authoritarian excesses, the socio-economic disparities, the racial and religious polarization that marked Mahathir’s tenure.

Mark Fisher, in his haunting exploration of hauntology, wrote of the “slow cancellation of the future.” He spoke of a world where the future is nothing more than a repackaged version of the past, where newness and novelty are illusions, where the present is forever overshadowed by the ghostly presence of what has been.

In the spectral grip of Mahathirism, Malaysia seems to be caught in this slow cancellation of the future. The promise of a new Malaysia, a Malaysia unshackled from the chains of the past, a Malaysia that embraces diversity, inclusivity, and progress, seems forever out of reach. The future, it appears, is held hostage by the specter of the past.

Yet, in the realm of the spectral, there is also room for hope. Hauntology, as Fisher reminds us, is not just about the return of the past; it is also about the spectral possibilities of futures that were promised but never materialized. It is about the haunting presence of lost futures, futures that can still be, futures that linger on the fringes of possibility.

As Malaysia grapples with the spectral presence of Mahathirism, it is also confronted with these spectral possibilities. The possibility of a Malaysia that transcends the narrow confines of ethnic nationalism, that embraces the diversity of its populace, that upholds the principles of democracy and human rights. The possibility of a Malaysia that breaks free from the shackles of the past, that boldly strides into the future.

In the haunting echoes of Mahathirism, in the spectral interplay of past, present, and future, Malaysia stands at a crossroads. Will it remain shackled to the ghost of Mahathirism, or will it seize the spectral possibilities of a new future? Only time, that most spectral of entities, will tell.

Until then, Malaysia remains haunted, suspended in a liminal space between past and future, reality and possibility, the spectral grip of Mahathirism and the spectral promise of a new Malaysia. It is a space of tension, of uncertainty, of spectral hauntings and spectral hopes, a space where the story ofMalaysia continues to unfold.

In this unfolding, the spectral has become familiar, almost comforting, but it is a comfort laced with unease. With each step forward, the nation seems to slide two steps back, pulled by the undertow of Mahathirism. Progress is made, yes, but it is a Sisyphean task, an uphill battle against the ghosts of the past that linger like unwanted guests. The specter of authoritarianism, the phantom of racial superiority, the ghost of economic disparity, these are the revenants that persist, casting their long, dark shadows over the Malaysian landscape.

Beyond these shadows, the promise of a modern, progressive Malaysia flickers like a will-o’-the-wisp, always out of reach, forever elusive. The future, it seems, is forever deferred, held at bay by the weight of history and the ghostly whispers of the past.

In the urban jungles of Kuala Lumpur, in the quiet kampungs of the heartland, the haunting continues. The nation is caught in a melancholic dance with its past, a dance that is as much a dirge as it is a defiant cry. The rhythm is familiar, the steps well-rehearsed. It is the rhythm of resignation, the steps of a nation that has learned to live with its ghosts.

This is the melancholic reality of a nation trapped in its own hauntological loop, a grim echo of Fisher’s “lost futures”. The dream of a new Malaysia remains just that — a dream, a phantom shimmering on the horizon, forever sought, never grasped. The vibrant, multicultural, inclusive Malaysia of tomorrow seems perpetually overshadowed by the reanimated past, the grim revenant of Mahathirism that refuses to be laid to rest.

The political discourse is still dominated by the same old voices, the same old narratives. The economy, while ostensibly modern, is still shackled to the same old structures, the same old inequities. Society, for all its outward show of modernity, is still haunted by the same old divisions, the same old prejudices. The ghost of Mahathirism lingers on, its ghastly pallor casting a gloomy hue over the nation.

This is the Malaysia of today, a nation caught in a grim procession of yesterdays, its tomorrows held captive by the persistent apparition of Mahathirism. It is a nation that, in the words of Fisher, is “haunted by a future that never happened.” The future that was promised, the future that was envisioned, the future that was yearned for, all these remain spectral possibilities, tantalizingly out of reach, forever deferred.

In this hauntological landscape, hope seems as spectral as the ghosts that haunt it. The promise of a new dawn appears more like a fading twilight, a grim harbinger of another long night of haunting. The vibrant chorus of a new Malaysia is drowned out by the dirge of the past, the mournful refrain of a nation trapped in its own history.

Yet, in this grim procession, in this melancholic dance with the past, there is a strange kind of beauty. It is the beauty of resilience, the beauty of defiance, the beauty of a nation that, despite its ghosts, despite its hauntings, continues to dream, continues to strive, continues to hope. It is the beauty of a nation that, even in the face of its spectral past, refuses to surrender its spectral future.

In the end, this is the bleak paradox of modern Mahathirism, the grim dance of hauntology in the heart of Malaysia. A nation caught in a haunting, a nation that is both haunted and haunting, a nation that is, in the final reckoning, a nation that, despite its ghosts, persists in its spectral dance with the future.

As Mark Fisher so aptly put it: “The power of the spectral is that it cannot be pinned down. It is not simply about the fact of something absent or missing, but about the uncanny presence of something which is both here and not here.”

So too, Malaysia continues to dance, shrouded in the spectral shadows of Mahathirism, teetering on the precipice between what has been and what could yet be.



Fayyadh Jaafar

Former business journalist. I write other things here too, you know.